On election night Liberals expected to be clear winners of the longest campaign in memory, with Malcolm Turnbull having vanquished Bill Shorten and Labor. They expected to lose some seats from Tony Abbott’s 2013 high-water mark, but nothing seriously denting the Coalition’s commanding parliamentary majority. They expected a defeated Labor to be riven by recriminations and leadership instability while the Coalition sailed on. And they expected a Senate more manageable than the one it being replaced in the double dissolution poll.
After all, the Coalition had a plan, did it not? Malcolm said so.
Instead, it’s the Coalition in crisis, its majority most likely gone, and needing the support of one or more conservative-leaning lower house independents and Nick Xenophon’s new MP to survive. Instead of cleaning out the Fruit Loops of the Senate cross-bench, the PM’s decision to stake all on a double dissolution backfired spectacularly. An even more numerous and chaotic crew, dominated by populists Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie and now Pauline Hanson, virtually guarantees legislative and policy paralysis for the next three years, if indeed the new parliament lasts that long.
As for Turnbull himself, his angry, petulant election night speech vented his frustration at his predicament. Instead, however, of putting out statesmanlike olive branches to voters who deserted him, and the crossbenchers whose goodwill he needs, he launched into a ‘we wuz robbed’ bucketing of Labor’s Medi-scare that brought Shorten within an ace of the prime ministership.
Turnbull’s being holed up on election night, with his courtiers, in his Sydney harbourside Versailles while Liberals looked increasingly shocked and despondent in the aptly-named Wentworth Hotel, merely made him look remote from his own supporters, let alone the electorate.
Yes, Medi-scare was a barefaced Labor lie. There was never any plan to privatise the back office of Medicare, let alone the system itself. But there was never any effective rebuttal by the Coalition either. That Turnbull’s fieriest denunciation of Labor’s desperate gambit was left for after the polls had closed, said it all about the Coalition’s tactical misjudgment. The PM’s on-the-hoof cancellation of the bureaucracy’s scoping outsourcing parts of Medicare back office support gave Labor more Medi-scare ammunition, not less.
Turnbull says he’s confident the Coalition will scrape back into majority government because pre-poll and postal votes traditionally favour it. He shouldn’t, however, be so optimistic. Up to a third of voters voted before election day, and well over a million before the final week. Medi-scare dominated the crucial, penultimate week of the campaign, before the unexpected Brexit vote swung the political conversation back to the Coalition’s turf of sound economic management and stability in uncertain times.
The problem for Turnbull’s analysis is pre-poll votes are cast at a point in time. If at that point Labor’s messages were cutting through – however spurious – it is going to influence those votes. The hundreds of thousands of votes cast when Medi-scare reigned supreme will have been skewed in Labor’s favour. Now it is also clear that Shorten’s decision to keep hammering his ‘save Medicare’ message cut through strongly in the final week as well, especially in marginal Coalition seats in western Sydney, Tasmania and Queensland.
Medi-scare wasn’t the only Coalition campaign blind spot. In a DD election called over the Senate’s blocking of legislation to re-establish an anti-thuggery building industry watchdog, the Coalition did nowhere near enough to make union dominance of Labor a national issue in the campaign, reminding voters of the sinister side of the ‘mighty trade union movement’, as Shorten called it in his almost-victory speech on election night.
At least Turnbull stood with volunteer firefighters against Victorian Labor Left premier Daniel Andrews steamrolling a de facto takeover of the volunteer-based Country Fire Authority by the militant United Firefighters Union. His stand highlights how a potent election-winning issue was under-used: Labor failed to gain seats in Victoria it expected to win, largely on the back of the CFA dispute, and the Coalition’s only seat gain from Labor appears to be Melbourne’s Chisholm. Pushed harder, fear of renewed industrial thuggery under Shorten could have been made far more potent.
What’s even more inexplicable was not ‘going negative’ on Shorten himself to highlight his utter unsuitability for the prime ministership. There was a gold mine of material: Shorten’s claim he would ‘govern like a union organiser’ should have been linked to his AWU leadership and dodgy self-serving sweetheart deals he made with employers, as revealed by the Trade Union Royal Commission. His rare achievement of ratting on not one, but two prime ministers wasn’t even mentioned. And why the Coalition didn’t make an attack ad satirising Shorten’s notorious ‘I don’t know what the Prime Minister said, but I support whatever she said’ line is beyond comprehension.
So the election’s done but certainly not dusted. It will be up to Turnbull to pick up the pieces of a dud campaign, and try and make the parliament it produced actually work. His experience in deal-making and negotiation as a businessman and barrister made Turnbull’s fortune: now they will be sorely tested, if indeed he keeps his party room together.
Besides outstanding, indefatigable, and always on-message campaign spokesman Mathias Cormann, there’s one senior Coalition figure who was exemplary: Tony Abbott. Like Kevin Rudd in 2010, Abbott could have wrecked and spoiled. Instead, he campaigned hard in his own seat and elsewhere wherever asked, determined to attain a strong majority Coalition government incorporating his policy legacy. On Sunday, Abbott grieved equally for colleagues who lost their seats, whether or not they supported him on that fateful night last September. He proved a model team player, enhancing rather than damaging Turnbull’s cause.
Turnbull and his campaign team need to look hard at themselves, their judgments, and respect the hard verdict the electorate passed on them. Unlike Julia Gillard in 2010, they can’t blame the deposed prime minister for wrecking their campaign. This was all their own work.
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