The poor election showing of the Coalition should come as no surprise. Despite the growth fantasies of Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison who is out of his magic faraway tree, the economy is in an income recession while wages growth, as the ABS notes, “is now the lowest on record since the series was first published in September quarter 1998.” People are doing it hard.
Few Australians not among the top four percent promised a tax break would share Malcolm Turnbull’s view that there has never been a more exciting time to be Australian. Even fewer would see his mindless optimism as anything more than another sign he is out of touch.
No-one below the poverty line on an age pension or other Centrelink payment would welcome Morrison’s $2.3 billion welfare crackdown increasing already stressful delays and challenges in a toxic atmosphere of mutual mistrust. No-one is mad keen to vote for more war on the poor.
Nor are the times exciting to anyone in the job market. For all the ballyhoo, the hollow boast of 300,000 jobs created last year, the trend continues to part time poorly paid casual work where franchise workers are slave labour and women are underpaid just because they are women.
Job ads have been falling. Employment growth has stalled. More workers worry about losing their jobs than at any time since Turnbull became PM. And now, Turnbull’s double dissolution election fiasco, on top of his government’s dodgy budget estimates has earned a Standard and Poors credit downgrade – adding insecurity and instability to an anaemic economic climate.
His vacuous campaign slogan of jobs and growth was a con, a phrase to make palatable handouts to the wealthy. There never were any jobs on offer. Yet, to be fair, Turnbull’s Prime Ministership is itself only part of larger Liberal Party crisis of identity, policy and leadership.
Desperate to ditch Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull’s backers gambled on a rank outsider with a patchy track record; an acclaimed orator who could also be a dithering windbag and a bore with a gift for talking himself up matched only by his capacity to talk down to or over others. His massive over confidence, his capacity to trust his own poor judgement has proved his undoing.
A self-alienating, weak leader, Turnbull’s surrender to the right to win power left him nothing to offer the electorate but an economic plan which consisted entirely of tax cuts for the rich. No wonder he ran dead, despite – or perhaps because of being shepherded by a media cheer squad which awarded him victory before the race had been run and whose campaign reporting reflected optimistic party insider briefing far more than reality. Perhaps he was never really in the race.
Desperate to be rid of the Abbott catastrophe, Liberals took a long punt on Turnbull’s electoral popularity. A natural despot with a rampaging ego who suffered fools badly, he had failed as a leader to gain support of his party or party room six years ago and he led the Australian Republican movement nowhere in 1999 but there was still the hope that his patrician image, connections and the myth of his self-made success would elevate him beyond politics into the unassailable ranks of celebrity and total immunity from accountability. A bit like our Pauline.
Enter Pauline Hanson, celebrity demagogue, another proven political failure, whose latest rise to power owes much to the Turnbull double dissolution fiasco and The Today Show. Hanson’s press agent, James Ashby, has let Fairfax know Pauline is currently unavailable for interview. Like Turnbull, Hanson is happy with the idea of the media as fan club.
Now the myth of Turnbull’s business success and the popular superstition that it will ensure political success or at least make him saleable, gets another trot around the ring from deputy show pony Julie Bishop who tells Turnbull fan 7:30 Report’s Leigh Sales on pro government ABC TV later in the week, “he knows how to negotiate” when the record of his dealings show only that he will do anything to get his own way.
Yet, on 2 July, PM Malcolm Bligh Turnbull’s brief dream run ends in a rude awakening. The party’s bet on the former merchant banker running an IPA agenda has not paid off. Turnbull has gambled on a double dissolution early election and lost. He has only himself to blame.
Now he must face the loss of his government’s authority in what looks like a slender majority in parliament – and the huge loss to his personal authority in a party riven by faction, divided over same sex marriage and with types like Cory Bernardi and the Delcons yearning for Abbott’s return misreading the election result as a call to turn even further to the right.
Turnbull is not the man to handle complex and delicate negotiations. He has never disguised his enormous ambition nor his king-size ego. Former business partner, Trevor Kennedy, Australian Consolidate Press managing director and former Bulletin editor said in 1984,
“Malcolm probably wouldn’t even be satisfied with being prime minister of Australia. He’d probably rather be prime minister of the world.”
Banking colleagues dubbed him “The Ayatollah” while Brendan Nelson who defeated Turnbull for Liberal Party leadership in 20017 believes Turnbull,
“has a narcissistic personality disorder. He says the most appalling things and can’t understand why people get upset.”
Come election night, he’s lost the plot. He’s late to his own wake; or rather the “victory party” staged in a hotel which like the PM’s blue-ribbon electorate is named after William Wentworth, son of a convicted highwayman, a “currency lad” who re-invented himself as a patriot.
Turnbull, like Jay Gatsby, springs from his own immaculate conception of himself. The man who would be Prime Minister must now look out over the bedraggled remnants of his depleted cheer squad, many of whom, like the PM himself, are tired and emotional and offer some solace. He is confronted: taunted by the tawdry reminders of his failure to deliver and it shows.
The private schoolboy has a public tantrum. No-one is thanked for their campaign, no commiseration is offered to the many who have lost seats. Victory has been stolen from him. Once again, it is all about Malcolm. Quickly the Delcons, the deluded conservative Abbott supporters will claim the result would have been better under the junkyard dog. Once again, they are wrong.
Turnbull is no overnight failure. Years of Liberal government misrule, party division and dysfunction, not to mention the monumental ineptitude of his predecessor, who spent recklessly on defence, fetishised the national flag and fantasised about invading Syria or Ukraine, not to mention shirt-fronting Putin, have led up to this moment.
To see Turnbull as solely the architect of his own misfortune is to miss the Liberal Party’s decline over the last decades a process which as Guy Rundle puts it “so successfully undermined the platform on which it once stood, that it has fallen through the hole.”
Today’s Liberal Party draws upon an eclectic mix of ideologies from neoliberal, classical liberal and conservative schools of thought, blending tea party jargon about small government with neoliberal and small “l” liberal ideas and even in submarine building, industry protectionism. The confused brew makes the task of leadership even more daunting for Turnbull.
Will he fall on his sword? The honourable way out would be to make a resignation speech. Now, just when once again he seems to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, a mortally wounded Malcolm Bligh Turnbull reaches deep within himself and orates.
We can still form majority government, he thunders. Why is he shouting? Echoes here of the schoolboy debater, a natural third speaker who chooses bluster over substance.
Then there’s the scapegoating. It is as if the public have spoilt the party by not voting for him.
Labor’s mendacity, including “an extraordinary act of dishonesty” in text messaging purporting to come from Medicare has scared voters off the privatisation of Medicare which is otherwise proceeding apace with the government’s freezing of the Medicare rebate to GPs, and cutting bulk billing payments for pathology and diagnostic imaging and cuts to the Medicare Safety Net.
Yet no cuts are proposed to the $11 billion government subsidy of private health insurance.
No privatisation? Turnbull’s technically correct. Former PMC secretary John Menadue points out, current Coalition policy won’t privatise Medicare, it will destroy it.
By Tuesday, Turnbull concedes that the scare campaign against Medicare succeeded because his government had provided fertile ground for Labor’s “outrageous lie,” but the wounded Turnbull lashing out at a Labor scapegoat, Saturday, is the one voters will recognize as more authentic.
Ira fraudulosa esse non potest. Anger cannot be dishonest.
Turnbull lies that “party officials,” whose myopia has contributed to the campaign disaster, confirm the Coalition could form a government in its own right. Claw back seats from Labor.
“We’ve been here before,” he adds, another palpable lie, rallying the faithful whose bitter disappointment in his leadership is fast turning to anger. He offers another spurious historical parallel and the implicit hope that he’d lead them through this crisis instead of deeper into it.
“I give you Bob Katter,” he will be able to say by Friday, enriching his government’s prospects of success in the same sex marriage plebiscite con by signing up an independent who will walk backwards to Burke if there’s a gay in his electorate.
Katter’s list of demands include federal funding for the Galilee Basin railway, a strong moral case according to Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg in October last year who is keen to divert funds from the Northern Australia infrastructure facility to build a stranded investment that will never pay its way servicing the proposed Adani coal mine that could only proceed if the world reversed its investment in renewable the Indian government changed its policy of discouraging coal imports.
Before he even begins his election night dummy spit, Fizza Turnbull has been abandoned by a good third of the victory party to say nothing of a parliamentary party white-hot with rage and seething with self-righteous resentment. The smart set has withdrawn to its comfortable eastern suburbs barricades. Au pairs and nannies are put to bed leaving Alan Jones to put the boot in.
Smelling blood, Channel 7s team, fittingly, leads the nation in a bit of victim-bashing speculating that poor little Malco has wimped out. He’s staying home with his head under the doona. Shortly after this is broadcast, the PM appears, family in tow.
He has a plan, he says. He will turn this disaster of a defeat thing around. Like any blue-blooded scorpion, he lashes out at Labor’s Medicare lies. The police will be involved.
A simian John Howard, the architect of so much of the modern Liberal Party’s existential crisis, whom party and media amnesiacs alike have grotesquely elevated to party patron saint looks on approvingly, perhaps remembering his own undermining of Medicare not by open cuts but by failing to increase funding to keep up with increases in prices and population and his use of the “babies overboard” lie to win an election he deserved to lose.
Perhaps his heroic Iraqi war effort is on his mind. So hard to get good intelligence before battle.
It can’t be easy being Malcolm. Failure has dogged so many of his grand ventures now, including his failure to lead the Australian Republic Movement in 1999, his botched, white elephant of an NBN, his disastrous attempt to lead his own party in 2009 which ruptured on his despotic temperament and his failure to negotiate a PM role which left him any credibility or authority, all which his media cheer squad has been keen to overlook.
No one to blame but himself.
Turnbull’s dismal performance on election night earns the scorn of Laurie Oakes, self-appointed national moral guardian whose own virtuous behaviour includes the practical misogyny of his persecution of Julia Gillard who wrote the book on successful minority government.
Laurie Oakes was also instrumental in preparing the electorate for Tony Abbott, contributing to the myth that the Gillard years were chaotic and dysfunctional or that the junkyard toad would somehow, overnight become a prince, a leader and an effective Prime Minister.
Beyond the theatrics of a lost election lie the profound issues of the people’s voice ignored, a voice which now it is so easy to disparage or dispute or discourage competing as it must in a mediated society where elections are about what we believe to be our choices based on what we are told by radio, TV, website and all other form of mass medium.
Perhaps the greatest irony in the Coalition’s election debacle is that a servile, pro-government media created a bubble which insulated the government from the feedback it needed to run an effective campaign. Instead of the strategic feedback the Coalition needed, it received an echo of its own spin.
The government was “tracking well in the marginals,” we were all told. Insiders were quietly confident. Insiders predict a comfortable victory. No wonder Turnbull in his naiveté thought he really didn’t have to try. Perhaps this is the key to his anger election night, he and his party were undone by their own spin; betrayed by their own narcissism.
Surely, also, on some level he must know he is utterly undone and once again, parliamentary party playmate of the month that he may once have been and however much seduced by the Liberal party’s born to rule complacency, he is ultimately the architect of his downfall.
Without the victory that would have conferred authority and without the judgement and personal skills required to negotiate a minority government or one with a slender majority, his best course of action is to resign.