THE RE-EMERGENCE of caretaker PM Malcolm Turnbull yesterday was welcome, if tardy; even so, his speech — in effect, a pitch on health — was a case of “too little, too late” given an election was held on Saturday. Negotiations with crossbenchers should be conducted privately, not in the glare of public scrutiny; but claims by Bill Shorten that Turnbull is about to call a fresh election are fatuous, and should be dismissed as a characteristic delusion.
The hand-on-heart mea culpa delivered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday — that he accepted full responsibility for the poor Coalition election result and the campaign that produced it — is difficult to take particularly seriously; after the spectacle of the unhinged rant he chose to perform before the country after midnight on election night, Turnbull had been conspicuously quiet on Sunday and Monday, and whether he likes it or not, his reappearance yesterday will convey the strong impression that he only acted when he did after two days of searing public commentary and the very clear message that even teetering on the precipice of defeat, some of those within his own party remained too angry with him to offer anything but criticism.
I will come back to that point toward the end of this article.
But first things first: another day into the great unknown which, for the second time in six years, sees election “day” set to stretch indiscernibly into the future, it is still very difficult to say what the eventual outcome will be; the most credible estimates of the final make-up of the House of Representatives suggest 73 Coalition MPs (-17 on 2013), 72 Labor (+17), three Independents (unch), one Green (unch) and one NXT (+1) is the likeliest outcome in a hung Parliament, but at this point, nobody really knows.
What does look increasingly certain, however, is that the Coalition has technically lost the election, failing to secure a majority of seats in the lower house; and with the recriminations beginning in earnest over the campaign run by veteran insider Tony Nutt, the performance turned in by Turnbull, and the non-existent contributions of several ministers from Turnbull’s moderate faction — to say nothing of the fact the Coalition proved incapable of communicating anything constructive to the electorate — it lends further weight to the judgement editorialised in this column yesterday that the Liberal Party (and the country) would be better served by going into opposition than by attempting to continue in office.
One thing I remain absolutely convinced of is that if this government attempts to remain in office now — and especially under its current leader — then by the time the Senate has had its way with it, it will meet its grisly end in a humiliating electoral belting when next it goes to the people; this view does not necessarily reflect my traditional opposition to Turnbull as Liberal leader (although his value in that capacity, or the lack of it, has been laid bare by Saturday’s developing result) but rather the opinion that a creature like Turnbull, suffocated by the tightness of the numbers and unsuited to the stifling and unceasing pressure of leading a minority government, is simply not a recipe for anything other than eventual defeat.
Would Tony Abbott have lost the election? Without hesitation, I say “yes,” although (and we will never know) the “Mediscare” lie from the ALP is one he would have ripped gleefully to shreds, where Malcolm’s limited (but accurate) declarations that it was “a lie” were at best completely ineffective against the onslaught.
But by those who resolved Abbott would lose and lose badly Turnbull was presented, and held up, as “a winner,” which — based on the discussions we are now having about the election outcome — he most certainly is not.
Turnbull’s statement today (at least two days overdue as it was) was remarkable for the apparent posturing it sought to undertake on health policy; his open canvassing of changes to the Coalition’s stance on Medicare — whilst emphatically reiterating the brazen lie inherent in the “Mediscare” campaign — clearly leaves the way open for any continuing Coalition government to back down on freezes to the Medicare rebate and other measures that might arguably compromise bulk billing rates if implemented, but it raises the question: why?
Why is Turnbull apparently pitching to crossbench MPs (whose final number, and identity, are not yet clear) for a continuation in office in public when there isn’t even a result to be negotiating around?
Why, if the modest savings measures the Coalition sought to extract from Medicare in a desperate attempt to partially plug the hole in the federal budget are so expendable, were promises of rescinding cuts and the like not placed before voters last week or earlier (when they might have influenced the election outcome) instead of after the horse has well and truly bolted?
And why, in making a half-eloquent case yesterday against “Mediscare” after the event, couldn’t Turnbull have attacked this stinking turd from the ALP with some gumption when the government’s fate was still to be decided at the ballot box?
Turnbull is an enigmatic beast; as readers know, I had some dealings with him many years ago, and despite some differences (it was during the republican debate) you couldn’t help but be impressed. But as a politician? The sad truth, and it isn’t meant as a personal affront, is that politics simply doesn’t appear to be Malcolm’s strong suit.
Even though what he had to say yesterday wasn’t strong enough to have carried the arguments during the cut and thrust of an election campaign, it was vastly superior to what he produced during that period. But it was too late. Too little, too late.
And “saving” his government now — just for the near-certain, foreseeable reward of utter annihilation within three years — doesn’t make any sense.
Meanwhile, little Billy Bullshit — still a thoroughly unsuitable candidate for high office, only now with a bigger, fatter head — has had the arrogance this week to be undertaking a “victory lap” of some of the electorates Labor has seized from the Liberals; the hubris and chutzpah of this insidious specimen apparently knows no bounds.
Not content to have sanctioned the bald lie that was “Mediscare” — all the other porkies emanating from the ALP over the past few years notwithstanding — Shorten’s latest pronouncement is that Turnbull is just itching to “rip the cord” and race off to a fresh election for the House of Representatives.
Unlike some of Shorten’s other fantasies, it’s not clear what he thinks this sort of drivel might achieve; anyone with a rudimentary understanding of electoral behaviour knows — in the context of what happened on Saturday — that another election now would simply gift Shorten a stack of extra seats and with them, a majority to go with the one Labor and the
Communist Party Greens will command together in the Senate. Irrespective of the merits or otherwise of a minority Coalition government, nobody is going to make Shorten a gift of an undeserved parliamentary majority even if the Coalition’s end destination from the 2016 election proves to be the opposition benches.
There might be finger-pointing going on in Coalition ranks, but wanton suicide isn’t one of the courses of action under consideration in any quarter of the party. But Shorten, who seems to have trouble with reality to the point he has to invent circumstances to suit him — so much so that rank dishonesty is a disturbingly recurrent theme — will apparently stop at nothing in his delusional quest for the destiny he thinks lies beyond the gates of The Lodge, even if it is as thoroughly ridiculous as this.
And this brings me back to the question of the Coalition’s own pursuit of continuity in office — whether advisable in the medium term or not — and the (understandable) conversations that have already begun in trying to analyse what went wrong, what the causes were, and who should be blamed for it.
The argument that the Coalition should remain in office at all costs to stop Shorten and his goons trashing the country altogether is a compelling one…but only until the landscape that would confront it, which I outlined in considerable detail yesterday, is adequately considered and digested.
I hate the idea of Labor in office; I hate the thought of Bill Shorten as Prime Minister in Australia. I dread the damage it, and he, would inflict upon it if the high tax, high debt, high spending platform to throw money at every target it believes can be bought is implemented.
But as I said yesterday, there is more than enough evidence of minority governments (and specifically, ones that became minorities in the circumstances the Coalition would have) available to know that defeat might be repelled by a few years, but it would almost certainly not be avoided.
Either way, we will keep an eye on what’s going on this week: and tomorrow, barring anything Earth-shattering arising from the ongoing count or any of the goings-on of key players on the political landscape, I actually want to talk about Pauline Hanson and the other splinter groups of the far Right that descended on this election. Whilst I have little nice to say about them, their collective success in garnering votes on Saturday is also something the Liberal Party is going to have to confront.
But in closing, I want to make reference to the “warning” issued by Attorney-General George Brandis yesterday, who suggested that whilst the government was trying to negotiate its survival with the likely crossbench, those on the Coalition side should refrain from any public criticism.
Brandis — hardly a voter favourite, with his taxpayer-funded book collections, his declaration that free speech meant everyone was entitled to be a bigot, and his surprising inability to clearly articulate the government’s metadata laws to reassure an anxious public worried about its privacy — should know better than anyone, as an acolyte of Malcolm Turnbull and as a member of the senior leadership team that has just presided over the technical defeat of a first-term Liberal government for the only time in the party’s history, that politics is a vocation in which one lives and dies by the sword: which, right now, is poised against the government’s barely beating heart.
I don’t think the government should be fighting to remain in office after an election loss when to do so means a much greater defeat three years’ hence; but given George is obviously across the minutiae of these matters, I’ll publish any comprehensive refutation of the arguments I outlined yesterday that he cares to provide.
It can’t be any fairer than to allow both sides of the case to be heard, but something tells me a phone call from George to arrange it isn’t something I’ll need to find time for when I return to my office later this afternoon.