If you want to know why the government is in deep trouble after Super Saturday, go no further than the Prime Minister’s response to a result about which his internal polling must have warned him days before.
Hoping for Aston in 2001, Malcolm Turnbull got Bass in 1975. It took him until Sunday afternoon to make an appearance, and it was spin, not substance. Labor won by telling lies, he said. By comparison to other by-elections swings against governments, these swings were modest. We never expected to win. It was an ‘average swing’ in Longman, and ‘no swing’ in Braddon. That the Liberals were odds-on to take both seats in June, and expectations of winning one or both were talked up not down, was ignored.
There was to acknowledgment that the long, 10-week campaign helped make the disastrous result possible. There was no public thanking of, and commiseration with, the defeated Liberal candidates, Trevor Ruthenberg in Longman, Brett Whitely in Braddon and Georgina Downer in Mayo, In short, it was little different in substance to Turnbull’s angry 2016 election night spray, although this time it was delivered in measured and civil tones.
Back in 2016, and with justification, Turnbull also blamed Labor lies over Medicare. On claiming victory then, however, he acknowledged these lies played cleverly to voter concerns about health funding and services, and vowed to respect their emphatic message that cost him so many seats. Yet in the two years since, health and Medicare have been low down the government’s priority list.
There have been big-spending announcements and piecemeal reform measures, and Greg Hunt is a ‘fixer’ health minister, but as in other policy areas there’s nowhere near enough of an overarching health policy framework with a positive story of Coalition commitment to tell. Former Queensland premier Campbell Newman even believes the controversy over the My Health Record being made de facto compulsory by the government played a part in the Longman outcome with the LNP vote going through the floor. The lack of a powerful Coalition health narrative made Labor’s blatant Medicare and hospital funding lies effective last Saturday, and if nothing changes those lies will return with deadly effect in 2019.
The Prime Minister’s similar reactions in 2016 and 2018 calls to mind Talleyrand’s famous description of France’s Bourbon dynasty after its 1815 restoration of having learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The song sheet given to ministers on Sunday, from which all sang with enthusiasm, shows Turnbull is not alone. They won’t admit they have drifted towards the electoral rocks and actively do something to make themselves acceptable to the centre-right silent majority who, as in Longman, are either parking their votes with the likes of One Nation or refuse to vote Coalition. Perhaps they’re already fatalistic about what awaits them at the general election.
But there is still time. What’s now clear is the next election will be held around May next year. National polls like Newspoll indicate Labor can still be beaten if that remaining time is used carefully and wisely.
In its remaining 10 months, the government can do five things. First, abandon its current company tax plan to ultimately extend tax cuts to all companies. It has won its personal tax cuts and company tax cuts for small and medium businesses are locked in. Rest on that and sell their personal and economic benefits hard. Second, it should accept Labor has won the populist argument on Medicare, health and hospitals, and make sure it has a coherent health policy and vision – not just funding – that at least it can defend at the polls and show up Labor’s hollow populism for the shame it is. Third, reject any energy policy or national agreement that put obsessions about reducing emissions ahead of reducing prices. If, as looks likely, the Senate cross-bench rejects energy minister Josh Frydenberg’s National Energy Guarantee as being too soft on emissions and too coal-friendly, that could be a political blessing in disguise. And repudiating the Paris climate accord and its draconian emissions reduction targets wouldn’t be a bad idea either: if America can do it, so can we. Fourth, reaffirm its commitment to strengthening our borders, and reject any UN convention that comprises our sovereignty over them.
Finally, show a little humility and realism. Don’t insult voters’ intelligence by explaining the harsh verdict of Longman, Braddon and Mayo as the Titanic stopping to take on ice. Admit mistakes. Commit to learning the lessons of the Longman vote collapse that is sending tremors up the coast of Queensland, where a swag of Coalition marginal seats lie. Be prepared to make significant changes to policies and direction to reassure the Coalition’s traditional centre-right base, even if it means swallowing some pride: in Turnbull’s case that includes accepting some sensible positions that his nemesis Tony Abbott has been advocating from the wilderness of the backbench.
And as for realism, Liberals and their disillusioned supporters need to accept that a panicked leadership change is no miracle cure for the Coalition’s ills. Like it or not, Malcolm Turnbull is taking the Coalition to the looming election, and having made its leadership bed of nails the government’s job is to lie in it as best it can. The time to change back to Abbott, or any other leadership candidate, is now past. There now simply is no alternative to Turnbull who is acceptable to both party room and electorate: Abbott and the likes of Peter Dutton may tick one or other box but, alas, not both.
If they need any encouragement to do something the Prime Minister, his ministers and Coalition MPs should ponder the ignominious fate of ‘Big Trev’ Ruthenberg in Longman. If nothing changes after last Saturday, that fate is what awaits them.
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