Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in Bondi earlier this month. Picture: Damian Shaw
Since the end of World War II, only six prime ministers have attained the position after defeating an incumbent government at an election. On the Coalition side, Robert Menzies (1949), Malcolm Fraser (1975), John Howard (1996) and Tony Abbott (2013). And on the Labor side, Gough Whitlam (1972), Bob Hawke (1983) and Kevin Rudd (2007).
Sure, Fraser was the caretaker prime minister in November 1975, but he won the December 1975 election in a landslide.
All three Labor leaders who have won government from opposition have been big figures in Australian politics or hugely popular — or both. Whitlam was not particularly popular but he was a dominant figure in Australian politics in the late 1960s and early 70s.
If Australians vote at the likely May election in accordance with the present views as recorded in the opinion polls, then Labor’s Bill Shorten will soon be prime minister. If so, this will be a break with precedent. Shorten has been a successful minister and Opposition Leader. But he is not a big figure like Whitlam or Hawke. And he is not as popular as Hawke or Rudd when they became prime minister.
It’s true that Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott never enjoyed the popularity of a Hawke or a Rudd at their political height. But all were big names at the time of attaining office.
The Coalition’s present political discontents are the result of the fact, under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, it lost 14 seats in the July 2016 double-dissolution election and survived with a one-seat majority.
This made the retention of government in 2019, under any leadership, inherently unlikely.
And then there was the decision of Turnbull to seek and obtain a double dissolution on the pretext that its legislation to establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission had been rejected twice by the Senate.
Yet, during the extraordinarily long eight-week campaign, Turnbull did not campaign on Labor’s support for the trade union movement in general or its opposition to the ABCC in particular.
Instead, the Coalition focused on the nebulous “jobs and growth” refrain and preached the importance of innovation (which some voters regarded as a threat to their traditional employment).
In the first article in Nine newspapers’ five-part series on the Coalition, Peter Hartcher repeated a familiar refrain of journalists who believe that someone such as Turnbull — rather than someone such as Abbott, Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison — should lead the Liberal Party.
He wrote: “A striking feature of Morrison’s ascent to the prime ministership is that it has never been explained. Australia is baffled. Why was Turnbull struck down? Who is Scott Morrison? Why is he Prime Minister?”
The answer to the first question should be obvious to any observer of Australian politics. Turnbull in 2018, like Abbott in 2015, lost the support of most of his parliamentary colleagues.
In his first article in the series, Hartcher did not mention the Coalition’s loss of 14 seats in 2016. And he did not once mention the name Longman.
Yet it was the Liberal Party’s poor performance in the Longman by-election in late July last year that led to Turnbull’s downfall. Turnbull volunteered that this was a test of the leadership between him and Shorten.
But the Liberal Party polled less than 30 per cent of the primary vote while Pauline Hanson’s One Nation candidate gained a primary vote of close to 16 per cent. From this moment, Turnbull’s leadership was effectively doomed.
It was the Queensland marginal seat holder Dutton who put up his hand for the leadership when Turnbull foolishly, and without warning his key colleagues, called for a spill of his leadership. After Dutton won 35 votes out of 83 votes, it was just a matter of time.
There is another impact of the 2016 election that is adversely affecting the Coalition. As a result of the double dissolution, the quota for a Senate seat in the six states halved — from 14.3 per cent to 7.15 per cent.
In a normal Senate election, when each state elects six senators, One Nation may have gained one Senate seat in 2016. In Queensland, Hanson obtained 9.9 per cent of the primary vote and probably would have gained a Senate seat on preferences.
But One Nation would not have won a second seat in Queensland (originally Malcolm Roberts, who was replaced by Fraser Anning), NSW or Western Australia.
Anning in Queensland and Brian Burston in NSW soon defected from One Nation, but not before Hanson and her party had returned to the Australian political scene as a significant player — a role she had not fulfilled at the national political level for two decades.
Right now, Labor has put Morrison and the Coalition in a spot as to whether the preferences of the Liberal Party and the Nationals will put One Nation last. The Prime Minister has said the Liberal Party will put Labor ahead of One Nation but that is all at this stage. The Nationals have yet to make a decision on this issue.
The Liberal Party and the Nationals are likely to finish first or second in most of the seats they contest. In such a situation, their preferences will not be allocated in House of Representative seats. Moreover, One Nation is unlikely to win a Senate seat in any state other than Queensland. Its primary Senate vote in NSW and Western Australia in 2016 was about 4 per cent.
The Coalition today has to deal with the consequences of a poor performance in the 2016 election along with the unintended consequences of a double dissolution. Both make the tough job of winning a third term even harder than might be the case.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.