< style="color: #0069a6;">The second part of the three part series explores the chances of Malcom Turnbull’s Coalition government's win in the Australian election.
Read the first part: Turbulence at the top
Malcolm Turnbull is a relatively rare beast in Australian politics; he is not a career politician. Instead, after successful careers as a barrister, merchant banker and internet entrepreneur, he amassed a personal fortune in excess of $200 million. He first entered the ‘public consciousness’ leading the Australian Republican Movement, and despite the Republic Referendum failing in 1999, he entered the Australian parliament as a Liberal MP in 2000. By 2006 he was in the Cabinet, after the Coalition lost to Labor’s Kevin Rudd in November 2007; by September 2008, Turnbull had become opposition leader. He was deposed by Tony Abbott on December 2009 (by a single vote) and Abbott went on to defeat Labor in the 2013 election. However, as veteran journalist Lenore Taylor has said: “Turnbull has been the voters preferred Prime Minister for many years; his popularity holding steady as voter disillusionment with Abbott and his government rose
.” On September 15, 2015, Turnbull deposed Abbott to become Australia’s 29th
The coalition government’s poll numbers improved dramatically, and in a poll held in October 2015 — one month after he became the Prime Minister — Turnbull led Labor’s Bill Shorten by a whopping 67 to 21 as preferred Prime Minister. But trouble began to brew after Christmas. Scandals forced Turnbull to sack several ministers, but more worryingly, he faced dissent within the conservative wing of the Liberal Party. In particular, Abbot refused to retire from politics, providing a potential rallying point for rebellious conservative MPs. Turnbull has since arguably made two mistakes and he suffers from one serious handicap.
First, he should have called for an early election; the Australian constitution allows an early ‘double dissolution’ election if a government bill is rejected twice by the Senate, after which the whole Senate — not half as normal — faces the polls. Then, after the election, the two houses are supposed to sit together to vote on the bill. The Senate is half the size of the House of Representatives, suggesting the government has a good chance to prevail (assuming it wins the election). But Turnbull dithered, and by the time he called the double dissolution election on May 9, 2016, the government’s polling advantage had shrunk significantly.
Turnbull’s first mistake seems to have been related to his second mistake, namely, he believed he could engage the public in a more ‘adult’ debate to establish a mandate to subsequently enact significant economic reforms. After defeating Abbott, he claimed that he would abandon Abbott’s penchant for endlessly repeating three-word slogans like “stop the boats” (i.e. asylum seekers) or “axe the tax” (i.e. the carbon tax). Instead, Turnbull said: “You have to be able to bring people with you by respecting their intelligence in the manner you explain things
.” Turnbull got caught in a messy tax debate; first, he floated increasing the Goods and Services Tax, later he dropped the idea after an effective Labor Party scare campaign. He bizarrely raised a not-even-half-baked idea of allowing the states to raise income taxes, which was dead within a week. Then, in the May 2016 budget — effectively presented as the government’s election manifesto — Turnbull only tinkered with the tax system. One of his tinkering — the changes to superannuation tax laws — alienated an important element of the Coalition’s base (i.e. wealthy retirees). He has been forced onto the defensive throughout the whole election campaign in these matters.
Turnbull’s handicap is that he is widely perceived to have ‘mortgaged’ his ‘values’ to defeat Abbott. One Liberal MP, Dennis Jensen said: ‘It's one of the conditions of the leadership change that we are sticking with the policies we had
; the three policies most often talked about are holding a referendum on gay marriage (instead of a parliamentary conscience-vote), not passing an Emissions Trading Scheme, and not abandoning the tough policy whereby boat-borne asylum seekers are turned away from Australia. Turnbull is on record as holding somewhat different preferences on all three issues; thus the perception has grown that he is ‘not his own man’, and Labor’s Bill Shorten has scored points off him by, for example, telling Turnbull in the first election debate: “I genuinely lead my party, whereas your party genuinely leads you.”
All these indicate that Turnbull is heading towards a defeat. But this is not so, for several reasons.
First, history suggests Australian governments hardly ever lost after one term in office. This has happened only once — at the federal level — a long time ago in 1929. The fact voting explains much of this, that parties must try to win the centre of the electorate, forcing them to play it relatively safe, which in turn reduces the likelihood of large, precipitous swings against them. The fact that Australia is also a wealthy, generally contented society is also a contributing factor.
Second, the rancorous Rudd-Gillard rivalry between 2010 and 2013 left Labor in an awful mess. Bill Shorten must be congratulated for unifying the party, and he has also campaigned well with some bold policy initiatives which took Labor back to its leftist roots; the most notable is a proposal to drastically cut the ‘negative gearing’ tax exemption which Labor claims disproportionately benefits wealthy owners of investment properties. But Shorten himself remains less popular than Turnbull, even after making up a lot of ground after October 2015 polls. Since the July 2, 2016 election was announced, there was a stubborn, roughly 15 point gap between them on the preferred Prime Minister measure.
Finally, a number of recent polls are showing the Coalition is holding its ground in enough marginal seats. Labor needs to climb a mountain to win the election. It currently holds 55 seats in the 150-seat lower house, so it must win 21 seats, and for a month now, polling has suggested it will only pick up about half this number. If the present trends continue, Labor will have done well, undoing quite a bit of the damage it suffered after the Rudd-Gillard debacle. But not well enough to win, meaning Turnbull will likely be returned with a reduced but still-comfortable majority of something above 80 seats.
The author is Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia.
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