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Not the Wizard of Oz

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (AAP/Joel Carrett/via Reuters)
Can Malcolm Turnbull & Australia’s Liberal party win an unlikely return to power?

Almost exactly three years ago, Malcolm Turnbull ousted and replaced Tony Abbott as both Australian prime minister and Liberal-party leader by a modest majority in a party-room caucus vote in Canberra. (The Liberal party is generally considered to be center-right; “Liberal” should be understood as classical-liberal.) Changing PMs in mid-parliament is not unknown in Oz, but Abbott had been in power for scarcely more than a year after winning a landslide majority in Australia’s House of Representatives. Though he had made some mistakes, his administration had been a largely successful one, having forged free-trade deals with Japan, China, and South Korea and managed what labor and the media said was impossible in “stopping the boats” of illegal immigrants and preventing the loss of countless lives at sea.

Why then was he ousted? There seem to be three reasons: First, the Liberal–National coalition he led had trailed the opposition Labor party in 30 successive opinion polls; second, Abbott was a conservative and as such was distrusted by progressive members of his party and the Liberal media; and, third, Turnbull, a progressive, wanted to be prime minister very, very, very much and saw his chance slipping away permanently if the Liberals won a special by election due the next weekend. They did win it, as expected, but by then Turnbull was in the prime ministership.

Turnbull’s victory was welcomed in almost ecstatic terms by corporate Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, most of the political pundits even on conservative papers, the metropolitan middle classes in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, and — interestingly — Labor supporters, who were frequently quoted as describing him as an ideal Labor leader who had strayed mistakenly into the wrong party. At the time this didn’t seem a problem. Nor did making a progressive politician the leader of an essentially conservative party such as the Liberals. Liberal-party pollster Mark Textor famously said that the electoral loss of disgruntled conservatives would be outweighed by the capture of moderate swinging voters. Other political scientists dismissed the related fear that traditional Liberal voters might be drawn to the insurgent One Nation party, led by populist Pauline Hanson, who was thought to be in decline. Liberal MPs believed they had already won another landslide. It was “roses, roses, all the way” (though poetry lovers will recall that Browning’s poem that opens with these words is spoken one year later by a man on the gallows).

Nemesis — or just short of it — quickly followed on hubris. Less than a year after ousting Abbott, Turnbull called a general election in July 2016.

There were a few dissenters. I was living in Oz at the time and editing Australia’s leading conservative magazine, Quadrant, and my verdict on Turnbull was the famous judgment of Roman historian Tacitus: Capax imperii nisi imperasset. That can’t be translated as crisply as Tacitus wrote it, but it means “He would have been a great emperor if only he hadn’t become emperor.” After all, half the people celebrating Turnbull’s rise were never going to vote Liberal under any circumstances. Others expected they would vote Liberal because Turnbull would implement their wish list of progressive policies, when in reality he had to promise to stick to Abbott’s conservative agenda in order to maintain some semblance of harmony in his divided party. Conservatives in the Liberal party were sulphurous in their anger at what had happened — “I call him Malcolm Turncoat,” one Liberal lady told me (at a party fundraiser!). And Turnbull himself, who seemed to be the man with the golden touch in prospect, turned out to lack some of the most basic qualities of political leadership, such as decisiveness and clarity of vision.

Nemesis — or just short of it — quickly followed on hubris. Less than a year after ousting Abbott, Turnbull called a general election in July 2016. He lost most of the seats won by Abbott two years earlier, saw the revival of a threat from the right in the success of One Nation, and after a week of uncertainty held onto power by one parliamentary seat. He also failed to get a majority in the Australian Senate and has had to govern hand-to-mouth since then. And he long since overtook Abbott’s record of successively disappointing opinion poll results. With an election looming next year, Liberals have been hoping that the variable (I’m being kind) performance of Labor leader Bill Shorten would give them some kind of advantage in a lean year. So they were looking forward to — and talking up — at least some signs of recovery and success in five special by-elections last weekend.

It’s almost always a mistake to raise expectations in elections — and in this case they were raised unreasonably. Liberals speculated that they might take two of the five seats — which would have made it the first time in a half-century that a government had captured seats in special elections. That optimism proved completely out of touch with reality. Labor held four of the five seats and an independent kept control of the fifth. And though each constituency has slightly different features, the big picture seems to be that disgruntled voters went to both One Nation and Labor.

The constituency of Longman tells one story. Here the Liberals (known as the Liberal National party (LNP) in the state of Queensland) saw their primary (first-choice) vote fall from an election-winning 44.8 percent in 2013 to an election-losing 39 percent in 2016 and then plummet to 28 percent in Saturday’s by-election. Their voters went both to One Nation and to Labor, and One Nation’s preferences — Oz has a modestly preferential alternative-vote system — went more to Labor than expected. A particular problem here for the Liberals is that the federal government holds 21 of 30 seats in Queensland, with three on a margin of less than 1 percent and another four on margins of less than 4 percent. It’s sitting on a landslide in reverse — an avalanche of hostile votes.

The Mayo election tells a slightly different story. It used to be a safe Liberal seat. Now it’s a safe independent seat. Liberal candidate Georgie Downer — the daughter of a former party leader — got 35 percent of the primary vote, whereas independent Rebekha Sharkie (a former Liberal staffer who defected to a fringe independent party in 2016) got 47 percent. Ms. Downer is being blamed for this — inevitably so in populist times — but she wasn’t a bad candidate. Thirty-five percent is where the party’s primary vote now sits, and there aren’t enough preferences flowing from minor parties to add up to a majority.

On paper all this could still turn around, and next year’s federal election is winnable for the Liberals, but the rifts in the party need to healed and it is not clear that anyone wants to do that, let alone sees the necessity.

Beyond policy, the government’s main problem in Mayo and elsewhere is that the party is deeply divided and the prospect of uniting it seems vanishingly small. On paper all this could still turn around, and next year’s federal election is winnable, but the rifts in the party need to healed and it is not clear that anyone wants to do that, let alone sees the necessity.

And when it comes to policy, the Turnbull government’s problem is that it hasn’t managed to establish a popular agenda in which people believe. After speaking to a well-placed source in Sydney, here are some observations on the Turnbull government’s policy problems:

1. Its economic centerpiece — tax cuts for business — is economically sensible and potentially a winner politically. It’s been a success for Trump in the U.S., but Turnbull is struggling to persuade the voters of its value. Business likes it, not surprisingly, but the Liberals have failed to make the larger argument on how tax cuts benefit all. And when Labor proposes to hike taxes on the rich for bigger spending programs, the Liberals need to convince the aspirational classes, John Howard’s “battlers,” that they’ll be hit too in the long run.

2. It has a success story on controlling immigration and a strong argument that Labor can’t be trusted to maintain the controls. But it hasn’t managed to convince the voters of Labor’s untrustworthiness.

3. It claims its policies will bring power prices down — a big voter concern in Oz as elsewhere — but polls show that voters believe it is privatization that has pushed up power prices rather than green boondoggles. The government has not helped itself in this respect. It demonized power companies for pushing up prices when they were actually responding to the environmental-policy parameters put in place by successive governments. These policies create strong incentives to invest in renewable energy even though this pushes up power prices for consumers and reduces reliability. As a result, voters trust Labor to bring down power prices more than they trust the government.

4. Extraordinarily, the government’s education-funding policy disadvantaged Catholic schools to such an extent that they actively campaigned against the government. Catholic and independent schools have been a mainstay of support for the coalition for decades. For them to turn to Labor when Labor has been growing less friendly towards religion and the rights of religious people in recent years is a failure of massive significance.

5. Lastly, the government’s retirement policies have been damaging for older voters, who are usually an even stronger support base than Catholic parents for the coalition. The government suffered a major reduction in the gray vote at the last election and the Longman result suggests it’s not winning it back.

The coalition now needs to win back natural supporters, such as working-class battlers, retirees, and families sending their kids to Catholic schools, before it even begins wooing independents, One Nation supporters, and Labor’s soft vote.

One can discern a thread running through these missteps and errors: It’s hard to see what the Liberal party stands for in particular, because it’s hard to see what it stands for in general. Its own members see it as a house divided between conservatism and progressivism. And when a party is divided, it can’t consistently present the voters with an overall commonsense philosophy that justifies some policies and rules out others. It loses its sense of direction, forgets who its friends are, and finds itself deciding every policy from scratch — and, of course, it makes mistakes as a result. That’s clearest in energy policy, where the Turnbull government is not very different from Labor in its attachment to “green” policies and the Paris climate-change treaty. But it also explains why it didn’t sense that it was alienating Catholic parents with its education-funding policy until they actually campaigned against it. As a result the coalition now needs to win back natural supporters, such as working-class battlers, retirees, and families sending their kids to Catholic schools, before it even begins wooing independents, One Nation supporters, and Labor’s soft vote. Quite a task.

At the root of the Liberal party’s problems is something called Loughnane’s Law. Named after Brian Loughnane, a former federal director of the Liberal party (i.e., Australia’s equivalent of the RNC chairman), this law holds that the Liberal party wins elections when the leader of the party and the leader of the broader conservative movement are the same person. John Howard, Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser (as prime minister), and Tony Abbott all exemplify the truth of this law to varying degrees. Malcolm Turnbull is an attempt to disprove it. So far he hasn’t done so.

And Abbott is still around. Indeed, he’s on maneuvers, arguing that corporate tax cuts don’t win votes as well as those that put money directly in the pockets of the people, calling for Canberra to withdraw from a Paris climate-change treaty that especially disadvantages an energy superpower such as Australia, and proposing to control legal as well as illegal immigration more strictly. The media dismiss Abbott’s chances as delusions driven by bitterness — and Turnbull is probably safe until the election. Unless he finally wins a landslide next time, however, all bets are off. And Abbott has already been buried by the media more times than Count Dracula. Can he rise from the grave again?

Ask Brian Loughnane.

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