With a federal election looming by May 2019, and the polls for many months predicting an easy win for the Labor opposition led by Bill Shorten, The Sydney Institute held a seminar evening discussion on Wednesday 6 March 2019. Leading the discussion were Paul Kelly, commentator, columnist The Australian, editor and author and Caroline Overington, Columnist at The Australian and author. The lively discussion canvassed some predictable election results but also offered lively assessments of the state of play between the political parties and their strengths and weaknesses.
AN EVENING BEFORE THE ELECTION
We’re here today to talk about the political landscape. There’s lots to talk about! Boats, and banks … Julia Banks. But, at the end of the day, it’s an election year, so what really matters? Who is going to win? Because that’s the end game, isn’t it? Who will win the great race we hold every three years – give or take? Will we change the government? Because, as Keating once said, you change the government, you change the country.
Will we change the country? If so, for better, for worse? Sometimes in an election year, it’s: “Can the Opposition topple this government?” This year, it’s: “Can anyone beat Bill Shorten?”
I saw Julie Bishop in the news, on Sunday, saying she could have beaten Bill Shorten. If only she managed to get more than 11 votes from her own party, she could have beaten Bill Shorten. Do I think she could have beaten Shorten? No. But then I don’t think Black Caviar could beat Bill Shorten.
If only she managed to get more than 11 votes from her own party, she could have beaten Bill Shorten. Do I think she could have beaten Shorten? No.
I’ll go further. I don’t think Winx could beat Bill Shorten. He is that far ahead. And that is a frankly horrifying prospect for many people, some of whom will be in this room tonight. You see them, sort of scrunching up their nose: this is really happening? Prime Minister Bill Shorten? Get used to it.
And here’s what’s interesting about it. I’ve asked around, and I don’t find people dying to vote for Bill Shorten. He’s not exactly Captain Charismatic. Voters aren’t flocking to him. They’re running away from the Coalition. In some ways, it’s like what PJ O’Rourke said, when he came to Australia last time. Somebody asked him – this was before the Presidential election – how are you going to choose between Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton? He agreed that both were terrible. But he was going to hold his nose, and vote for … Hillary Clinton. He wasn’t ABC – anyone but Clinton. He was ABT – anyone but Trump. How he feels now, I don’t know.
But we many, many people, is some of the most vulnerable Coalition seats, are thinking: anyone by this lot. We’ve had enough of this lot. Hillary lost the unlosable election. Our Scott Morrison – he’s got the unwinnable election on our hands. Unwinnable for Scott Morrison. Unwinnable for the Coalition. Of course, anything can happen. But that’s what the polls say. That’s what the bookies say.
We many, many people, is some of the most vulnerable Coalition seats, are thinking: anyone by this lot.
Scott Morrison is putting his best foot forward – he really is doing far better than people predicted – but honestly? Not even his own team are on board. In Britain, the troubles are referred to as Brexit. My colleague, James Jeffrey, refers to ours as Frexit.
The front bench exit has seen five members of Cabinet have announced their intention to leave politics at this election. They don’t think the Coalition can win. They don’t want to spend the next three, maybe six years, lolling around on the Opposition benches, in charge of sending out press releases and not, for example, commissioning submarines. Who can blame them? The point is, if key members of the Cabinet don’t think the Coalition can win … well then, I think it’s safe to say that they, and the polls, and the bookies, are probably right. We are very likely to see a change of government.
It’s worth looking at why they’re so on the nose. You all know the old saying: Oppositions do not win. Governments lose. Whitlam won. Time’s Up. Brilliant campaign. Rudd won – Kevin ’07 – that, too, was a winning campaign. Mostly, though, the government of the day loses. Look at the last Newspoll: 53 – 47 – and it’s landslide coming, for all you Stevie Nicks fans.
Whitlam won. Time’s Up. Brilliant campaign. Rudd won – Kevin ’07 – that, too, was a winning campaign. Mostly, though, the government of the day loses.
And the Coalition has reason to feel aggrieved. The most important issue in any election is the economy. Australia is about to clock up 27 years of uninterrupted growth. That’s pretty much unprecedented around the world. Wages growth has been slow, but unemployment is incredibly low, inflation is practically non-existent, and the economy is growing year on year. These are the things that are supposed to matter to voters.
Australia is, objectively, in great shape. So, why is the Coalition doing so badly? Why can’t they mount a fightback -– another great Liberal slogan – from here? I’m going to give you four reasons. I’m also going to count them out, so you – and I’ll know – where we are with this presentation.
Reason one, and this is just about maths: they don’t have enough seats. They literally don’t have a single seat to lose. They are a minority government. They have been since Wentworth was lost to an independent, Dr Kerryn Phelps. Incumbent governments not always but traditionally lose ground, and this one has no ground to lose. So there’s that simple fact: they have no buffer.
They don’t have enough seats. They literally don’t have a single seat to lose. They are a minority government.
Two: They’ve taken collateral damage. The citizenship fiasco, the Barnababy … on one hand, those things are all so last year. With the exception of the Barnababy, they weren’t the government’s fault, but they created the impression of a government in turmoil. Truly, not their fault. But optics are important. It’s the same with the leadership coup. It’s all so last year. But voters look at that, and like Jordan Peterson, they think: if you can’t keep your own house ship-shape, how are going to run the country?
Three: they’ve lost too much of the base. I’m going to use Wentworth as my example here. There are people who say that you can’t read the tea leaves in Wentworth, because it was lost under rather unique circumstances. Wentworth voters were intensely loyal to Malcolm Turnbull. They couldn’t understand how and why he’d been ousted, and especially not for somebody like Peter Dutton, or Scott Morrison. The Liberal Party found itself in Wentworth up against a giant slayer in Dr Kerryn Phelps: independent, Jewish, married, gay! So there were unusual features in play at that byelection.
The Liberal Party found itself in Wentworth up against a giant slayer in Dr Kerryn Phelps: independent, Jewish, married, gay!
But Wentworth had been a Liberal seat since the Liberal Party was formed. Wentworth is undeniably the base. t’s not the same base as the one that elects Peter Dutton. But that’s always been the beauty of the Liberal Party. It’s a broad church, as perhaps you’ve heard. You can’t lose a seat like Wentworth, and continue to insist that you have no problem with the base. You think if they come for you in Wentworth, they won’t come for you in Monash, and Menzies, and Bennelong? In Fairfax and potentially Kooyong? Of course they will. As my colleague, Chip Le Grand wrote, after the Liberals in Victoria almost lost the state seat of Brighton – Brighton! – traditional liberal voters are coming in their puffer jackets and their pearls, to whack the Liberals
Why? Well, for a number of different reasons: leadership turmoil was obviously one of them, but mainly, I think we say that it’s because the Coalition has been incoherent on climate change. Like it or not, climate change is a middle class concern. I’m not talking about Howard’s battlers. I’m talking about Kerryn’s tree-huggers. There is a degree of cognitive dissonance in their approach to climate change, in that they go to Aspen for Christmas, to Portofino in June, plus most of them have an eighteen-year-old with L-plates on the Range Rover. They are warming the planet, one first class cabin at a time. But they care about climate change, and they’re fed up with their party not having a policy on it.
I’m talking about Kerryn’s tree-huggers. There is a degree of cognitive dissonance in their approach to climate change, in that they go to Aspen for Christmas, to Portofino in June, plus most of them have an eighteen-year-old with L-plates on the Range Rover.
That’s not quite accurate. The Coalition has had, I think, five policy positions on it, in the past five years. The Right of the party still wants to ditch the Paris accords and scale back Australia’s 2030 emission reduction targets. The progressive wing wants wind farms. Scott Morrison is striving for middle ground, with his emphasis on emission reductions. He is sticking to that line, that a balance must be struck between reliable power, and affordable power. But Morrison is also the person who – stupidly, in a dumb stunt – bought a lump of coal into parliament.
On one hand, good on him for saying he won’t abandon coal, because it’s our biggest export, responsible for billion of dollars in revenue. We’d have a rather different standard of living in this country were coal to disappear. But comfortable, middle class voters don’t like coal. They like renewables. And Labor has lashed itself to renewables. They have targets they have no hope of meeting. But voters like the message those targets send, which is that we – Labor – care about the planet – and they – the Coalition – will see your grandchildren melt under a fiery sun before they’ll give up their friends in Big Coal.
On one hand, good on him for saying he won’t abandon coal, because it’s our biggest export, responsible for billion of dollars in revenue.
Which brings me to point four: The Coalition has an image problem, and it’s not just on climate change. It’s got an image problem on refugees, which is quite amazing when you think about it, because the Coalition has done more to get refugees and asylum seekers out of detention than Labor ever did. Labor had them behind razor wire – men, women, children on dinky little tricycles – in record numbers. If I’m not mistaken, the last children in detention left for the US this week. It boggles the mind, how badly the Coalition sell their achievements in this regard.
But it’s not only refugees. Kelly O’Dwyer said it best – reportedly – when she told her colleagues that voters see the Coalition as “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers”. Homophobic is also quite unfair. It was a Coalition government that delivered same-sex marriage, on the back of a compromise proposed by Tony Abbott. The anti-women thing is interesting. It’s not to be overstated. Women do not vote for other women because they are women. Women, like men, vote for leaders, and for parties. And they want a party that takes them seriously. That sees them, respects them.
Kelly O’Dwyer said it best – reportedly – when she told her colleagues that voters see the Coalition as “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers”.
Julie Bishop in Hobart this week told an International Women’s Day audience: In 2013, I was deputy leader and minister for foreign affairs. I was the only woman in that 19-member cabinet … so Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed himself the minister for women’s issues. She stood out like a shiny pair of shoes, did Julia. The Coalition may insist it has no such problem, but let’s have a look what they’ve been up to this week.
They’ve announced a massive injection of funds, into domestic violence prevention; and child care reform. Scott Morrison’s added a record seventh woman to Cabinet: Emergency Management Minister Linda Reynolds. Kevin Rudd and the darling Malcolm Turnbull had six women in their cabinets. You may have missed this commendable development, because it was not at all prominent in the Fairfax press! There are a few other things they could crow about here: the Morrison government abolished the GST on tampons! Truly they don’t get much credit.
So that was my four explanations for why they’re doing so badly. I’ll now give you three things that I think they can do to mitigate some of the damage, upcoming. There are no secrets here. You play to your strengths. The economy, number one.
I’ll now give you three things that I think they can do to mitigate some of the damage, upcoming. There are no secrets here. You play to your strengths. The economy, number one.
The economy. Morrison is quite right when he says we’ve never been in better shape. I won’t go over again how good it is. We know how good it is.
Two: Border control. It’s a strength. Nobody wants a return to the bad old days, of boat arrivals. Let’s be generous and assume that nobody actually wants a leaky boat to appear on the horizon, crammed with women and children, as a result of the Medivac bill. Certainly, nobody wants a death at sea. But a conversation about boats? A debate about borders? This is precisely the kind of issue on which the Coalition can fight an election.
Three: the ALP’s planned changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, to remove the tax breaks for property investors; and Labor’s plan to do away with franking credits. The Coalition can do much to shore up the base here. They’ve come out swinging on these issues, and they need to stay on message.
The ALP’s planned changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, to remove the tax breaks for property investors; and Labor’s plan to do away with franking credits. The Coalition can do much to shore up the base here.
Four: recruit Peta Credlin! I’m only partly joking! Yes, of course she’s way too smart. She’s enjoying spending time with her husband, travelling and cooking and reading, and her job on Sky … she’s going to sit this one out – and look, if things go the way I think they’re going to go, there will be plenty of vacant seats in traditional Liberal strongholds to choose from, come election 2022.