Malcolm Turnbull has been leader of the federal Liberal Party twice – once as opposition leader, the second as prime minister. On both occasions, he has blown it. He has not been the victim of outside forces, nor an ambush, nor terrible luck. He has inflicted the damage on himself.
The narrative he and his Liberal deputy Julie Bishop tried to get up on election night – that the near-disaster of the result inflicted on their government at the nation’s polling booths was down to Labor lies about Medicare – is not convincing.
This excuse goes to Turnbull’s real problem: he’s not a very talented politician. By focusing on Labor’s “Mediscare” campaign, he was as good as telling Australians who shifted their vote from Liberal to Labor that they were gullible dills.
The one time in the political cycle when a politician should not be casting doubt on the wisdom and intelligence of voters is in the hours and days after an election. His first post-election speech, deep into the election night, was predicated on exactly this explanation for the Liberal Party’s precipitous electoral fall.
It was a curious performance for a prime minister: a bellicose, at times bewildered, rant about the perfidy of Labor’s behaviour that foreshadowed him calling in the police to investigate his opponents, and included a declaration of total victory and then a paradoxical plea for all Australians to come together in these uncertain times.
This, from a man who has since he took over nine months ago been selling a message of unbridled optimism: that there had never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.
Inevitably, to make up for the night before, on Sunday afternoon he held a press conference and gave something like the speech he should have given. He pulled back on the boast about having won a majority and acknowledged the message voters had handed him by cutting the Coalition’s two-party-preferred vote by 3.4%, bringing its total down to a shade under 50.1%.
The question is: how can someone who has had designs on becoming prime minister for decades, a man of commercial and academic accomplishment, with friends and connections in all corners of power in the land, well-read, well-informed, long untroubled by the need to make any more money, keep making so many unnecessary mistakes?
The very purpose of Turnbull’s prime ministership was to rescue the Coalition government, to get it back up and running, making the most of its landslide majority and its status as a fresh administration.
This election result, even in its incomplete form, has returned the verdict on how well he did in meeting those metrics. Turnbull might well manage to scrape home with a tiny majority or, less desirable, a minority government arrangement with an assortment of independents and minor party members. But he will be forever diminished – humbled, really – by the judgement at the ballot boxes on July 2.
The initial response to his elevation to the leadership after his September coup against Tony Abbott among voters was, every poll showed, incredibly positive.
Here was a man who looked every ounce a prime minister in the old patrician style: 60-ish, well-preserved, untroubled by the world around him, self-confident, articulate, pledging to reduce the temperature of politics.
For the so-called progressive voter, he was the Liberal that Labor voters believed they could love. For Liberals, he was a smooth operator, just the type of accomplished manager they desire as leader.
He turned out to be a policy ditherer. Within four months, voter disillusionment set in. It turned out that he did not appear to have a comprehensive plan for the Australian people apart from his headline innovation policy, which most voters assumed would not involve them.
As a retail politician he turned out to be dreadful. He was tightly controlled during the campaign because he is not easy with people; he is more Paul Keating than Bob Hawke.
Worse, the decision to set aside three-and-a-half months for the election campaign was just lunacy. Yes, you read correctly. While the formal campaign lasted eight weeks, Turnbull set the election campaign off on March 21 when he sent the contentious industrial relations bills that would trigger the double dissolution back to the Senate.
It was an act of hubris he would come to regret because it squandered the advantage of incumbency, one of the greatest gifts any political leader can enjoy. Once an election is in the offing, governments naturally lose a good deal of their ability to keep the focus on themselves as the public starts to peel off and consider the alternative.
To add further weight to his own saddlebags, Turnbull fashioned his election pitch around a “jobs and growth” mantra that had as its centrepiece a trickle-down economics policy of a A$50 billion company tax cut, distributed over the next ten years. It will also be remembered that the government was at first reluctant to put a dollar figure on the policy.
This policy – this approach, really – had no prospect of making an emotional connection with voters. What did it mean? It was, like the prime minister’s personal presentation, a retro piece, an echo of the 1980s when technocratic politicians were all the rage. It is far from a guaranteed success all these decades later, when disillusionment and cynicism about politics are high and widespread.
Labor’s policies, promising to deliver and maintain high-quality services in health and education, and to protect wages and conditions, were of the everyday. But they were definitely able to make that emotional connection with voters, especially those at the lower end of the income spectrum living in the outer suburbs and regions who see their wages stagnating.
The Brexit vote, the Trump nomination, the Sanders phenomenon, the rise of populism throughout Europe – the drivers behind these developments are not isolated to lands beyond our shores. Many Australians are not happy. Their grievances are diverse. On Saturday they declared their inclination not to hand anyone an easy path to government.
Authors: Shaun Carney, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, Monash University