Imagine you’re Malcolm Turnbull for a second (you might need to see a psychiatrist after the exercise).
You have destroyed a first term prime minister, you have dragged a first term government to the brink of destruction, your transformation into Julia Gillard is almost complete.
What should you do on election night? You should be a little bit magnanimous. Maybe honour your colleagues who have lost their jobs. Probably tell the public you have listened and you will work hard – in minority or majority government – to meet their expectations. But, hell, you could always turn up to your piteously inconclusive “victory” party at twenty minutes past midnight and screech for a while. And for good measure call out the cops on your opponents for out-campaigning you.
The prime minister’s speech was summed up by that wise old crocodile of a Canberra-watcher, Laurie Oakes, on the night as “pathetic”.
It was self-serving and self-pitying and very childish. Yes, the “Mediscare” campaign was dodgy but calling the police to investigate Labor? Is that what happens when you don’t give Malcolm what he wants? Caroline Overington of The Australian – who spotted many of the teetering PM’s fatal flaws early in this election – said if Turnbull could have made a worse speech she’d like to hear it. I suspect Overington and anyone else would only hear such a speech in the seventh level of hell.
The speech was Malcolm Turnbull laid bare: self-involved and without any policy substance. Bad Malcolm, Godwin Grech Malcolm, whatever you want to call him, finally made an appearance and nobody was very impressed. He looked like a loser and a loser he was.
This was the most exciting election night since…well, the last one. For the past three elections we’ve seen a government lose its majority (or come close to losing it) and each time the prime minister seeking election has knifed their predecessor mere months before. If we’re not smart enough to work out that the Australian public don’t like MPs dumping their heads of governments without asking their opinion, we really should just give Beijing the keys of the doors now.
Tony Abbott might not have won this election. He was very unpopular, he made huge policy and political errors, and his government was tanking in every poll. But it is also undoubtedly true that he’s a formidable election campaigner. He is disciplined and relentless and he can talk to anyone.
Malcolm Turnbull may have been hampered halfway through this campaign by the common cold, but he was clearly allergic to voters anyway. He looked awkward whenever he was faced with the average punter. Whether it was at a market or a construction site, Turnbull clearly wished he was at an art gallery opening instead. He’s spent his entire life with a very particular set of people and it showed. The lack of a common touch – especially compared with that old union hand Bill Shorten – was Turnbull’s undoing in these eight weeks.
And no YouTube clip about how great his struggling single dad was could change that.
Turnbull effectively united left and right in a way neither side truly understands. Both sides of the electorate came together in their scorn and they all hated him for the same thing. He didn’t mean what he was saying, he wouldn’t be do anything else in any other circumstances, he stood for nothing but clinging to power. It’s essentially the same story from different viewpoints – a prime minister who was betraying his true feelings for power. Turnbull could have united both sides by playing to the strengths of his bipolar political brain. Imagine a Turnbull who actually campaigned hard against the unions, who dared to touch the GST. Imagine that same Turnbull – the economic rationalist – getting gay marriage done and dusted. Is it a centrist’s dream? Perhaps.
But maybe if Turnbull had really embraced the centre instead of doing nothing he could have won on his terms.
And then there was the actual message. A plan for jobs and growth? What plan? Apart from the company tax cut – which with its ten-year forecast was as fanciful as Julia Gillard’s social services monoliths – nobody really knew what plan we were supposed to be sticking to. Everything else was either too hard to sell or cocked up like Turnbull’s state income tax thought bubble. It was nothing like the brave manifesto, the Napoleonic economic generalship Turnbull had promised.
Nor did he use security matters to his advantage. His defence minister – who may be replaced by a resurgent Tony Abbott – Marise Payne was missing in action for most of the campaign. And Labor’s boats record was never really tackled despite Peter Dutton’s best endeavours. Turnbull apparently wanted the contest kept on economics but that clearly hasn’t done him much good. Labor had a glaring weak spot on border protection and he virtually ignored it.
Malcolm Turnbull may very well continue as prime minister for a while still. He may get that slippery one or two seat majority which will just leave him in constant fear of a by-election. Or he could end up doing a Gillard-like deal with the independents. But Peta Credlin was right when she wrote in the Sunday News tabloids that a hung parliament will probably put Bill Shorten in the Lodge.
Given that Turnbull can’t hold his own current Coalition together – or even his own party –he is hardly well equipped for a multi-party alliance in the way Shorten – a man who could please the boss as well as the workers – would be. He may give it a shot but we’ll be having another election – or witnessing another leadership spill – before too long.
A lot of Liberals are consoling themselves with the memory of the 1998 election. Yes, John Howard suffered a massive swing and lost 14 seats, but the difference is that he still had 80 seats all up as well as the unifying achievement of introducing a GST. Turnbull faces a new parliament with no majority and he’s run on nothing. Oh, and he can wave his joint sitting goodbye even if he gets to 76 seats. This double dissolution has all been for nothing.