One of Malcolm Turnbull’s early interviews as Prime Minister was with Fairfax Media’s Peter Hartcher. On October 24 last year, he told Hartcher he was a reformer who wanted to change the culture of government, politics and business along with the way Australia presents itself to the world.
Such an approach was always likely to unsettle many Australians, who are not inclined to radical change. Especially since Turnbull cited favourably Mao Zedong’s evocation when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, namely: “The Chinese people have stood up.”
Turnbull said to Hartcher that he wanted to adopt Mao’s proclamation for usage in Australia. It was an unusual statement for a prime minister of a democracy to make. After all, Mao established a totalitarian regime that ruthlessly crushed dissent up to and beyond his death in 1976. Moreover, as Frank Dikotter has written in his trilogy of books on China from 1949 to 1976, Mao’s regime was responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million Chinese in a quarter of a century.
Hartcher seemed impressed with Turnbull’s vision. So, according to the opinion polls, were a clear majority of voters. Had the Prime Minister instigated an early election for the end of last year or the beginning of this year, the Coalition probably would have been returned with a clear majority.
But it was not to be. Ignoring Mao’s legacy, Turnbull did not immediately stand up on policy. Instead he invited the electorate to put all their ideas “on the table”. Soon the table was groaning under the weight of diverse proposals and the Coalition’s support, as measured in the opinion polls, began to drop.
The lead-up to last Saturday’s election was unprecedented. First, Turnbull decided to move directly from a budget to an election campaign. This had the unintended consequence of propelling any unpopular budget measures into the heat of political debate. Second, while behind in Newspoll, he called an early election, including a double dissolution.
It is not uncommon for governments behind in the polls to win elections by using the advantage of incumbency to retain marginal House of Representatives seats. However, success in a Senate election requires widespread support in at least four states.
This would have been difficult in a normal half-Senate election, even if the Coalition had been ahead of Labor when the election was called. It was destined to be almost impossible in a double dissolution where the quotas for election are halved, especially since several populist parties of the Left (Greens), Right (One Nation) and Centre (Nick Xenophon Team) were in the field.
It appears Turnbull will survive as Prime Minister. But the result was close. Bill Shorten nearly toppled a first-term government. Tony Abbott went even closer in his first election as opposition leader in 2010.
The conventional view of those who consider themselves progressive is that Turnbull faltered because he was too accommodating to the social conservatives among the Liberals and the Nationals. This position was promulgated by Emergent Solutions chief executive Holly Ransom on the ABC’s Q&A last Monday. She complained that “issues around climate change and gay marriage” were “never at the forefront of the conversation and never part” of Turnbull’s leadership.
Yet there is no evidence voters in western Sydney and northern Tasmania, who deserted the Coalition last Saturday, were upset with Turnbull because of his refusal to introduce same-sex marriage by legislation or advocate an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax.
What’s more, in such seats as Brisbane, Higgins in Melbourne and North Sydney, where such policies are popular, the Coalition obtained a relatively strong vote.
The star performers in the campaign on the Coalition side of politics were Nationals leaders Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash. As former NSW Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell suggested on Sunday, the strong performance by the Nationals in holding their seats in northern NSW probably saved the Turnbull government. The Nationals do not have similar views to the issues Ransom believes are in the forefront of what is called, in cliched parlance, “the conversation”.
It is too early to speculate about the short to medium-term future of the Liberal Party under Turnbull’s leadership. But there is work to be done to solidify the conservative base of the party. There is anecdotal evidence of an unwillingness among traditional Liberal Party voters to support the party in cash or kind to the same extent as in previous campaigns. The Left totally out-campaigned the conservatives on the ground in this month’s election.
Pollster and campaign strategist Mark Textor has been an influential adviser to the Liberal Party during Turnbull’s prime ministership. In an interview with The Australian’s Chip Le Grand, published on September 26 last year, Textor said “the sum of a more centrist approach outweighs any alleged marginal loss of so-called base voters”.
When this comment caused controversy, Textor said this was not a reference to “centre-right and conservative voters” but rather to a “far-right website”. Yet the evidence suggests Textor is wont to send out angry messages about individuals who are considered centre-right or conservative.
For example, Textor has called me a “silly old bugger” and attacked John Roskam’s free-market Institute of Public Affairs. In March, he was reported in the Guardian Australia as bagging “21-year-old pimply theorists from the IPA”. This is mere abuse.
Textor also joined with leftist Dee Madigan in proffering gratuitous criticism of the theological conservative Cardinal George Pell. Invited to the Sydney book launch of my biography of BA Santamaria, Textor declined, describing Santamaria as “another irrelevant historical figure”. Yet it was Santamaria and his fellow Democratic Labor Party voters who saved the governments led by Robert Menzies (1961) and John Gorton (1969) by giving their preferences to the Coalition.
The Coalition is not likely to reconnect with its conservative base until senior Liberal Party operatives preference the anti-communist Santamaria before the communist Mao.