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PM May Beat ALP Yet Lose His Party

12 June 2018 195 views No Comment


by Ross Fitzgerald

Call it the historian’s instinct but, based on more than 40 years’ professional interest in Australian elections, I am starting to think that the government is likelier than not to be returned, especially if Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister is pitted against Bill Shorten as Opposition Leader.

Sure, the government has lost 33 Newspolls in a row to Labor, has a majority of just one seat, has suffered an unfavourable redistribution in Victoria and will be out-spent and possibly out-campaigned by Labor, the Greens, GetUp! and the unions. Sure, it has been a divided, do-little government whose leader is loathed by many conservatively inclined Liberals as Labor-lite. But the one person whose negative net approval ratings have been consistently worse than Turnbull’s is Shorten, and every time the government echoes Labor policy on school funding, the banking royal commission or climate change, Shorten-led Labor promptly moves further to the left. It’s an utterly dispiriting choice between a poor government and an even worse opposition but — if it has to be made — voters will likely choose the lesser evil.

At least in their own polling, the Liberals and the Nationals are starting to pick up a sense that, for all its faults, the Coalition government represents stability while Labor, under Shorten, means another lurch into the unknown with thuggish union leaders calling the shots. Throughout the electorate there’s no great confidence in either party, but at least Turnbull has become the devil you know. Turnbull is disliked, often heartily, but Shorten is deeply feared because of what comes in his baggage.

Turnbull’s mini-revival could be snuffed out by poor results in the July 28 by-elections. So far, published polling has Labor behind in Braddon and Longman, with the Libs well behind in Mayo. Still, Mayo is a seat the Liberals don’t hold while Braddon and Longman are seats Labor must retain if it’s to remain credible. A Liberal victory in either — unprecedented in a federal by-election — will transform the political dynamic and even could lead to a general election this year.

During the past two years, Turnbull’s move to the left has infuriated much of the Liberal Party’s base, temporarily revived One Nation’s fortunes and spawned Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. But it hasn’t really hurt the government’s electoral prospects because Shorten, unlike the last successful Labor opposition leaders, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, has tacked further to the left rather than back to the centre. Faced with a government that’s centre-left or an opposition that would be the worst Labor government in history, what are conservative voters to do but at least give Turnbull their preferences?

Meanwhile, a series of Liberal preselection contests in NSW shows the depth of party discontent. Before no recent federal election has more than one sitting NSW MP been challenged. This time, unless the challengers give up or are knocked out by candidate vetting, four sitting members are at risk. Local party members are challenging Ann Sudmalis in Gilmore and Jason Falinski in Mackellar. A former Christopher Pyne staff member is challenging John Alexander in Bennelong, despite Alexander’s recent by-election win. But the most significant challenge is NSW Liberal vice-president Kent Johns competing against Craig Kelly, the member for Hughes. It pits a Turnbull-supporting factional operative against a Tony Abbott-supporting grassroots conservative who has been an active local MP and a strong public advocate for small business and lower power prices.

Believe it or not, the Liberal Party in Hughes comprises just 250 members out of more 100,000 electors. Local party chieftains aligned with Johns have locked up most of the branches. On past form, these preselectors will do what they’re told — that is, decide Johns is the best candidate, even though Kelly has taken a 0.5 per cent margin to 9 per cent. Short of a factional peace deal to give him most of the central council delegates, Kelly is gone. But such a deal would require Turnbull’s blessing to save the most vocal partyroom critic of his energy policy.

This raises the big question: what sort of Liberal Party does the Prime Minister want, other than one that he leads? Plainly, Turnbull’s party is not the “economically liberal but socially conservative” party of John Howard’s characterisation. Turnbull’s party is economically interventionist and socially progressive, only not quite to the same extent as Labor. Is Turnbull’s preference to marginalise conservatives and to get rid of them when he can; or is it to preserve some semblance of Howard’s “broad church”?

How the Hughes preselection plays out will give the strongest clue since Turnbull first formed his cabinet. On form, you’d have to say that he won’t invest much authority to save an MP he doesn’t like. Kelly’s fate may not be central to the federal election result but it certainly will be a litmus test of where the party is going. A Kelly-less Liberal Party won’t win votes from minor parties on the right even if it still gets them back via preferences — so Turnbull could end up winning an election but, in the process, continuing to diminish the life and soul of his party.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of politics and history at Griffith University. He is the author of the political satire ‘So Far, So Good’ (Hybrid).

The Australian, Monday July 11, 2018, p 14

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