Pushing Turnbull to the Right would hurt the Coalition

The Australian

16  December 2016

David Crowe

Malcolm Turnbull’s last big pitch at the election still falls flat almost six months later.

The day before the July 2 poll, he urged voters to back the Coalition in both houses of parliament to ensure “strong majority government” to expand the economy. “Only a stable Coalition majority government can do it,” he declared. Voters weren’t listening.

The fact voters turned away from the Prime Minister is indisputable. Why they did so, and how he might win them back, is an argument that divides the Coalition.

The question is fundamental to the next election and already fuels wild ideas about the scale of the backlash. Conservatives are certain Turnbull must look to the Right to bring back a “lost legion” of Liberal voters. Yet the numbers tell a different story.

One way to measure the size of the challenge is to consider the voters who stayed loyal to the Liberals and Nationals in the lower house but backed someone else in the Senate. How many did this? About 825,000 voters, according to the Australian Electoral Commission’s tallyroom.

This is the best proxy for the core conspiracy theory against Turnbull — that he betrayed the conservative base and led voters to desert the Coalition for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation or the Liberal Democratic Party.

The critics assume a mammoth shift at this year’s election. The facts show an almost bizarre coincidence instead. This “lost legion” has not changed at all across the past three years. Tony Abbott won the 2013 election with the same problem: about 825,000 voters who gave their primary votes to the Coalition in the lower house but went elsewhere in the Senate.

To be precise, Turnbull shrank this group by 241 votes. This is based on a tally of primary votes for all Coalition parties, ranging from the Country Liberals in the Northern Territory to the Coalition parties in the states, in both houses in both years. Three years ago the Coalition gained 5.9 million primary votes in the lower house and 5.1 million in the Senate. This year it gained 5.7 million primary voters in the lower house and 4.8 million in the Senate.

So much for the theory that the fractured Senate came about because Turnbull lost core voters who wanted Abbott instead. If the former prime minister was the solution to this problem, why did the same number of Australians give him the same treatment in the Senate?

To put this in perspective, the high point for the Coalition in recent times came in 2004, when John Howard won a majority in both houses. Only 81,000 voters that year gave the Coalition their primary votes in the lower house but chose someone else in the Senate. The ranks of the disaffected have swollen tenfold since then.

It is not hard to see where these voters went. Former Labor senator John Black wrote in these pages in August that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation this year “mopped up” the votes that went to the Palmer United Party three years ago.

Black found a correlation of 0.74 between PUP and One Nation primary votes in the Senate from 2013 to 2016.

The dispute over superannuation, which saw some Liberals quit the party and some donors close their wallets, is central to this argument. When I wrote last week that claims of a voter backlash over super were exaggerated, one reader argued 1.5 million voters fled the Liberals for the Right at the last election. The AEC tally shows no shift of this size. Everyone will have their own interpretation of the data but they should at least accept the official numbers.

Labor has a similar problem. Bill Shorten continues his permanent election campaign but he saw the same splintering in the Senate. About 270,000 voters gave Labor their primary votes in the lower house in 2013 but chose someone else in the Senate. This rose to 580,000 this year. The Opposition Leader achieved a big lift in Labor’s primary vote but plenty of voters hedged their bets.

The Coalition’s challenge is not hard to locate. The real voter backlash was the discontent in Middle Australia where people can only dream of having $1.6 million in their retirement accounts. Obsessed with their internal squabble over super, the Liberals were slow to react to the Labor scare campaign on Medicare.

The Coalition lost 189,000 primary votes in the lower house from 2013 to 2016. The greatest pain came in outer areas of big cities, such as Sydney’s west, where people spend hours commuting to work and do not have enough jobs to choose from. The government’s fortunes depend on its economic message and its ability to deliver big infrastructure projects.

Turnbull and Scott Morrison have not even tried to legislate the centrepiece of their “clear economic plan”, the company tax cut that must be drastically shrunk to have any chance of passing. They end the year with a sense of drift on their economic agenda right at the time of a quarterly economic contraction. What lies beyond the “jobs and growth” slogan? The government is in dire need of a theme for its May budget.

The Coalition backbench may want to focus on the main game, too. The eagerness to chatter about secondary issues, especially the ones that galvanise the social conservatives, tells voters the government is consumed by ideological squabbles. Shorten exploits this with barely any effort.

Jaded voters have given up on “politics as usual”, with obvious damage to both major parties. The proportion of Australians who said they trusted the government to do the right thing for the country fell from 48 per cent in 2009 to 31 per cent the following year. It has flatlined ever since, according to the Scanlon Foundation’s annual surveys. The verdict is clear on leadership coups, negative politics and internal dissent.

There is a tinge of madness in the idea the government will be saved by pushing Turnbull to the Right. The government’s fate will be decided in the middle of the political spectrum. The allure of the negative message, where a simple complaint is always easier than a complex solution, makes it harder than ever to hold the centre. But there is no hope for a government that heads for the edge.