ARROGANT DOLT and loser Bill Shorten is almost certainly finished in Australian politics, after the reprehensibly deceitful campaign he oversaw as Labor “leader” and the folly of the so-called “victory lap” he is undertaking in newly captured ALP electorates; Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faces legitimate questions over his authority, performance, and the efficacy of the government he now forms, but Shorten — sooner or later — will be gone.
Since the tongue-in-cheek “victory” speech I published a week ago (which some readers, both online and offline, actually had to be reminded was a parody) I have taken the opportunity for a few days away from this column: but not the keyboard, mind, as a spirited argument in the comments forum will attest, although my main focus (aside from a report I’m writing in another capacity) has been on political developments in the United Kingdom, which we may (no pun intended) or may not talk about once the dust has settled after the ministerial reshuffle being undertaken even as I write.
But until now — with the endless process of finalising seat-by-seat results for the House of Representatives proceeding at a snail’s pace — there has seemed little point in providing a blow-by-blow commentary; finally, there remains just the one seat to go (Herbert, on the central/northern Queensland coast), and irrespective of whether it adds a 77th seat to the Coalition tally, it is now clear that Malcolm Turnbull has won the 2016 election, and won it with a majority in the lower house.
At precisely what cost will take time to become apparent.
But an unsatisfactory contest comprising two unsatisfactory options in the eyes of Australian voters has, in fact, yielded a thoroughly unsatisfactory result; I am not unhappy of course that the Liberal Party remains in office, but in something of a bookend to the 2016 campaign I am not going to pull any punches, either; there is still quite a fair argument that in some respects, the Coalition would be better off in opposition than the parliamentary quagmire it now finds itself in — as I also opined ten days ago — and whilst I may have softened in my view that Turnbull is “finished” by his poor election performance he is, very much, on probation: with the Liberal Party membership, with his own MPs, and with the millions of voters who will ultimately decide the government’s fate within the next two to three years.*
The same cannot be said of Labor’s “leader,” the contemptible Bill Shorten: we will come back to him in a moment.
But after a 30-seat majority has been whittled away to just two or four — depending on the eventual outcome in Herbert — and after a swing of 3.3% resulted in the Coalition snaring just 50.2% of the national two-party vote, it would be a dangerous delusion for anyone at the Liberal Party to be terribly jubilant; I say “the Liberal Party” quite deliberately, for our National Party counterparts appear to have held all of their at-risk seats, and picked up another (admittedly, from us, after the retirement of Murray MP Sharman Stone in Victoria).
I’ve seen and heard Liberal MPs across the country dismissing the charge that the election campaign was poor, but they have to say that; the hard truth is that it was abysmal, and were it not for the fact of the 30-seat majority achieved in 2013, any speculation about the Liberals going into opposition would go from hypothetical to non-existent.
It wasn’t just the painfully thin manifesto the Coalition placed before the people; 2016 has been a wasted year for the government, if we’re honest about it, and its genesis lay in the eruption of the Federal Police investigation into Mal Brough last November.
But ever since, when the government wasn’t plagued by ministerial scandals, it was plagued by poor judgement; when it wasn’t suffering the fools Turnbull inadvisedly added to the ministry, it was suffering the dithering ineptitude of a series of reform proposals being floated, cursorily examined, and discarded, achieving the double demerit of looking highly indecisive in an election year whilst closing off virtually every option for meaningful reform that might have existed.
But in an election for both Houses of Parliament, where a campaign of any impact whatsoever for the Senate (not least with its virtually halved quotas for election) was conspicuous by its non-existence, and at which the ALP was comprehensively outperforming the Coalition on the ground long before its odious “Mediscare” lie was trotted out, the combination of a poor campaign, a narrow platform for re-election and a shocking half-year of governance unnecessarily hobbled the government before it even got out of the blocks: an event, thanks to the public telegraphing of its intentions as far back as March, the ALP was well and truly prepared for.
Once the “Mediscare” rubbish began to circulate, there was no convincing response from the Coalition at all: yelling “it’s a lie!” is well and good, and in this case, the notion the Turnbull government would engage in a wholesale privatisation of Medicare was not only utterly fallacious, but easily revealed as bullshit by a glance in the direction of the likely Senate crossbench.
But the government has been re-elected with its entire buffer in the lower house erased — a uniform swing of less than 1% will probably be enough to hand victory to Labor next time — and a Senate set to be just as hostile as the one it displaces, with the added burden of needing to find up to 10 additional votes to pass any legislation rather than the six extras that were required before the election.
The sole triumph in this equation has been to keep the insidious Shorten well away from the Prime Ministership.
Some — but not all — of the blame for the dreadful Coalition result rests with Turnbull, of course; that dubious responsibility must be shared among those in the Liberals’ back of house who thought they knew better, and who (in any proper review of the election) should be given their marching orders: this column was a trenchant critic of Peta Credlin, and the mess that passed for the inner workings of government that she was given carte blanche to fashion and run as Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, and those criticisms are not invalidated by what has gone on during the past six to nine months.
But in seizing the top job, Turnbull replaced many of Abbott’s key lieutenants with hand-picked henchmen of his own; their efforts almost cost the Coalition office after a single term, and it is inexcusable to suggest that heads do not deserve to roll as a consequence.
In fact, many inside the Liberal Party and beyond have claimed that were it not for Turnbull and his mates stepping in, Abbott would have been comprehensively been beaten, and that may indeed be the case — we will never know — but the cold truth is that by delay, misjudgement and ineptitude, an almost certain landslide win at a December double dissolution has been displaced by near-defeat seven months later, and no amount of finger-pointing toward Abbott can change that.
What complicates the assessment is a report in The Australian today that asserts the Liberal Party was effectively broke halfway through the campaign, and that Turnbull himself tipped in a million large from his own pocket to keep the ship afloat: unlike many of his critics I have never questioned Turnbull’s fidelity to the party, or called him “a Laborite” (as some are wont to do) despite the fact that’s where some of his ideas belong.
If it’s true Turnbull bailed the party out that is admirable on one level, but it places a grave conflict over his tenure as Prime Minister in the sense a tepid agenda received a less-than-tepid endorsement from the electorate, but the money could be seen as a surety by some of his backers if the whole thing starts to go pear-shaped (as many suspect or fear it may do).
But Turnbull looked uncomfortable on the stump; word quickly spread that he didn’t enjoy or like meeting ordinary Australians; stories of his sit-down lunches with business associates during the campaign grated on many, and he was lucky they somehow eluded the fervent attention of the media; his attendances at places like craft breweries, or drink orders for green tea, looked elitist and aloof; and the wild rant he unleashed after midnight on election night (I’m told, after ingesting a reasonable stipend of Champagne) enraged many of the people who had tried to sell his message among their social groups in the almost certain belief it was a lemon.
Any government — and I don’t care who forms it — peddling retrospective taxation measures of any description deserves a kick in the nether regions; the indecent breach of faith with people whose taxation affairs have been conducted lawfully and compliantly, only to be told that the goalposts are to be changed for games already decided earlier in the season (or in earlier seasons, no less) is unforgivable, and whilst Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison were eager to spruik the fact their superannuation changes would affect just 4% of taxpayers, the other 96% were most entitled to ask whether, or when, the government might find a pretext upon which to mete out the same treatment to them too.
The tax cuts for business — in fact a reasonable stimulatory measure, but in practice an albatross Shorten hung around the government’s neck as a “$50 billion giveaway to multinationals” and an “excuse to call billionaires small businessmen” — were a positive that was not sold in any way, shape, or form.
The industrial laws that Turnbull called a double dissolution over were barely sighted once the campaign got underway, the valiant (and lone) efforts of Michaelia Cash notwithstanding, and whilst there is some suggestion these may pass with modifications, the price tag attached to them — at best, Labor’s Royal Commission into the banks and at worst, the so-called “federal ICAC” that the Left wants so desperately, so it can refer Coalition politicians to it as incessantly as it does to similar bodies in NSW and Queensland — could prove very high indeed.
All that aside, however, the onus is now on Turnbull to perform: already, there are those who believe he won’t see out the year as Prime Minister.
This doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mean there is consideration of recycling Tony Abbott into the role; the former PM showed his bona fides during the campaign by not leaking, or contradicting Turnbull, or otherwise making mischief, and he deserves to be trusted to play the role of elder statesman, mentor to young Liberal MPs and backbencher that he says he wishes to play.
And it doesn’t mean Abbott should be elevated to the Cabinet: for once, Turnbull is correct in saying that the handful of vacancies in the ministry should be used to promote fresh talent, although these posts should be allocated to conservative Liberals as a measure to both restore the balance of the ministry and to tacitly signal an attempt to heal the rift that the leadership change opened up.
But more waffle, more dithering, more indecision and/or a paucity of any kind of program at all could be fatal to Turnbull; the Liberal party room, despite protestations that it was nothing like Labor, last year showed it was prepared to be ruthless over its leadership in the face of a perceived approaching election loss, and it will be so again if Turnbull does not or cannot make a fair fist of the challenging result this election has handed to him.
Goodwill — and support — are no longer commodities the Coalition can rely on: in both cases, its stocks must be rebuilt almost from scratch.
And it is here that I turn back to Shorten, for just as Turnbull is effectively on probation from this point, the opposition “leader” is almost certainly finished.
The big problem with running such a blatantly dishonest election campaign as “Mediscare” — which far transcended the kind of porkies average voters tolerate from politicians, crashing unapologetically into the territory of the bald, and knowing, lie as it did — is that unless it hits the desired outcome bang on the bullseye the first time around, there is likely to be no credibility left over whatsoever with which to regroup.
It is worth reiterating at this point that Labor, and Shorten, lost the election.
But someone in the ALP bunker should have reminded Shorten of that fact before he set off last week on a so-called “victory lap” of the seats the ALP snatched from the Liberals; the first offence of an utter and outrageous lie is now being compounded by the unbridled hubris and chutzpah of a “victory” tour when based on the election results, Labor lost.
Yes, Shorten improved the ALP tally by 13 seats and yes, he probably got closer than he might have been expected to.
But this dubious, self-confessed liar, who has achieved what gains he did on the basis of an outright lie his party is not only proud of, but has boasted publicly about, has little to celebrate.
The second-worst ALP primary vote on record would, were it not for preferences, have been insufficient to win much at all; even in the system elections in this country are conducted on, it still left the Labor Party eight seats short of victory.
Actual victory, that is.
And once the dust settles, and Shorten’s vacuous, vapid zingers and unreasoning negativity burst forth anew, people who might have given him the benefit of the doubt — not least through anger over the Liberal leadership change — will quickly wipe their hands of him.
An early taste of things to come has been Shorten’s offer to Turnbull that Labor will work to achieve “fair” budget repair — but only if the government implements ALP policies, rather than its own — in an amateurish move that will be given immediate short shrift once Parliament resumes: after all, Shorten is the king of bigger budget blowouts than the Coalition, on his own figures.
And with the economic headwinds starting to pick up, all it will take is for Turnbull to get rid of the people he and his backers rewarded with plum sinecures in plush Canberra offices and to replace them with those who might be able to win an argument, or carry a strategy, or otherwise know what they hell they are doing and give the government something tangible to sell, and Shorten and his vacuous bullshit will be sidelined.
There is also the small matter of Shorten’s union past, and the sins of his union buddies, that were not properly exploited by the Coalition during the election: if the overhaul of the Turnbull back office mirrors the one set to be imposed on his ministry, Shorten won’t be so lucky a second time.
There is also the not-insignificant matter of the $102bn in new taxes Shorten promised, too: something the Coalition can be expected to make far better use of with its standing now so precariously balanced.
But whichever way you cut it, Shorten probably enters this term of Parliament in worse shape than Turnbull does; had he achieved the gains he did with a clean campaign, there might be an argument for him to have “one more heave” to get his party across the line next time around.
But Shorten is a discredited hack of dubious principles who has led his party to defeat despite being literally prepared to say anything to anyone to fool them into voting for him; at some point the reverberations from the campaign through the electorate will rebound on him, and when they do, his colleagues will have no choice but to act.
It is one of those ironies: had Abbott remained in office, Shorten might be Prime Minister today, with little more exertion needed than his cringeworthy zingers and relentless obstruction.
Now, his survival is probably tied to Turnbull’s performance; just about the only way Shorten can survive for very long is if Turnbull quickly falters and sends the Coalition’s poll numbers crashing, and keeps them there.
Turnbull, for his faults, isn’t a stupid fellow. If candid feedback is presented to him and provided he heeds it, great changes will soon be made to his government. Given his known love for being Prime Minister it is not conceivable Turnbull will go away without a fight, irrespective of what people think of him, his policies or his judgement.
And this means that unless the Liberal Party inexplicably gets it completely wrong once again — as it did for seven months after Mal Brough’s house was raided late last year — Shorten is as good as finished, for there is little value in deception at the best of times, and none whatsoever when it has cost victory in the main game.
*The earliest date for a half-Senate election under the Constitution (and thus an opportunity to get rid of some crossbench Senators through doubled election quotas) is 11 August 2018; if the government is travelling well after the 2018 budget an election for the House and half the Senate would be a sore temptation indeed, but if it looks likelier to be flogged whenever it faces voters, full term — remembering the double dissolution we’ve just had will in fact slightly truncate the term for constitutional reasons — in May 2019 would be the safer bet.