By-election victory still sends a message
Bennelong was hardly a normal by-election. In most by-elections, the sitting member has decamped for a cushy job outside the parliament, which is why voters normally punish the incumbent party with a swing in the order of 5 per cent. This time, the sitting member was running again so Bennelong was more along the lines of a general election, only in just one seat.
Still, Malcolm Turnbull will believe that, like the earlier New England result, this victory is a vindication, and that nothing much needs to change. So there’ll be no big reshuffle, no policy reset, and certainly no reaching out to conservatives in the party or in the community — even though, repeated at a general election, on this swing of more than 5 per cent, at least 20 seats would fall to Labor.
The Prime Minister did say that Bennelong was an opportunity for voters to pass judgment on his government. But on the standard that he himself set, his government is still headed for a catastrophic defeat. In fact Bennelong was a poor result for Turnbull, just not quite bad enough on its own to finish him off.
The swing certainly wasn’t against John Alexander, a hardworking and popular incumbent, who is about as fair dinkum an Australian as you’d ever get; it was a swing against the Prime Minister, whose government has dismayed even its strongest supporters.
Yes, it could have been worse but it was more than bad enough to doom a government with a one-seat majority that has now been behind in 25 consecutive Newspolls. Indeed, the Turnbull government was last ahead in a poll in July last year, making his losing sequence already longer in time than that of his predecessor, Tony Abbott.
Turnbull’s spinners are furiously asserting that “a win’s a win” and denying that there are any wider implications in the anti-government swing.
These are mostly the same faceless manipulators who said that the prospect of a 7 per swing against the Abbott government in the 2015 Canning by-election was a reason pre-emptively to dump a prime minister. As it turned out, the coup made no difference to the Canning result, which exactly reflected the polling done while Abbott was PM. Bennelong is arguably a worse result than Canning, as the swing on Saturday didn’t involve a new candidate but a sitting member with almost universal name recognition.
Make no mistake, every Liberal member on a margin of 5 per cent or less is now aware that voters want to take the baseball bat to an arrogant and out-of-touch government. And it doesn’t take much thought to work out the best way to assuage their anger. By preserving the government’s majority while exposing its vulnerability, it makes a challenge to Turnbull in the first half of next year more likely, not less.
As the on-again, off-again, big-versus-small possible cabinet reshuffle demonstrates, Turnbull is a chronic ditherer. His other big problem is his monumental failure to keep his team together, which is the first duty of any leader. Unlike Turnbull, Abbott did not leave his main potential rival on the backbench. Abbott did not have any prominent defections from the parliamentary party. Abbott did not run a Labor-lite government. Even in his long run of losing Newspolls, under Abbott, the Coalition’s primary vote was not consistently well below 40 per cent.
And while no one ever accused Abbott of being a half-hearted campaigner, in no sense is the current PM perceived as being an effective and energetic electoral warrior.
To Canberra-insiders, same-sex marriage was supposed to be a huge boost for Turnbull. But the people hugging in the public galleries were not exactly typical conservative voters and weren’t representative of the people of Bennelong. Indeed while most citizens regard legislating for same-sex marriage as an important and long overdue reform, among many in the Liberal Party’s base, changing the marriage law was seen, at best, as necessary to clear the decks.
Meanwhile the respective supporters of Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton (perhaps even of Josh Frydenberg) will prepare for the realisation that the federal government is doomed to sink.
Among Liberal MPs there’s still no consensus on who should be the next leader, but Bennelong certainly won’t shift their substantial agreement that they need a better one than they have today. This means that a challenge to Turnbull, when it comes, will be carried overwhelmingly.
As the PM inexorably approaches his own 30th Newspoll defeat in a row, surely hypocrisy of the year is Turnbull’s claim that his “only mistake” was using Abbott’s loss of 30 consecutive Newspolls as the reason for rolling his predecessor.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, December 18, 2017 p 10.