The conventional wisdom surrounding Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to Prime Minister was that his more moderate leanings would allow him to capture the fabled ‘middle ground’ and deliver the Coalition a convincing electoral victory. As put by the Coalition’s very own pollster Mark Textor, disgruntled conservatives wouldn’t matter since ‘the sum of a more centrist approach outweighs any alleged marginal loss of so-called base voters.’
The Coalition’s disastrous July 2 result has exposed this theory for the harebrained fantasy it always was. Turnbull didn’t fall short because he failed to live up to expectations as the great centrist healer of our embittered partisan divide. Nor was Turnbull punished for being beholden to the Liberal Party’s right wing, contrary to the self-regarding wisdom of Fairfax opinion pages.
No. Turnbull’s leadership failed because he failed to capitalise on the Liberal Party’s two traditional strengths that have underwritten its success since its founding in 1944: economic management and national security.
Voters tend to trust that in times of turmoil, a Liberal Prime Minister will have the grit to put the national interest before the outstretched hands of Labor’s special interests. On this front, Turnbull’s attempt to spruik an agile new economy based on science, innovation and other empty buzzwords with no discernible meaning to average voters fell dramatically short.
Consider the demography of the Queensland electorates that spurned Turnbull last Saturday. The seat of Longman – formerly held by Turnbull’s own innovation guru Wyatt Roy – suffered a wipe out swing of nearly 8.5 per cent, Queensland’s worst result. Areas in Longman have youth unemployment approaching 20 per cent. The region’s top three occupations are technicians and trade workers, clerical and administrative assistants and labourers. While average earnings vary across postcodes, average earnings in Longman fall more than $10,000 short of Brisbane’s metropolitan suburbs. For large swathes of Longman, being told you live in an era where the pace of economic change is unprecedented is more likely to prompt fears of losing your job than evoke Turnbull’s far-flung fantasies of a hi-tech start-up boom.
The story in central and North Queensland is much the same. At the time of writing, the LNP is set to lose the seats of Herbert, Capricornia and probably Flynn. These electorates span the regional centres of Gladstone, Rockhampton and Townville, all of which suffer above trend unemployment and below average educational attainment. In Gladstone, manufacturing accounts for 17.2 per cent of the workforce. Did it occur to anyone in Team Turnbull to ask any of the workers in Gladstone’s aging factories whether they were excited by the promise of a 21st century economy based upon jobs and industries still yet to be invented?
It’s tempting to blame the Coalition’s failings on Labor’s Medi-scare fraud and other deceitful campaign tactics. But Labor has always relied on winning votes by mobilising resentments and lavishing public funds on aggrieved sections of the electorate.
Instead of crying foul, Turnbull should have explained why policies aimed at taxing and spending our way to prosperity are prone to leaving economic ruin and havoc in their wake.
While Turnbull faltered on economic management, he practically ran dead on national security. The blunder here was two-fold. First, it’s widely acknowledged that in a world with rising geo-political tensions and the growing threat of terrorism, Australia’s strategic challenges are set to get worse before they get better. Second, there’s a clear and compelling case that the Coalition is better placed to confront these challenges than Labor.
The Coalition’s half-hearted attacks over Labor’s disunity over border security did no justice to the fact nearly a third of Labor’s potential future caucus members had misgivings about the Coalition’s border policies. On the vital issue of terrorism, Turnbull appeared limp-wristed when he refused to echo George Brandis’ attacks on Labor candidate Peta Murphy for opposing terror legislation that directly led to a number of critical arrests.
The campaign also coincided with a string of terror raids as well as two major overseas terror attacks. At no point did Turnbull use his authority to make the case that Labor’s abysmal record on funding defence and lily-livered reluctance to utter the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism’ in the same breath would render the country less safe in Bill Shorten’s hands hands.
Again, the elections results provide devastating insight into Turnbull’s folly. One Nation ran candidates in four of the five Queensland seats that at the time of writing, the Coalition seems set to lose. In every instance, One Nation’s vote easily doubled the Greens. In the Senate, One Nation overtook the Greens to receive the third largest party vote in Queensland. While the policy prescription may be wrong, the fears and anxieties underlying the One Nation support base are not without foundation. Western countries have been victim to numerous recent massacres incited by a terror cult committed to the destruction of Western Civilization. That these fears have driven scores of voters to a party seeking a ban on Muslim immigrants speaks to the abject failure of mainstream politicians to not only confront these issues honestly, but convince the public they can be trusted with the security of the nation.
In this sense, the image of Turnbull breaking bread with a known anti-gay Islamic Sheik at Kirribilli House confirmed what many already feared.
Turnbull’s rise last year was greeted with much adulation by commentators who welcomed his more enlightened stance on pet issues like same sex marriage, climate change and the Republic. Overlooked was that the people who are paid to talk about who they’d like to see as PM are very different to the ones who actually elect them. The Coalition would be wise to note that over 1.7 million votes were cast between the House of Reps and the Senate for conservative parties outside the Coalition. When the Coalition cedes its strengths on the economy and national security, it ensures elections are fought on Labor’s turf with social spending, education, health and other taxpayer funded services top of the agenda.
And when an election boils down to who can best manage the unwieldy web of bureaucracies that comprise the Federal Government, don’t be surprised if ‘jobs and growth’ doesn’t cut the mustard.
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