COVER STORY 2016 election: Malcolm makes allies malcontents
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, July 16, 2016
The 2016 federal election represents a massive defeat for Malcolm Turnbull, who deposed Tony Abbott last September on the basis that he would be able to win government whereas Abbott – who was behind in the polls – could not.
To form government, a party or coalition needs 76 seats in the House of Representatives.
Before the election, the Coalition held 90 seats in the House of Reps to Labor’s 55. The Liberal-Nationals Coalition looks certain to lose around 15 seats, of which at least six are in NSW and three in Tasmania.
Losses in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland were smaller, and to some extent, reflect the economic downturn from the end of the mining boom, as well as local factors including the imminent shutdown of the car industry.
The swing to Labor in Victoria was the smallest anywhere in the country.
Whatever you think of Labor’s claim that the Coalition would abolish Medicare, the fact remains that Shorten ran this claim relentlessly and consistently from the beginning of the campaign to its end, and it certainly influenced votes in areas where many vulnerable people – such as pensioners and families with children – live.
Labor was clearly running its campaign on the basis that if you repeat a claim often enough, people will believe it. The Coalition failed to counter Labor’s campaign effectively, and its denials were, at best, unconvincing.
Malcolm Turnbull went to the election on the issue of the Senate’s refusal to pass legislation for the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to curb criminal conduct in the building industry. The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption had recommended such a commission.
However, once the election was called, Turnbull barely mentioned the commission, or the evidence of standover tactics and intimidation in the building industry in the course of an eight-week campaign.
The seats that Labor won in NSW and Tasmania are predominantly in working-class areas which swung to Tony Abbott in 2013. Turnbull, a self-styled millionaire living in a mansion in Sydney’s exclusive eastern suburbs, did not identify with these people, who could be called “Howard battlers” or “Abbott’s tradies”. With Abbott excluded from the Ministry, these voters swung back to Labor.
The election of Pauline Hanson in Queensland is, in part, due to the fact that the Liberal Party does not provide a home for the people who voted for her.
In light of this election result, Turnbull will face enormous pressure to reinstate Abbott.
There was a very small swing towards Labor in Victoria, moderated partly by the CFA dispute, but also by effective local campaigning in many marginal seats.
At the moment, it looks as if Labor will not pick up any seats in Victoria, and the Liberals could pick up one in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne (Chisholm), where there was a strong campaign against the “Safe Schools” program.
At the time of writing, it seemed that Labor was unlikely to have a majority in its own right, and would need to stitch up a somewhat unlikely coalition to have enough seats to get a majority in the lower house.
Some Liberal MPs have already expressed dismay at the campaign and its outcome. Journalists Andrew Bolt and Terry McCrann have called on Turnbull to step down.
It is not clear what his future is, but if he does go, his likely successor would be either Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison. But both have their critics.
If Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had not intervened in support of a union takeover of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), leading to the forced resignation of the Emergency Services Minister in Victoria, the sacking of the CFA Board and the resignation of two senior executives of the CFA, Labor would have won seats in Victoria, handing Bill Shorten the prime ministership.
Shorten’s refusal to dissociate himself from Andrews cost him dearly, and has led some Labor people to suggest he should resign – an unlikely prospect.
In South Australia, the Nick Xenophon Party picked up a blue ribbon Liberal seat (Mayo). At the time of writing, the seat of Grey, which covers most of rural SA, including the cities of Whyalla and Port Augusta, which will be affected by the bankruptcy of the Arrium Steelworks, had gone from a likely win for Xenophon to a retain by the Liberals.
The Xenophon party stood on a campaign of protecting Australian industry and agriculture, and opposition to the gaming lobby (including online gambling). These are issues that the major parties completely ignored.
The Greens’ vote rose in this election, after falling in 2013. Its vote is partly one of utopian Green-left politics (for example, same-sex marriage, climate change and asylum seekers), but it is also a rejection by inner-city greenies of the major parties. It will retain its one House of Representatives seat, and may win another. It will have a swag of Senate seats.
We will know the final outcome after the counting of postal and absentee votes is completed, probably in about mid July. But the result in the most marginal House of Representatives seats and the Senate may not be determined for weeks after that.
Then the fun will really begin.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.