On Saturday, July 1, 2016, Australia voted in a double dissolution election [for House of Representatives and Senate at the same time], but five days later we still don’t know which party will govern.
Nevertheless, we can safely say that Malcolm Turnbull has lost. If the Liberals remain in power, Turnbull may remain as Prime Minister, but his effectiveness will be severely compromised, as will his legacy.
So how did Malcolm Turnbull, one of the most respected and admired politicians in recent history, manage to lose his appeal in such a spectacular fashion?
The answer, I believe, is very simple, Malcolm was not allowed to be Malcolm and voters punished the party for it. To understand this, it’s important to understand the right wing, conservative, faceless, faction heavy weights of the Liberal party. They :
- loved Tony Abbott,
- hated Malcolm Turnbull [they still do]
- had to acknowledge that Tony Abbott was almost universally hated by voters,
- had to acknowledge that Malcolm Turnbull was liked and respected by voters on both sides of the Liberal/Labor divide
[confession: I liked him too and I’m a Labor voter],
Taking points 3 and 4 into consideration, it eventually became obvious that the party would suffer a landslide loss if Abbott stayed as Prime Minister. Worse still, only the hated Malcolm Turnbull would have any traction with voters. So after much gnashing of teeth, the conservatives gave in and offered Turnbull a deal: they would support his coup against Tony Abbott, but only if he [Turnbull] continued to toe the party line established by Abbott.
In hindsight, this seems rather crazy until you consider that the right wing has never had any time for Climate Change, or marriage equality or even that pesky NBN. So they were prepared to use the Turnbull popularity with the electorate but without all that small ‘l’ liberal nonsense.
What is less clear is why Malcolm Turnbull and his supporters accepted such a backhanded and hamstrung endorsement.
My personal guess is that Turnbull et al., must have seen the writing on the wall and grabbed what they could, believing [probably accurately] that he would never have a better chance of becoming Prime Minister.
So Malcolm and the conservatives struck a deal and for a while, the strategy appeared to work. Liberal popularity in the polls went up as Malcolm rode a wave of public hope.
We believed in Malcolm. Wasn’t he the man who lost the leadership of the Liberal party because he stuck to his principles on climate change? What greater sacrifice could a politician make? And wasn’t he also the man who openly supported gay marriage? And in a way, despite selling out on the full glory of the NBN, he at least managed to stop Abbott from scuttling it completely.
So Malcolm was our hero, and we believed that finally we would get a government that most of the country could swing behind. He might be a Liberal, but he was a good Liberal. Maybe even another Menzies [arguably the ‘best’ Prime Minister in Australia’s political history].
But then the winds of change began to blow a little cold. Week followed week and nothing we’d hoped for eventuated. Nothing on Climate Change. Nothing on marriage equality. Nothing on Refugees. Nothing on anything that any of us plebs actually cared about. What was going on?
In time, some of us began to think that Malcolm was playing a long game. Yes, he was under the conservative thumb now, but after the next election he’d be so successful that the conservatives would have to crawl back into their holes and finally, finally Malcolm could be himself.
I truly believe this was a part of the PM’s strategy when he called a double dissolution on an issue that no one seemed to care about, including him.
The trouble with this strategy was that Malcolm’s popularity declined in direct proportion to the release of policy after policy that favoured the big end of town while asking us to accept all the sacrifices required to balance the budget [at some point in the future].
Australians pride themselves on giving everyone a ‘fair go’, and we’ll happily dig deep to help those laid low by disaster [witness the 30 plus million dollars raised by public donations after the Black Saturday bushfires here in Victoria]. But Australians also have a history of distrusting the super rich and the big end of town. If the Liberals had offered genuine support to small business, we might well have tightened our belts and got on with it, but they offered incentives to companies and corporations that did not need the help. And they were going to pay for it by making us do without.
That major miscalculation was rooted in the conservative concept of the ‘trickle down’ effect. In essence, it means that if government supports big business, big business will generate growth which will lead to jobs which will lead to greater prosperity for all.
Sadly, most people in the Western world have now had first hand experience of the trickle down effect and they know it doesn’t work. So when Malcolm and the rest of the Liberals bleated about jobs and growth, we weren’t listening. Added to this disinterest was a great disappointment – we’d had such high hopes for Malcolm and he hadn’t lived up to our expectations. Malcolm wasn’t Malcolm. Had he changed his mind about all the things we thought he cared about? Or had he sold us out just to be PM?
I think we might still have voted for Malcolm if not for the brilliant campaign run by Bill Shorten. I personally dislike the man and can’t see myself trusting someone who stabbed two Labor Prime Ministers in the back in order to be given the job of opposition leader. Nevertheless, despite all expectations to the contrary, Bill Shorten ran an inspired campaign. He picked up on all the disenchantment of ordinary voters – including their fears for Medicare – and hammered them home.
In the final analysis, however, Shorten’s campaign would not have been as effective if the right wing conservatives had allowed Malcolm to be Malcolm. Instead, they muzzled the goose that might have laid their golden egg, and now they’re spinning all sorts of ‘reasons’ to explain its failure to deliver.
I feel sorry for Malcolm Turnbull because I can understand his desperation to finally wear the mantle of PM. But the truth is, when he sold out to the conservative right, he lost the perceived integrity that made him popular in the first place, and with that, he lost the very thing he wanted most – validation.
In my last post I talked about the disaffection of Western voters, and how this might lead to a change in how we ‘do’ democracy but in the meantime, we are protesting about the lack of integrity of our politicians in the only way we can – by kicking them out. This, too, is democracy.