In this three-part series, I have reviewed the ‘turbulence at the top’ of Australian politics, which saw five prime ministers come and go in five years. I also predicted that Malcom Turnbull’s Coalition government would win the July 2 election. I was right. Just for a few days it looked like Australia might have a sixth Prime Minister in six years. But it was not to be so.
Read the first two parts: Turbulence at the top and The election 2016 preview
The election was surprisingly close. Polls in the final week suggested the conservative Coalition government would loose half a dozen or so of its 90 seats, but 24 hours after voting had closed, the opposition Labor Party was actually ahead by 66 to 64 seats, with five seats going to minor and parties and independent candidates, and 15 seats too close to call. Turnbull said that he was “confident that we can form a majority government” when the full results became clear. Bill Shorten, the leader of the opposition, responded by refusing to concede defeat for a full week. Over that week, however, the Coalition steadily made up ground — got its nose in front — as postal votes were counted (these usually favour the Coalition, and they did this again).
One seat still remains too close to call, but the Coalition is leading. Assuming this does not change, the Coalition will finish with 77 seats in the 150 seat House of Representatives, with Labor winning 68 seats (up by 13) and five going to minor parties and independent candidates. Thus, a nationwide 3.75% swing against his government has left Turnbull with a razor thin majority. Three independents have offered to support the government on issues of confidence and supply. However, because the majority party must supply the Speaker (who cannot vote), Turnbull might sometime struggle to muster a majority to pass ordinary legislation. And in the 76 seat Senate, current projections suggest that the Coalition will win only 29 seats. It looks likely Labor will win 25 and the Greens will win six, so Turnbull will have to find nine votes from among the 15 minor parties and independent Senators to pass any legislation. Notably, Pauline Hanson, the unrepentant racist who infamously told the Parliament — “two wongs don’t make a white” in 1996 during her maiden speech — has returned as a Senator 18 years after losing her seat.
< style="color: #163449;">What explains this unexpectedly close result?
As usual, local issues affected the results by at least a dozen seats. But two broad explanations deserve special attention. First, Turnbull played it safe and presented a bland “innovation, jobs and growth” strategy and also sought to take advantage of the Brexit shock — which hit a week before the election — by claiming that a vote for him would be a vote for stability. This strategy, however turned out to be uninspired at best, and out of touch at worst. As journalist Mark Kenny reported
< style="color: #0069a6;">"Nationals MPs dumped the ‘new economy, change is our friend’ rhetoric at the outset of the campaign, aware it was being interpreted as code for more job losses in traumatised rural and regional economies.Some Liberals quietly binned it as well, such as Andrew Hastie in Canning, when he realised his official ‘talking points’ were meaningless in the face of his constituents’ here-and-now problems."
Turnbull had also announced reductions in superannuation tax exemptions, which angered wealthy retirees (i.e. typical Coalition voters), and his promised tax cuts — which were relatively modest — included future cuts to the company tax rate. Labor then argued that multinationals would simply send the savings overseas rather than employ more Australians, and that, future governments would still be forced to spending on cuts into education and health
. Labor then parlayed this last attack into the second broad explanation for which the election was close. Shorten argued that a Coalition government would ‘Americanise’ (i.e. privatise) the Medicare public healthcare system, a highly emotive and potent accusation in the Australian political context.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Labor Party member.
I find myself essentially agreeing with Turnbull. He called Labor’s claim a “grotesque lie”, although he conceded that it “fell on fertile ground” because the former Coalition Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, had tried (and failed) to increase fees for family doctor consultations in 2014. I am not personally proud of Labor’s so-called ‘Mediscare’ campaign, but at least it suggests Coalition MPs will likely be very wary of tinkering with Medicare in the future, lest doing so, will blow up.
A flyer on the 'Mediscare' campaign
I want to highlight two key implications of this election result. First, it dampens, but does not definitively end the ‘turbulence at the top’. By winning an election, Turnbull has established a personal mandate to govern; but it was an unconvincing victory, meaning conservative Liberal MPs remain restless. The most disruptive of these, Corey Bernadi, did not repeat his pre-election threat to breakaway and form a rival Conservative Party, but immediately after the election, he announced that he would form an ‘Australian Conservatives’ movement
, which could become a vehicle to organise a coup against Turnbull. More generally, to defeat Abbott and become leader in September 2015, Turnbull had to promise to not change a range of Coalition policies which he personally opposes. The election result suggests Turnbull won’t be able to ‘be himself’ anytime soon.
Shorten had told Turnbull during the pre-election debates: “I genuinely lead my party, whereas your party genuinely leads you, and if the public begins to believe Shorten, Turnbull may fall victim to the perception that he is a weak leader.”
Yet, and second, there are few signs that Australian foreign policy may change soon. This is partly because Turnbull will struggle to impose his personal preferences for a more progressive climate change policy and treatment of boat-borne asylum seekers on his restive party. Indeed, any future leadership challenge is likely to come from a conservative — perhaps even Abbott,who won his seat again — meaning any new leader would likely just solidify Australia’s tough stances on these two issues. But more generally, and perhaps more importantly, apart from these two issues there is remarkably little partisan disagreement on the foreign policy front. It certainly attracted little debate during the election campaign. Of course, Labor is marginally-less-enthusiastically wedded to the US alliance, and it is the union links make it somewhat less receptive to signing free trade agreements (FTAs). But these are minor differences. Labor would definitely not scrap the US alliance, and it would likely only bargain harder, not reject, future FTAs. So even if Turnbull fell midway through the next parliamentary term — for example: disgruntled conservative MPs tried to unseat him, failed, withdrew their support, and precipitated an early election, which Labor went on to win — I would still not expect Australia’s foreign policy to change substantially.
The author is Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia.
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