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Monday, July 4, 2016

Turnbull's pyrrhic victory

Turnbull's pyrrhic victory

The results of the 2016 Australian federal election are on a knife-edge. The morning after the night before is no closer to determining who will lead Australia for the next three years. What is clear however, is that the Liberal and National Party coalition who were the incumbent government have been decimated, losing a raft of seats while the Labor Party have picked up a significant number. It is also clear that there has been a large swing to the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team and some independents.

Whoever, forms government will likely have to negotiate with the cross-benches in order to have legislation pass. Not that this is necessarily bad. After all, instead of one party pushing through their own legislation it will be on terms agreeable to all sitting MPs. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard made this work during her term in which she presided over a hung parliament. In fact, she was Australia's most productive Prime Minister, passing more legislation than any other(1).

Courtesy of Guardian Australia
The hand-wringing, soul-searching and character assassinations have already commenced within the Liberal Party, blaming Turnbull for the massive swing against the LNP. However, this swing cannot be placed solely at the feet of Turnbull as there were a number of factors that contributed to it.

First and foremost was the arrogance of the Liberals in thinking they were better than the Labor Party because of their stability and cohesion. They gained so much mileage from Labor's disunity when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was axed in lieu of Gillard in 2010. In 2013, she was replaced by Rudd because of the internal party ructions which greatly damaged Labor's credibility. It was no great shock then that the 2013 election saw the Liberal Party elected with a massive majority of 35 seats and Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the helm spruiking Liberal Party unity. And then the unthinkable happened and the Liberal Party axed a sitting prime minister. Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull. The often incoherent Abbott had made numerous blunders and his popularity was plummeting. Turnbull's rise to the top job came with much expectation.

However, the Turnbull administration continued on in the same vein that Abbott had. There were few changes and it became clear that Turnbull was not in charge of the party. Where the Liberals accused Labor of being controlled by the unions, it was obvious that the Libs had two masters: the religious right wing and the neo-liberal Institute of Public Affairs(2) which had demanded the abolition of the clean energy fund and the Department of Climate Change, not too mention a number of demands that the Liberal Party sought to implement in one manner or another, including repealing the mining tax, cutting company tax and privatising Medicare.

Turnbull delivered a budget only weeks before the federal election gifting a $50 million tax cut to big business in line with the IPA and big business wishes, at the expense of funding for Health and Education. He also attempted to limit funding for Medicare by freezing the rebate rate at 37% for six years. Some doctors announced that they could no longer be bulk-billing, but instead pass on the gap payments to customers(3). Allegations from Labor that the Liberal Party were privatising Medicare were not far off the mark. While not privatising as such, the Libs clearly have an agenda to reduce the public funding of it. Abbott had tried to introduce a GP co-payment. While the co-payment failed, Turnbull has effectively implemented it through the freeze on the rebate threshold. Abbott closed the Medicare Local network and cut bulk-billing for pathology and diagnostic imaging(4). The Liberals had planned to privatise the Medicare payments system, but Turnbull ruled it out only after it became clear that Labor would make much mileage from it(5).

Prior to being dumped, Abbott had promised a plebiscite on marriage equality. During the 2016 election campaign, Turnbull reiterated there would be a plebiscite if the Liberal Party won, but then he stated that it wouldn't be binding and that MPs could vote according to conscience. Religious Right members, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen stated that regardless of the wishes of the Australian electorate, they would oppose marriage equality.

The Liberal Party showed their true colours by attacking Turnbull's character. He was seen as being a lefty, pro-gay, pro-Islam, pro-tolerance. Turnbull dared to tone down Abbott's vitriolic attack on Islam and the right wing was apoplectic. Turnbull even attended a community Iftar event during Ramadan. The right-wing gained mileage in the character assassination of Turnbull when it was revealed that one of his guests, Sheikh Shady, held ... wait for it ... homophobic views. Yes, the pro-Abbott, anti-gay, religious right wing were upset that a Muslim had stolen their homophobic thunder. The stench of irony and hypocrisy reeked across conservative Australia.

It was no wonder that the Liberal Party was savaged in the election. Abbott was displaced because of his unpopularity, yet Turnbull was unable to change direction because of the very culture of the Liberal Party.

The pressure was telling on him. Following the election, Labor leader Bill Shorten delivered an eloquent speech which was full of hope for the future. Turnbull wasn't to be seen. In a farce worthy of a Laurel and Hardy movie, Turnbull holed up in his house, unwilling to come out. So absured did it become that the media drove there and set up camp. Turnbull eventually showed his face and delivered a speech reminiscent of the ungracious and self-serving speech that former Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman delivered on his spectacular defeat in the Queensland election. An election result that is beginning to mirror the federal election. Both Newman and Turnbull led parties with large majorities, in Newman's case, he'd won the 2010 election with 78 seats to Labor's 6 seats. Both the Newman and Abbott/Turnbull governments led with a toxic culture that waged war on workers and the poor, while lining the pockets of big business, both led parties that supported neo-liberal austerity measures, and both displayed extreme arrogance believing they would easily win the election given their massive majorities. How wrong they were. Newman was ousted and replaced by a Labor minority government. Meanwhile, it is apparent that Turnbull will be lucky to have any majority and if successful, may well be leading a minority government. Turnbull's speech(6), instead of being gracious and acknowledging that perhaps he and his party were responsible for the swing against them, he blamed Labor and the electorate, just as Newman had. The only difference is that it is not yet clear if the Coalition will win or lose the election.

Malcolm Turnbull believes the Coalition will be returned to government(7)

Turnbull called the double dissolution that led to the election and replacement of the full Senate. The trigger for the double dissolution was the failure to pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill. Funnily enough, during the election campaign, the ABCC wasn't mentioned once. It was merely an excuse for the election which Turnbull saw as an opportunity to clean house in the Senate. He had thought he'd end up with a more favourable upper house, but his plan backfired spectacularly.

However, win or lose, this will be a pyrrhic victory for Turnbull. The old adage, 'be careful what you wish for because you just may get it', will apply. If he does remain Prime Minister he will need to negotiate with the cross-benches while trying to deal with the massive internal power-plays within the Liberal party as well as the external influences from the religious right-wing, the IPA and a hostile media, some of whom are already calling for Turnbull to resign.

If the Liberal Party wins the election, it will likely deliver a government whose term will be marked by great instability and in-fighting, which will further disenfranchise an already jaded electorate. Turnbull is unlikely to survive the term or to lead the Liberal Party at the next election.


1. The Guardian, 'Was Julia Gillard the most productive prime minister in Australia's history', Nick Evershed, 28 June 2013, Accessed 3 July 2016.

2. Independent Australia, Pearls and Irritations, 'The Liberal Party and the Institute of Public Affairs: Who is Whose?', 2 April 2016,,8837. Accessed 3 July 2016.

3., 'Doctors around the country bringing an end to bulk billing', 26 May 2016, Accessed 3 July 2016.

4. The Guardian, Shalailah Medhora, 'Medicare cuts to diagnostic scans will cost cancer patients, say radiologists', 9 January 2016, Accessed 3 July 2016.

5. New Matilda, Ben Eltham, 'Under Turnbull's Government, Health is becoming a private affair', 21 June 2016, Accessed 4 July 2016.

6. Daily Mail, Max Margan and Australian Associated Press, 'Malcolm Turnbull slammed by Laurie Oakes and Alan Jones for his 'pathetic' and 'rancorous' speech on election night', 3 July 2016, Accessed 3 July 2016.

7. Australian Financial Review, Laura Tingle, 'Election 2016: Malcolm Turnbull short of votes, Bill Shorten short of dollars', 26 June 2016, Accessed 3 July 2016.

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