Terry Barnes writes for the Australian edition of The Spectator, and advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.
Australian politics is supposed to be more brutal than anything in Britain. Since 2010, prime minister after prime minister has been broken on the wheel of party discontent. Cabinets are riven by ambition. Deeply personal insults are hurled every Question Time, a session that lacks the polite deference of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.
Preoccupied with the Brexit referendum, its unexpected result and its cataclysmic aftermath for both the Conservative and Labour parties, it may have escaped British readers’ notice that today, Australians go to the polls in a bitterly-contested general election.
It is almost certain that the Australian Liberal-National party coalition under prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will win a comfortable lower house majority. Turnbull has run a “safety first” campaign, offering himself as a safe pair of hands to help steer Australia through tough times of economic and global uncertainty. “I have a plan” has been his mantra.
He is up against a post-Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Australian Labor Party, led by former trade union leader Bill Shorten, who said before the campaign that, if elected, he would govern like a union organizer. Shorten meant being open to negotiation, listening to different points of view, and balancing interests. Turnbull and most voters have, with justification, taken him to mean he would put his union “mates” front and centre of Labor’s policy and decision-making.
Sliding in opinion polls since January, having reached stratospheric heights after knifing then prime minister, Tony Abbott, last September, Turnbull was compelled to go to an election four months early by way of a constitutional device called a “double dissolution” (DD): a simultaneous election of the House of Representatives and the Senate. He relied on an eight-week campaign as boring as possible, nearly twice as long as a typical Australian campaign. Indeed, its banality and lack of substance turned off most voters until the final fortnight.
Turnbull’s problem was, however, Australia’s electoral system. While the House of Representatives uses a transferable-vote preference system like Ireland’s, the Senate uses PR by state. Normally half the Senate is elected at a time, with a seat quota around 15 per cent of the state vote: in a DD that quota is halved, and opens up the Senate to a profusion of Greens, minor parties and independents that deprive governments of a majority and make the whole Parliament unworkable. Indeed, one of the justifications for the DD was that the 2013 Senate, with its intake elected with the normal higher quota, already had thrown up enough populist and self-interested cross-benchers as to make governing unworkable.
Had Turnbull called the election at the height of his popularity, around last Christmas, he could have increased the Coalition’s governing majority and won a matching majority in the Senate. As it stands, he will win but his will be a Pyrrhic victory, because little will have changed from the parliamentary status quo ante, bar the Coalition’s likely reduced governing majority.
As for the campaign itself, Labor and its leader Shorten had the better of it. They chose to run as a party of protest, not of government: their manifesto is based on pouring money into repairing the damage it claims the Coalition under Abbott and now Turnbull have done to health and education over the last three years.
Shorten has made a particular battle-cry of “saving Medicare”, Australia’s public health insurance system that has the iconic status of the NHS. In the dying days of the campaign, Shorten has run a highly-effective scare campaign that Turnbull has a secret plan to privatise Medicare, a claim that has no substance whatsoever but spooked many early voters into voting Labor just in case.
Brexit saved Turnbull’s bacon. When news of the Leave vote broke last Friday, Turnbull was able to switch the campaign focus from “Medi-scare” back to steady government and sound economic management. Even while, as Boris Johnson noted in his non-standing speech, Australia already has made overtures about trade deals with post-Brexit Britain, Turnbull (who wanted a Remain vote) has painted it as bad and dangerous for his nation, a “here be dragons” development needing his special care.
In the campaign’s final days, the Coalition looks increasingly confident. Word from campaign strategists is Labor has improved its national standing but not in enough of the marginal seats it must win. Suddenly, the media is asking Shorten whether he will stay on as Opposition leader and whether he has the support of his colleagues. As British Labour is going, so may Australian Labor be going too.
As for Malcolm Turnbull, if he is returned as expected it will be as a figure much diminished from the ambitious, born to rule, arrogantly self-confident figure who British readers may remember from the 1980s Spycatcher case. As a barrister arguing a brief he may be brilliant, but as a political campaigner and policy thinker, he has proved cumbersome. He is ill-at- ease mixing it with the Australian public, far away from the boardroom and courtrooms where his talents go undoubted.
Tony Abbott’s former chief-of- staff turned Sky commentator, Peta Credlin, labelled Turnbull “Mr Harbourside Mansion” early in the campaign and the label stuck. To progressive-minded Liberals and many centre-Left voters who had no love for the conservative Abbott, Turnbull has turned out less the progressive political Messiah and more the naughty boy. Much of the goodwill of his leadership accession has dissipated.
If he does not win big enough this Saturday, Turnbull will not have won a strong personal mandate for seizing his party’s leadership last September. Many Liberals, especially MPs, will ask themselves whether toppling Tony Abbott was worth the final electoral result. Given Liberal leaders are chosen by their MPs and not the wider party, Turnbull may yet face uncertain times as Prime Minister.
Yes, the Abbott premiership was far from perfect, and those imperfections gave Turnbull his opening to challenge. But if Turnbull loses too many seats, and the Senate remains a chaotic mess, his confident declaration this week that he will be Australia’s prime minister when the next election rolls around in 2019 will have a somewhat hollow ring.