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Election 2016: Is Turnbull Doomed in Victory?

Think that an election win will solve the PM’s problems? Think again…

On Sunday May 8th, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ruined Mother’s Day by declaring that he’d called upon the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove to dissolve both houses of the 44th Parliament, and that there would be an election on Saturday July 2nd, thereby beginning the second longest election campaign in Australia’s history.

It’s only the seventh double dissolution in Australian political history and, as with most of the previous ones, is less about a government being thwarted in executing its agenda and more about having a strategically clever early election.

That’s because the Prime Minister knew he’d need to get to the polls early.

His replacement of the stumbling Tony Abbott in a shock and bloody leadership challenge in September last year had divided the Liberal party – the final vote was 54-44 in favour of the challenger – but had been rapturously received by the public. Polls that had been predicting the opposition Labor party walking into a landslide victory were arrested, and the government benefitted immediately from the gloriously positive approval rating of the new PM.

Turnbull was very aware that he needed to win a victory in his own right to legitimise his challenge to the large percentage of the party still fuming over the knifing of an elected PM, as Labor had only recently done.

Furthermore, Turnbull must have been well aware that his own stellar popularity would start to tarnish as the public’s delight in their charming, articulate new leader was replaced with the gradual realisation that he wasn’t quite the consensus-building centrist he’d seemed in comparison with Abbott. That’s not least because many of the symbolic issues for which he had previously stood – such as the progress on policy to mitigate climate change and the legalisation of same-sex marriage – had been quietly traded away in order to gain support for his leadership from the junior Coalition partner, the hardline conservative National Party.

So an early election was an urgent priority, and no doubt a July poll seemed like a shrewd idea back in March, when the government launched its successful legislative changes to the “above the line” portion of the Senate ballot paper.

However, some things had changed significantly by the time the election was called.

For a start, by April Labor were polling neck-and-neck with the government for the first time since Turnbull had become leader. Turnbull’s own popularity was also on the wane, not helped by his lapses into near-Abbottian levels of three-word sloganeering, from ‘The Ideas Boom’ to the election campaign’s endlessly-repeated ‘Jobs and Growth’.

Speaking of Abbott, he was still very visible and in command of a significant level of loyalty within the party and the parliament. Even as the gruelling 56-day election campaign sputtered into life, there were reports of Abbott loyalists deliberately starving certain marginal campaigns of support – such as that of Peter Hendy in the “bellwether” NSW seat of Eden-Monaro – in revenge for supporting Turnbull’s challenge.

And while the polls are close and the government less than united, the general consensus is that Labor are unlikely to make up the gap. The wounds of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era are still fresh, Bill Shorten is not regarded as a particularly inspiring leader, and the nation could be forgiven for wanting to hold onto a Prime Minister for a bit and see how that works out.

So here’s a better question: what happens if Turnbull wins?

And the answer is this: almost certain doom.

Government, like football, is a game of two halves: the House of Representatives (the lower house, where the party with the most members wins government) and the Senate (the upper house, also called “the state’s house” as it contains 12 senators per state regardless of population – a tweak designed to prevent the larger eastern states from legislating at the expense of the rest of the country).

In 2013 the Coalition won a landslide victory under Tony Abbott, gaining 14 seats with a 3.71 per cent swing against a weakened, divided Labor party that had only just returned Kevin Rudd to the leadership after he was deposed two years prior by Julia Gillard.

However, the chance of Turnbull winning by an Abbott-level margin seems unlikely-bordering-on-impossible at this stage, and winning by less than Abbott is going to do little to convince the former PM’s supporters within the party – like, for example, Abbott himself – who still insist that he would have turned the polls around and retaken power by an even greater margin despite two years of polls suggesting the government would have suffered a comprehensive wipeout under Abbott. Veteran political journalist Paul Bongiorno dubbed these people “delusional conservatives”, or DelCons for short.

While it will be a challenge for Labor to win the 19 seats it would take to form government, current polling would suggest that the Coalition will lose marginal seats picked up in 2013. Ten seats seems a likely minimum in NSW and Queensland; though the end of government support for the high-employing manufacturing industries in South Australia and Victoria is also going to have consequences.

Many of the seats at risk are held by newer, younger MPs – ones more likely to be Turnbull supporters than the strongly socially-conservative establishment that supported Abbott. Remember that 54-44 split in the leadership ballot? Turnbull can’t afford to lose too many supporters within his own parliamentary party.

Indeed, several of Turnbull’s existing supporters are already politically impotent. Three Turnbull ministers have been forced to resign due to scandals so far, and three others are under a cloud of ongoing investigations.

So as far as the House of Representatives goes, Turnbull’s probably going to have reduced support from his reduced party. How about the Senate?

election2016 illo
Illustration by Rocco Fazzari.

While the changes to the ballot make it much harder for any new parties or independent candidates to be serious contenders, modelling suggests that the Coalition would have done pretty well in a normal election, but not in a double dissolution, where the number of votes required to be elected is effectively halved.

While MPs are only elected for three years at a time, senators have six-year terms. In each normal election half of them are up for re-election, and most of the eight current crossbench senators were elected in 2013 – in fact, the only one who would have been facing the voters in a normal 2016 election would have been NSW’s former Democratic Labor Party senator John Madigan, who will be losing under the banner of his own party, the catchily-named John Madigan’s Manufacturing and Farming Party.

The new ballot paper will also ensure that new parties and independents will find it difficult to get into the Senate. The most important change is that voters will now list their preferred parties in order, rather than simply vote for a single party, thereby all but eliminating the preference deals between minor parties that saw Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir gather a quota despite winning 0.51 per cent of the vote in his own right.

So, in theory, the election would chuck crossbenchers out and the new ballot paper would stop them getting back in. And, like a Scooby Doo villain, they would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those pesky kids – specifically, the ones from South Australia.

While most of the crossbenchers are unlikely to have a gig after July, the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) are looking likely to form a bloc in the Senate with at least two seats, probably three and possibly four seats from S.A. The anti-pokies Xenophon has always been staggeringly popular in the state, and with multiple candidates in NXT instead of just himself, he’s set to win big – largely at the expense of the Liberals.

And this is a problem, because Xenophon – a former Young Liberal with a largely centrist approach – has voted with the Abbott and Turnbull governments less often than Labor. Thus, despite his efforts to create a more compliant Senate, Turnbull has probably swapped out negotiating with a rag-tag bunch of like-minded right-wingers for a situation where his government will need to negotiate with either NXT, the Greens, or both.

In other words: the still-unpassed budgets from 2014 and 2015 might have another wait ahead of them.

So let’s game this out. Let’s eliminate the least likely outcomes – that Labor win, or that Turnbull enjoys a landslide victory of historical levels – and assume that the Coalition are returned, wounded but victorious.

Turnbull returns to parliament having lost a number of his most ardent supporters, amid a good deal of carping from the DelCons about how he squandered the lead which Abbott bequeathed to the party in 2013. Their increased influence within the party means that some of the most outspoken critics of Turnbull will successfully demand frontbench seats: former ministers like Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz or even, in yet another uncomfortable echo of the Gillard-Rudd era, Abbott himself.

This will give the DelCons even more of a platform to tut-tut about how the beleaguered leader is failing to promote the conservative agenda that Australia needs through a Senate controlled by the Greens, NXT and whatever angry independents survive the election. Another period of legislative stasis ensues with the DelCons ensuring that the government keeps a hard right-wing line on all proposed legislation while refusing to negotiate with the Senate – and the public loses even more faith in the agile and innovative promise of the Turnbull epoch.

And then sections of the media start rhapsodising about the good old days, when the party were united behind Tony Abbott, with wistful suggestions that maybe a different leader – current Treasurer Scott Morrison, say, or Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, or maybe a certain ex-PM – would turn the government’s fortunes around. And the calls for a change will get louder and louder, and the numbers will be quietly calculated behind the scenes…

A loss would be humiliating for Malcolm Turnbull – but a win could destroy him.

From issue #776, available now.