Disunity is said to be death in politics – but not for Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party in election 2019. Morrison and his team took their chance and won a remarkable victory. Over some months, The Australian Financial Review’s Print editor Aaron Patrick interviewed key insiders to reveal the turning points and the cunning schemes behind the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as PM and the months leading to the 19 May election. His bookThe Surprise Party was the result. What did Shorten’s Labor get so wrong? To reveal something of what happened, Aaron Patrick addressed The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 11 December 2019.

A YEAR TO REMEMBER – HOW THE COALITION WENT FROM CHAOS TO COMEBACK

AARON PATRICK

Exactly why Turnbull would call a leadership spill last year is one of the great mysteries of his career. Turnbull has said that he wanted to use surprise to defeat an attack that was coming anyway.

Turnbull’s grasp on reality was questionable. The day before the first leadership vote on 21 August, Turnbull attended drinks in the office of cities infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher. The PM gave a rambling and narcissistic speech about the ‘terrorists” against him. He didn’t try to rally his supporters. There was no optimistic vision for the government or rallying cry against the opposition. Turnbull just wanted to talk about Turnbull. About the only person who seemed convinced was Julia Banks. “We love you Malcolm,” she told the room.

Turnbull just wanted to talk about Turnbull. About the only person who seemed convinced was Julia Banks. “We love you Malcolm,” she told the room.

Afterwards Turnbull retreated to his office for beef tacos with Lucy and Christopher Pyne. As visitors came and went, all three sat around reading, on their mobile phones, about the imploding government on Twitter. Lucy chortled sarcastically when some particularly egregious misinformation appeared. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann’s dubious loyalty was one topic of her scorn. They weren’t pouring over spreadsheets or calling the backbench. It was as though Turnbull’s ego was too wounded for him to ask MPs to vote for him.

An Ipsos poll around the time found that 62 per cent of people didn’t want Turnbull removed. Despite his failure to hold his party together, Turnbull remained more popular than Shorten or any other Liberal politician. A poll conducted by ReachTel the week the leadership changed found 38 percent of voters wanted Turnbull to remain prime minister, 29 per cent preferred Julie Bishop, 14 percent Tony Abbott and 10 per cent Peter Dutton. Morrison scored 8.6 per cent.

In hindsight, some of the commentary at the time reflect an institutional bias towards Turnbull.

In hindsight, some of the commentary at the time reflect an institutional bias towards Turnbull.

“Sensible people know that playing another round of revolving door at the Lodge would create as many problems as it solved, unleashing a fresh chapter of angst and internal retribution,” Guardian political editor, Katharine Murphy said.

“Turnbull is down, but he is not out, even if a slow drip-drip of negative polls will continue for the foreseeable future,” Michelle Grattan said.

“Changing leaders would be futile” tweeted Herald Sun political correspondent James Campbell. “They’ve played that card. The sad fact is Malcolm is their least-worst option.”

The coup, as it was inaccurately dubbed, would be described as a morality play in which a king was betrayed by some of his closest allies, including a duplicitous pretender to the throne, Scott Morrison. A normal function of politics was turned into a psycho-drama.

The coup, as it was inaccurately dubbed, would be described as a morality play in which a king was betrayed by some of his closest allies, including a duplicitous pretender to the throne, Scott Morrison.

I don’t regard Turnbull’s downfall as an act of revenge, a morality play or a coup d’etat. It was a democratic change of a leader whose colleagues believed lacked the political skill to lead a successful government.

Criticism of Peter Dutton, Matthias Cormann and Greg Hunt was based on a false premise. Members of parliament are under no moral, legal or obligation by convention to support their party leader under any circumstance.

As a matter of practical reality, it is a leader’s responsibility to secure and maintain the support of his or her MPs.

Turnbull lost the support of the people who made him PM – Liberal MPs, not the public – and Dutton, Cormann and Hunt reasoned that they had an opportunity to enhance their power and careers. They took a chance and lost.

That didn’t make them bad people. They weren’t Judas. They owed Turnbull no personal loyalty, and neither he them.

That didn’t make them bad people. They weren’t Judas. They owed Turnbull no personal loyalty, and neither he them.

The average voter has a political memory of about one year. An election was due by the end of May, nine months away. The political consensus was, as we all know, that Morrison didn’t have enough time to win over the public.

Morrison’s job was to unite the Liberal Party’s tribes and lead a fatalistic Coalition to an honourable defeat in the 46th general election. Few in his party, broader politics, or politically engaged society believed Morrison could defeat an opposition so confident it had proposed one of the most detailed plans for government from opposition in Australian history. Morrison had offered his political body to the Liberal Party, and it expected him to die on the cross of an electoral defeat.

Morrison was ridiculed for ingratiating himself with voters through folksy behaviour, as though populist politics were beneath a prime minister.

The national mood was weary, uncertain. Australians were depressed by the instability, but there was no sense of national crisis. The economy was growing, unemployment was low and property and share prices high. Society had proven to be more resilient than its political institutions.

The national mood was weary, uncertain. Australians were depressed by the instability, but there was no sense of national crisis. 

A natural debater instead of an athlete, Shorten had an unusual gait. He presented the image of an awkward man running away from something, not a confident leader striding into the future. When he sped up, his arms and skinny legs furiously pumped back and forth while his padded torso remained strangely rigid. Memes started to spread on social media poking fun at Shorten’s running style. Even he got in on the joke, and appeared to enjoy the attention towards his health regime.

May 3 debate

Shorten then took a step towards Morrison, who dropped back a little. “Can you look me in the eye and tell me,” Morrison said, before Shorten cut him off. “You’re a classic space invader,” Shorten responded, and then walked away and began speaking directly to the audience, which gasped in delight.

Among Labor MPs, there was a happiness at how the debate had gone too. Shorten got more questions about Labor’s policies than Morrison, which gave him more time to explain and promote the party’s agenda. At Liberal headquarters, the campaign was also pleased about the focus on the Labor policies. The more Shorten talked about redistributing wealth for social welfare, the more undecided voters would focus on the breadth of Labor’s planned changes, they hoped. Voters were standing to understand that the stakes were getting higher. Morrison appreciated the danger to Labor too. In what may have been his best decision of the debate, he relinquished speaking time to Shorten, who he said had “more taxes to explain”.

In what may have been his best decision of the debate, he relinquished speaking time to Shorten, who he said had “more taxes to explain”.

At the end of the campaign a media monitoring company, Streem, would list the ten words most frequently spoken by both men. Shorten’s word was Labor. So was Morrison’s.

On election night

When Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce was crowing about his party’s success and ridiculing GetUp!, ABC political reporter Andrew Probyn cheekily asked if he wanted to return as leader. Before Joyce began answering, one of the presenters could be heard saying under her breadth: “Tell the truth”.

In the week after election day a young political economist, Carmela Chivers, decided to explore if there was a connection between class and Scott Morrison’s victory. The researcher was surprised by her findings. Turned out that Bill Shorten’s “the top end of town” was the one section of society who moved in his direction. Under Scott Morrison, the Coalition ate into the working classes’ loyalty to Labor.

As is usual in Australian federal elections, the result was close. Of greater concern to the Labor Party was who it lost. Chivers compared voting at 4500 polling booths with the 2016 election. She found the richest 20 per cent of Australians increased their support for the Labor Party by about 2 per cent. All others – the bottom 80 percent – swung to the Coalition. The largest swing was the second-poorest quintile – the lower middle classes – of whom 2.4 per cent shifted to the Coalition, a huge move in the close election. The poor, the isolated and the little educated were more likely to switch to the Coalition. Only the privileged residents of the inner cities were convinced to shift to Labor. Chivers found the same class trend when she compared voting patterns with education and distance of polling booths from cities, which can be a useful proxy for cultural and economic privilege.

As is usual in Australian federal elections, the result was close. Of greater concern to the Labor Party was who it lost.

In New South Wales, booths in postcodes with the fewest university degrees swung, on average, by 10 per cent to the Coalition, the biggest move in the state. Anyone living with 10 kilometres of the centre of their capital was more likely to change their vote to the Labor Party. The further out voters lived, the more they switched to the Liberal or National parties.

In New South Wales, booths in postcodes with the fewest university degrees swung, on average, by 10 per cent to the Coalition, the biggest move in the state.

The data may have been the most powerful demonstration of what happened over the four-week campaign and why the Coalition triumphed. The skew in support towards the most privileged was an electoral disaster for Labor, which became stronger in wealthy seats it already had, and went backwards in middle and struggling Australia, where the election was decided. Shorten turned off those who should have been his strongest supporters. Morrison won them over.

Shorten prided himself on being in touch with the common man, but Shorten didn’t appreciate how much society had changed since his political views were formed at school and university. By emphasising traditional class divides and the importance of government assistance, Shorten didn’t appreciate that traditional class identity has broken down. Men and women in blue-collar industries, such as construction, don’t see themselves as working class if they operate their own business or manage staff. Investments in property, shares and superannuation have became an important influence on voting. More recently, what is known as the “culture wars” has emerged as influential, reflecting a divide over values between the liberal inner cities and conservative suburbs and regional cities.

Men and women in blue-collar industries, such as construction, don’t see themselves as working class if they operate their own business or manage staff.

Shorten’s unpopularity was a problem, although didn’t have to be fatal. In the last 11 elections, three have been won by the less popular leader. “The top end of town” jibe, which Shorten used to justify tax increases on the successful, became shorthand for his political philosophy. Some Labor candidates refused to repeat it. They felt it signalled Labor opposed class mobility.

The election upset demonstrated an uncomfortable truth for many about the nature of their society. The distinct options given to voters, and the definitive choice they made, revealed the innate conservatism of the Australian middle and working classes.

The distinct options given to voters, and the definitive choice they made, revealed the innate conservatism of the Australian middle and working classes.

In the late 2010s, Australia was not a society that desired bigger, interventionist government in the same manner as Sweden, France or even Britain. The national mood leaned towards lower taxes, a smaller state and strong borders. Prosperous and aspirational, most Australians did not believe unions or governments were necessary to protect their wages. They didn’t want industries should be subsidised by governments, except for perhaps defence manufacturers. They did not fear healthcare underpinned by the private sector, nor covering part of their medical costs.

They did not believe there is a childcare crisis, although they wanted more sexual equality. They did not regard franking credits as a favour bestowed by government, but recognition of taxes paid by self-supporting investors. They believed in climate change, but weren’t certain closing coal and gas power stations will make electricity cheaper. The valued the ABC, but did not believe a pause in funding increases would damage it.

Defying his political heritage in Labor’s free-market wing, Shorten adopted a progressive agenda championed by The Australia Institute, academia, social media activists, public service unions, GetUp!, the Guardian and prominent economic columnists at Nine’s big papers. Morrison stood in opposition. His policies, led by tax cuts across the income spectrum, were ridiculed for a lack of boldness. But Morrison deliberately didn’t promise to change Australia, but to leave it mostly the same, and hopefully a little wealthier.

Morrison deliberately didn’t promise to change Australia, but to leave it mostly the same, and hopefully a little wealthier.

The contest marked a rare historical event: a turning point in politics where power didn’t change. For better or worse, Australians chose capitalism over paternalism. They rejected bold cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger state and greater regulation of business. The election forced Australia to re-assess its own image. It is not the country many thought it was. Australians demonstrated that they are more cautious, and conservative, than many of their political leaders. The ramifications of the election will be felt in Australian politics and society for years.

The ramifications of the election will be felt in Australian politics and society for years.

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