Malcolm Turnbull is struggling to produce the right response in the aftermath of his election debacle.
On Saturday he did not take on any blame and lashed out at Labor’s “Mediscare” tactic. On Tuesday he took “full responsibility” for the campaign and admitted the government had provided some fertile ground for Labor to sow its “outrageous lie” about privatising Medicare.
Tuesday’s performance was a great deal better than Saturday’s, but it was much less than pitch-perfect.
In fact, it risked opening up new difficulties for Turnbull, immediately setting off media speculation that the government, assuming it wins, might retreat on its extended freeze of the Medicare rebate, which has been bitterly opposed by the doctors. It enabled Bill Shorten to reprise the Coalition’s various health imposts.
Turnbull needs to be acknowledging voters’ general disillusionment, and saying the Coalition will listen and look at what responses need to be made. But so soon after the election, when the result isn’t even in sight of being finalised, is hardly the time to be allowing hares to start running on the detail.
It may be that a re-elected Coalition decides to revisit specific health measures. But that would cost a great deal, and should be addressed in a broader budget context, for example at the mid-year update.
One thing Turnbull should do in the short term if he’s forming a new ministry is find a first-rate minister to put into the health portfolio. The present incumbent, Sussan Ley, was kept away from the front line for most of the campaign. When John Howard had a political problem with Medicare he appointed Tony Abbott to the health portfolio; Abbott sorted the issues, though he spent a lot of money in the process.
Apart from generalities and reassurances, ideally Turnbull would be saying little in this hiatus period, when he can’t be sure where the election will end up. But because he is under pressure from Liberals angry with his campaign, as well as being personally discombobulated by the shock rebuff, he now struggles to put out something, anything, as an offering to try to show he is on top of things. If he doesn’t, his internal critics will fill the space, or Shorten will.
Shorten is acting as if the campaign is still on, travelling around thanking supporters, and throwing out fire crackers. On Monday he said Turnbull should resign. On Tuesday he claimed there was a real chance Turnbull was considering a snap election. This was a total fiction – can anybody imagine Turnbull wanting another poll any time soon?
The contrast between the respective demeanours of the two leaders and their respective prospects is stark. On what we know at this point, Turnbull is more likely to be the election victor, in majority or minority government, and Shorten the loser. But you could be forgiven for thinking it was the other way around.
The conservatives in the Liberal Party are punching walls and venting their anger that Turnbull refused to run a more negative campaign. But on Tuesday one of their leaders gave him reassurance that they remain solidly behind his leadership.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said he had spoken to “dozens” of colleagues and “there is nobody in the Liberal Party that I’ve spoken to, on the conservative side of the party or otherwise, that believes there should be a change of leader”. Dutton said Turnbull had his full support, and the full support of the cabinet and colleagues.
To have this message, however welcome, delivered by the man he didn’t think should be put on cabinet’s national security committee must be a touch humiliating for Turnbull.
But Turnbull knows that his position is safe for the foreseeable future substantially because there is no alternative. The question is what price the conservatives will try to extract now that he is weakened.
It was Dutton who, during the election campaign, fuelled speculation about the pressure for Abbott to get a cabinet spot when he said “I think some people will push for that”. Post-election, Turnbull has reaffirmed he doesn’t want Abbott on his frontbench.
If he’s forming a new government, will he be in a strong enough position to resist that “push”? And if he does, will that further stir the conservatives?
This not to say Abbott should be put into cabinet – it’s hard to imagine him not causing difficulties. The point is, either way would be trouble for Turnbull.
Finding a line between compromise and capitulation in dealing with the conservatives looks about as hard as convincing the average voter that the Liberals really do love Medicare.
Post-election polling done for The Australia Institute found people split over whether a hung parliament should be followed by each side trying to negotiate with minor parties and independents to form government, or the holding of another election. Some 47% said negotiate; 46.3% favoured going back to the polls.
Labor voters were more in favour of negotiation than a fresh election, 52.1% -38.5%; Coalition voters opted for a second election, 58.5% to 36.7%. The national poll of 2875 was done on Monday evening.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra