Does Malcolm Turnbull’s penchant for personal popularity weaken him politically and, much more important, strategically as Prime Minister?
First a couple of early revisionist thoughts on interpreting this election result.
Liberals want to see it as a replay of 1998, when John Howard lost the two-party preferred vote to Kim Beazley, lost a lot of seats, but retained majority government.
If it should turn out that Turnbull is reduced to minority government, then the result is a re-run of 2010.
But the odds now favour a small Turnbull majority. This will make the election most resemble, statistically, 1990, when Bob Hawke lost the two-party preferred vote to Andrew Peacock, but just scraped home with 78 seats.
Hawke was a dead duck from that moment on and was replaced by Paul Keating the next year. That term was diabolical for Labor, which expected to lose in 1993 and was saved only because Keating had unique lethality as hunter/killer and in John Hewson faced an unusually vulnerable opposition leader.
A senior Labor figure put it to me quite clinically the other day that Turnbull’s best chance of surviving for three years is if he heads a minority government, though that would almost certainly produce a landslide Coalition loss at the next election. As a minority government, all the day-to-day pressure would be to accommodate the crossbenches, which would be populist and generally left of centre. The Liberal parliamentary party would be cowed by perennial crisis.
Whereas if Turnbull has a small majority, the day-to-day policy pressure will come from his party, which is deeply disgruntled with the government’s policy performance, mistreatment of the base and woeful election campaign.
This was evident in the very blunt comments of the Liberal member for Canning, Andrew Hastie, to his local newspaper. Hastie is surely a big face in the Liberals’ future. A former SAS soldier of the highest calibre, he won this time, he said, by junking all the talking points provided from the national campaign, which he found useless. Words like innovative and agile, which constituted so much of Turnbull and the campaign’s rhetoric, were meaningless in his electorate.
Like Liberals everywhere except apparently campaign headquarters, he experienced a lot of blowback over superannuation changes, was angry at the view of Liberal pollster Mark Textor that conservatives didn’t matter because they had nowhere else to go and any alienation on their part would be more than compensated by an increased vote in the centre, and he found the whole Coalition national campaign disconnected from ordinary voters.
That is a pretty telling indictment from a young, smart, energetic Liberal who actually increased his vote compared with the by-election in which he first won the seat.
Now back to this question of the PM’s love of personal popularity. It may be that Turnbull was somewhat seduced by the unreal, indeed euphoric, approval ratings he enjoyed when he first became PM. Or it may be that, like Kevin Rudd and numbers of other politicians, he just cannot bear to be unpopular in front of any audience he is speaking to.
But an unwillingness to say hard things in public is debilitating to a national leader in two ways politically, and in another way strategically.
First, politically, it means you choose not to make negative attacks on your opponents. Labor in contrast ran this campaign right back on its base strengths of health and education, and it ran big on attack. The Liberals ran a positive campaign but one that was essentially vapid, a corporate tax cut which wasn’t going to produce its economic benefits for 10 years, and its campaign refused to go negative on boats, likely electricity price rises under Labor’s new carbon tax, trade union corruption or anything else. And indeed it was a very presidential campaign, with all the images around Turnbull and the “Turnbull Coalition”, even though the Prime Minister did not enjoy positive personal approval ratings.
Being a political leader is a multi-skilled business. If you can’t do successful political attack, you simply won’t succeed.
The second big political disadvantage of never being able to say tough, disagreeable or sometimes even negative things is that the leader distances himself too much from his own tribe. Ultimately the nation must always come before the tribe, but a political leader must lead and own and care for his political tribe. He must show some loyalty to his political movement if he expects it to show loyalty to him and campaign for him.
There was an emblematic moment during the campaign when the PM was appearing on ABC’s Q&A. An audience member asked an outrageous question which equated conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s opposition to legalising same-sex marriage with the truly appalling homophobic attitudes expressed by some of the sheiks on the National Imams Council.
Turnbull did not explicitly endorse the odious, indeed contemptible, moral equivalence suggested in the question. But when asked if he had had equally tough conversations on these issues with his colleagues as he had with the sheiks, he answered emphatically: “Yes.”
Obviously Turnbull doesn’t much like Bernadi, but surely as the leader of the Liberal Party that was the moment for the PM to say he would not have his colleague’s views traduced in that fashion and that Bernadi had never said anything remotely equivalent to what was being implied. Is a moment’s applause in a Q&A studio really more important than defending your parliamentary colleagues against vilification?
And finally, if you won’t say anything tough to the electorate you cannot be an effective prime minister in national security or economics. The primary purpose of spending money on lethal, high-end, war-fighting armaments, that is to say the defence force, is because we live in a dangerous world. If you can’t talk about that danger, you can’t talk meaningfully about national security, as you may well need to.
Similarly, if your public schtick is that this is the best of all possible times in the best of all possible worlds, why should the electorate ever agree to the reduction of any government benefit at all?
Yet without such agreement budget consolidation, which is necessary for economic growth, is impossible.
We would all love to be popular, but popularity is a siren song that can all too easily lead to treachery and despair.