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.
Readers of my Australian general election-day preview for Conservative Home may have gathered I was not enamoured of the election campaign run by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal party.
I was convinced the Liberal-National Coalition government would lose seats due to a lacklustre campaign but retain a comfortable majority. I was wrong: on Saturday night, the Australian electorate not only clipped the Prime Minister’s wings, it ripped them off.
From having 90 seats in a 150-seat House of Representatives to Labor leader Bill Shorten’s 55, Turnbull currently has 67 seats and Labor 69, with about a dozen in doubt. The existing lower house cross-bench has been enlarged by a populist small party dislodging a former Liberal minister in South Australia.
Most seat losses are in three zones: the western suburbs of Sydney, where many lower-middle and working-class families live; Tasmania, a state chronically languishing with few jobs and high welfare dependency; and North-East Queensland, the sundrenched home of southern state retirees, agriculture and declining primary and secondary industry, with more than a touch of xenophobic social conservatism.
In these electoral battle-zones, Turnbull’s message of Australia riding constant change didn’t wash. Instead of seeing opportunities, too many marginal seat voters feared being left behind.
Tony Abbott as Prime Minister understood such concerns and they loved him: Turnbull less so and they didn’t.
For such voters, the Labor “Medi-scare” I described on Saturday was more potent than Liberal campaign strategists realized. Labor embraced, brazenly, the Big Lie philosophy: a big lie, told repeatedly, becomes the truth.
It alleged the privatization of NHS-equivalent Medicare through the last fortnight of the campaign, and it was devastating for the Coalition.
About a third of voters cast early polls: as they did so, Labor’s “Save Medicare” mantra dominated the first week of the final fortnight and continued running strongly through the second, despite the fallout from the Brexit vote caused shock waves politically and economically.
Not just on Medicare, but for almost all aspects of Labor’s claims, and its record in the failed Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard period, Turnbull and the Liberals did not “go negative” to highlight the risks of Shorten and Labor returning to government after just three years.
Shorten’s chequered record as a trade union leader went unscrutinized. His lack of personal loyalty to his leaders, having ratted in turn on both Rudd and Gillard, went unremarked, and the final week of the Liberal campaign lacked urgency.
While Shorten was here, there and everywhere, talking Medicare and finding votes in marginal seats, Turnbull’s pace was leisurely.
The Liberals paid the price. Not only do they appear to be going into minority government – if that – the Coalition will be facing a mélange of Greens and populist cross-benchers in the Senate, including the xenophobe who dogged John Howard in the 1990s, Pauline Hanson.
The next Australian government will be weak, under constant siege, and hard-put to get significant reforms through a fractious Senate more inclined to spend big than consider efficiencies and savings.
It’s still too early to be definitive about the lessons of the Australian election. But there are two that have significance for British politics, especially in their currently fervid hyperactivity.
First, Australian voters rejected the nostrums of a political elite. Turnbull’s pitch was a simple message: I have a plan, trust me.
That the plan was buried in government Budget papers and never detailed in the campaign, so in essence Turnbull’s plan merely was to say he had one – and didn’t wash with the electorate. To use an Australian expression, they felt they were being taken for mugs.
Labor, on the other hand, cleverly campaigned as a party of protest, not of government. It promised restoring cuts to health and education spending made or planned by the Coalition. It promised billions more new spending on top of these, yet voters didn’t care about where the money would come from.
Because the Coalition under Abbott had tried and failed to make Medicare more sustainable, voters were prepared to believe there was fire to go with Labor’s Medi-scare smoke.
It wasn’t as obvious as anti-establishment politics currently prevalent in Britain, Europe, Canada and the United States, but it worked. Besides a 3.5 per cent swing to Labor, a quarter of voters supported the Greens, minor parties and independents.
As in Britain, Australian political leaders need to understand the forces in the electorate that fear change and are unhappy with traditional party politics.
The second salient lesson is personal charm, media popularity and a diffident political approach don’t necessarily make good political leaders.
In many ways, and besides their both being journalists, Malcolm Turnbull’s political trajectory has resembled Boris Johnson’s: early success outside politics; a strong sense of his own brilliance; media darling; colleagues who tolerated or loathed him but were prepared to back him for electoral salvation; a conviction that the biggest prize is his by right.
More tellingly, both Malcolm and Boris show a lack of willingness to match political ambition with hard work to win the leadership and, in Turnbull’s case, retain it. While he has striven to avoid the failings of deposed predecessor Tony Abbott’s premiership, fabulously wealthy businessman Turnbull expected everything to fall into place.
As Prime Minister, he ducked and dithered on hard policy decisions, yet didn’t understand his electoral support was eroding. As a campaigner, he lacked the sharp political instincts and “mongrel” of Abbott, and too much reminded of Lord Rosebery’s dilettante premiership, when his stable of racehorses and winning the Derby mattered more for him than politics and party.
Turnbull should survive as Prime Minister, as he should win enough crossbench support to govern. But his will be a weakened premiership, with no personal mandate and whose parliamentary and party management will be sorely tested by the discontented.
Fortunately for Turnbull, Abbott knows his time has passed – although some have called for his return – and there is no Michael Gove-like figure to move against him either. If he can learn the political and personal lessons of his near-defeat, Turnbull can yet be a great success.
If not, his leadership days are numbered.