MUNGO MacCALLUM. This is not the way it was meant to be.

Jul 5, 2016


In a singularly petulant and graceless speech in the early hours after election night, Malcolm Turnbull said he thought he would be returned to government.

His surly but defiant supporters – those of them who had not already gone home – snarled agreement. And for what it is worth, I concur: my fearless prediction is that the coalition will end up with between 76 to 78 seats in the House of Representatives, a thin but decisive majority.

But this is not the way it was meant to be, and it is definitely not as the commentators, the editorialists and the bookmakers confidently forecast. Although the national polls were always close, we were repeatedly reassured that the marginals were holding for the coalition.

In fact, they were all over the place: Tasmania collapsed, New South Wales swung further than expected and Queensland did not stay solid. It has been a damn close run thing.

We have been saved from the awful fate of Bill Shorten: our savings thrown down the toilet, our families left to starve at the hands of the unions, our children bound into slavery from the marauding hordes of boat people and the rest of the chaos of which we were warned by our government and its supporters, most particularly the tabloids of the Murdoch press.

Instead, we breathe again: Malcolm Turnbull lives on, but he is almost on life support. He promised us excitement, agility, unity and stability; now it seems a bit oxymoronic, and we’re not just saying that because he studied at Oxford. He is no more than half right: there will be plenty of excitement in the offing, maybe even a bit of agility.

But unity? Hardly: Turnbull is even further bound in thrall to the conservative rump, who will forever insist that their man – Tony Abbott – could not have done worse and would almost certainly have done better. There is no thought of a reverse leadership coup – yet. But stability is simply out of the question. The hard liners will continue to fester in the party room, waiting for the smallest stumble.

And there will almost certainly be plenty of those. It will be weeks before the final composition of the senate is determined, but it is already certain that Turnbull’s great electoral reform has backfired badly: far from clearing the independents out, they have jostled their way back in a way which will make stable government – even with the wishy-washy form to which we have been accustomed – all but impossible.

And the great strategy for a joint sitting to pass the industrial relations bills is no longer being discussed. In fact even the national economic plan – jobs and growth, globs of mirth – is at serious risk; it may survive, bit it will be need to be negotiated, perhaps beyond recognition.

So who is to blame? Well, certainly not Turnbull – he has no doubt at all. It was all Labor’s big lie on Medicare — shameless, fraudulent, dishonourable, etc: as I have noted elsewhere, it sounded like the bellowing of a maddened thesaurus.

But in fact the truth was that Bill Shorten’s exaggerated and misleading propaganda campaign was simply more effective than Turnbull’s exaggerated and misleading propaganda campaign. The coalition has niggled away at Medicare for years – generations in fact; Shorten’s contention that Medicare could be privatised, or at least dismantled, bit.

Turnbull’s apocalyptic threats to the budget over negative gearing, the so-called war on business, and the reprise of the boat people did not really resonate. It was as simple as that; but better any excuse than having to confront the dreadful reality: Turnbull stuffed it up.

As a result, Shorten should be immune from an immediate challenge. Anthony Albanese is a credible and popular contender, but the relief that Labor is not only back from the brink but hovering close to government should concentrate the minds of the doubters. This does not mean that Shorten is assured of another go at the next election, but it gives him more than a buffer than even he would have dared to hope.

So in a sense there will be a period of relative stability as both the major parties draw breath and sort themselves out. But in terms of legislation, or even policy, there is now something of a vacuum.

Labor’s platform has now been shelved and most of the coalition’s will have to be reformulated or at least placed on the backburner while both the party room and, more importantly, the senate can be persuaded of an agenda for the next term.

Shorten has declared that Turnbull will not have a mandate; political theorists may argue, but the practicalities make it clear that every so-called reform will have to be fought through, and many, if not most, will fail. Legislation will be at premium; compromise and conciliation will have to give way to the threats and bribes of the previous term.

This is not to say that nothing can be achieved, but it does mean that Turnbull will have to retreat from the belligerence of the campaign, and more particularly from his unforgiving stance on election night.

At his final press club address last week, he said that he believed Australians were looking for a greater sense of common purpose, for the parliament to offload the ideology and focus on an end to division for division’s sake. And perhaps they are, but they have seen precious little of it in the last eight weeks.

If Turnbull wants to make the change, he will have to start right in the parliament – even in the fastnesses of his own party room. It may happen, but it must be said that the portents are not promising.

And thus we have come to the end – or at least the beginning of the end – of a depressing election campaign, and the equally depressing beginning – well, the start of the beginning – of the next episode.

The next three years promise to be interesting times indeed, and very possibly still more depressing – more of the same, and we haven’t enjoyed that so far. But there is one ray of light and hope: we will no longer have to endure the daily homilies from the government spokescyborg, Matthias Cormann.

It may not be feasible to turn him off entirely – he is, after all, pre-programmed for eternity. But at least we won’t have to throw things at the television every time he appears. It’s not much, but it’s something to be thankful for.

Mungo MacCallam is a political commentator and former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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