Malcolm Turnbull can still save his prime ministership, but to do so he must be bolder, more assertive and truer to himself than he has been in the 10 months since assuming the leadership from Tony Abbott in September last year.
Amid the uncertainty thrown up by voters on July 2, what is beyond doubt is that the key to restoring confidence in the Coalition government – and in government generally – is not Tony Abbott, nor is it the embrace of the Liberal party’s far right.
Seething sections of the Coalition – starting with Cory Bernadi and his band of merry men – are no doubt keen overthrow Turnbull, but in the Prime Minister’s favour is the fact that there is no ready successor. Turnbull should use this breathing space wisely and decisively.
Turnbull feigns bewilderment when told that voters have been disappointed that the “real Malcolm” disappeared from view soon after becoming Prime Minister. Constrained by leadership deals with conservative power blocs within the Coalition, Turnbull has been all elegance, no substance.
If Turnbull ever did sincerely doubt that voters were disenchanted with “Turnbull lite”, or even “Turnbull fake”, it would have been dispelled by the punishing election result. Punishing, not murderous.
If voters were truly finished with Turnbull, the result on July 2 would have been very different. Former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman can attest to the force of a hostile electorate. Even as a first-term government with a record majority the deeply unpopular Newman government was hurled out of office, and Newman himself lost his seat.
In the federal election year of 1996, the late Wayne Goss, the former reformist Premier of Queensland, said of then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s unpopularity in Queensland that voters were “sitting on their verandas with baseball bats, waiting for the writs to be issued”.
Flash-forward 20 years and nobody was talking of voters waiting for Turnbull with bats at the ready. Virtually no one seriously doubted that the Turnbull government would be returned, even within Labor ranks. Opinion polls that quizzed voters on who they thought would win the election – as opposed to who they were going to vote for – showed an overwhelming expectation that the government would be returned.
As stunning as the election result was, it can be surmised that voters were expressing their discontent with Turnbull in the expectation that he would still be PM on July 3. On the other hand, while the likes of Bernardi and Eric Abetz may still pine for their departed leader, it is a near certainty that had Tony Abbott gone to the polls as PM, the baseball bats would have been given a thorough workout. And Bill Shorten would be Prime Minister right now.
No prizes for almost winning
As it is, Shorten is revelling in his status as a giant slayer. But if the Turnbull government was so atrocious, and its policies so odious and Turnbull himself such a woeful Prime Minister – so inept that Shorten has demanded his resignation – then the logical question must be: why didn’t Labor win this election? A follow up question might be: why did Labor attract one of its lowest primary votes on record?
In politics there are no prizes for almost winning. This is bound to sink in at Labor headquarters sooner or later.
It is hard not to bring to mind the late Liberal leader Billy Snedden who, after losing to the Whitlam government in the 1974 federal election, insisted that he didn’t lose, “we [just] didn’t win enough seats to form a government”.
Shorten is for the moment enjoying his newly acquired adulation and especially Turnbull’s discomfort, but the Labor party has as many questions to ponder as the Liberal party. The fact is that the minor parties and independents scored their highest primary vote ever, which is to the discredit of both Labor and the Coalition.
Shorten’s at times graceless post-election skiting misses the point that voters are fed up with the political status quo.
The 2016 election result flatters neither Labor nor Shorten. Labor has mistaken a brush in the corridor as a moment of unbridled ardour. The ambivalent election result is democracy’s way of saying “A plague on both your houses!”
It took a rattled Turnbull longer than it should have to grasp the import of the July 2 result. On Monday he gave the leader’s speech that he should have given on election night, taking “full responsibility” for the government’s campaign and election result.
In conceding that there were “lessons to be learned” Turnbull went much further than simply making what has become a routine admission by penitent political leaders. He outlined what those lessons were and starkly confessed the failures that need to be corrected.
“There is no doubt that there is a level of disillusionment with politics, with government and with the major parties – our own included. We note that. We respect it,” he said in the Sydney address to the media.
“Now, we need to listen very carefully to the concerns of the Australian people expressed through this election. We need to look at how we will address those concerns.”
‘The Coalition must do better on health’
While still angry at Labor’s deceitful “Mediscare” campaign, in which it was falsely claimed that the government intended to privatise Medicare, Turnbull admitted the fact that the campaign succeeded was a matter for the Coalition to address.
“They [voters] believed it or at least had anxieties raised with it. It is very, very clear that [Deputy Prime Minister] Barnaby [Joyce] and I, and our colleagues, have to work harder to rebuild or strengthen the trust of the Australian people in our side of politics when it comes to health. There is no question about that,” Turnbull said.
“This was a shocking lie. I’m not going to pretend it’s anything else. But the fact that significant numbers of people believed it, or at least believed it enough to change their vote, tells us that we have work to do and we are committed to that. That is a very clear lesson.”
This was a frank and significant statement that gives notice to his troublesome colleagues on the right. In acknowledging that the Coalition must be seen to unequivocally support Medicare – that the healthcare system can no longer be treated as political fair game – the message was loud and clear that the ruthless and combative politics of the Abbott era are over.
Turnbull’s speech was the closest thing to “Q&A Malcolm” that voters have seen since he became Prime Minister.
If Turnbull is to recover his reputation and regain the trust of voters he can no longer afford to appease the right wing of his party. He will be only too aware that doing so almost scuttled his prime ministership.
It defies logic that Liberal conservatives are blaming Turnbull for a weak and uninspiring campaign when it placed the very restrictions on him that prevented him from venturing beyond the dull “jobs and growth” mantra.
Turnbull has served notice that he will now be Prime Minister on his terms. If true to his vow to restore the trust and confidence of the electorate, Australians can be satisfied that they have achieved what they set out to on July 2.
As for Bill Shorten, he is so busy gloating (and jogging) that he has given no indication whatsoever that Australians are fed up with mealy-mouthed and dissembling political leaders – whether Liberal or Labor.
Far from considering himself lucky to get away with his brazen Medicare scare campaign – and a few other whoppers along the way – Shorten was at it again this week when in his most prime ministerial bellow he warned of an imminent early election:
“There is a very real chance that Malcolm Turnbull is considering a snap federal election in the mistaken belief that this will sort out his problems.”
A “very real chance” that Turnbull is “considering” another election. Not only a concoction, but not even a convincing one. Talk about the Opposition Leader who cried wolf.
Quite apart from having no evidence for such a plan, the Governor-General would be under no obligation to accede to such a request from a caretaker Prime Minister. His first priority would be to ensure that one or the other party of government could secure a vote of confidence on the floor of the house.
If Malcolm Turnbull heeds the admonishment of the electorate and gets his act together, Australia may at last get the leadership it craves and Bill Shorten may find that his own leadership is undone by one whopper too many.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is the author of the book Rethink: the Story of Edward de Bono in Australia (Wiley). Follow him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher