Australia’s conservative leaders are proving to be increasingly unattractive to voters because in its ranks are those who have no other way of making an honest living other than to live off politics (for example, Pauline Hanson), those who are all about settling old and irrelevant scores (for example, Tony Abbott), and those whose monstrous political cynicism will never change (for example, Peter Dutton). Coalition members are waking up to the fact that electoral oblivion may now be staring them in the face.
The “super Saturday” election results surprised many. This is especially the case in the ranks of the government. Before the “super Saturday” by-elections, not a few in the Coalition were supremely confident that they were seeing the hollowing out of Labor’s long record of polling superiority over the government. They naively thought (or hoped) that after “super Saturday” the government’s trajectory would all be upwards.
Coalition leaders were arrogantly convinced about their strategy for the by-elections. It was a strategy based on the belief that an extended (six weeks!) campaign period would wear Labor down, especially Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. The view was that over the course of the campaign, their “Kill Bill” approach would destroy Shorten so effectively that they would win back the seats of Braddon in Tasmania and Longman in Queensland. And with the loss of those two seats, Labor would become engulfed in a leadership brawl that would hand Malcolm Turnbull the ideal moment to spring an election. They were aided and abetted in this conviction by certain ideologues in the Murdoch press who were the flag wavers for the “Kill Bill” strategy.
Well, it didn’t work. The big question is: Why? The simple answer is hubris.
Hubris in government ranks has been especially evident for some time now. It began with Tony Abbott and his first budget. Based on an extremist reading of neoliberalism, Abbott, his Treasurer Hockey and Finance Minister Cormann were stunningly blind to the injustices – the lack of fairness right across the board – of their proposed budget outcomes.
They were determined to cut deeply into government support for welfare; they stopped subsidizing the car industry (and in the process vandalized manufacturing in this country); they sought to minimize education spending; they neglected public health; and (in an updated version of Marie Antoinette’s alleged insouciance) they implied that if the poor can’t eat, let them smoke cigars.
The hubris continued with the Turnbull government’s obdurate determination to institute tax cuts for big business. This policy was bound to be controversial with ever more voters being confronted daily by the abject failure of the very neoliberalism that gave birth to this ridiculous policy. Flat lining wages, corroding infrastructure, under-resourced schools, over-crowded public transport, a crisis in public hospital funding, a brutally unbalanced housing market – these ugly neoliberal chickens are examples of what is now coming (and will continue coming) home to roost for the foreseeable public policy future.
Hubris was again evident in the Turnbull government’s determination to hold out against Labor’s (and others’) calls for a Royal Commission into Australian’s financial services industry – especially the big banks. Even the fabled Blind Freddy’s dog would have known that the banks and related financial enterprises were behaving not just badly, but very badly indeed. Huge numbers of people were suffering. There was even evidence of criminal behaviour by certain institutions. Turnbull and his colleagues turned a blind eye to it all in the hope that it would soon go away. The situation was crying out for major policy interventions.
Despite all the bad behaviour, the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the point where a Royal Commission simply had to be established. Even then, they tried to keep the terms of reference as narrow as possible. The interim report by the Commission will be made public in September. It may be advisable for the government to go to an election before the contents of that report will be laid out for all to see. Why, oh why, would a government so stupidly resist an enquiry into the banks and their mates for so long? Hubris!
And all of this in the lead up to “super Saturday.”
Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne is the standout example of a politician who lives off politics. From his undergraduate days he has been a yapping political attack dog and his undergraduate style hasn’t left him in the federal parliament. As the Peter Pan of federal politics he has never grown up. (Julia Gillard’s scathing dismissal of him as the “flouncing poodle” of Coalition politics was on target.)
Pyne’s appearance on ABC TV’s Insiders program, immediately following what can only be described as the government’s electoral disaster on “super Saturday”, epitomizes the hubris that is blinding the Turnbull government to its looming electoral defeat. Pyne jauntily dismissed any possibility that there were negative intimations in the five by-election results. He sought to play down Labor’s considerable achievement in holding its four seats and waved away the suggestion that Liberal candidate Georgina Downer’s failure in the seat of Mayo might have been because she was not the best candidate for that seat.
Hubris doesn’t win elections. What will win them are things like good public policy, party unity, and integrity in our politicians. Voters will reward politicians who live for politics. They will reject politicians living off politics. The “super Saturday” be-election results suggest that the Coalition has been seriously challenged on these fronts.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist who is not, has never been, and will never be a member of any political party.