Less than a week from polling day, the Coalition’s deliberately low-key campaign “launch” on Sunday confirmed two of the three political battles in which Malcolm Turnbull hopes to prevail.
While the third was not overtly mentioned, it could prove to be the most dangerous if Turnbull is re-elected on July 2.
The first battle for the PM is with the alternative government led by Bill Shorten.
The Opposition has all but abandoned the economic debate since launching its “Mediscare” campaign just over a week ago, having found a scare campaign has more impact than telling voters Labor is a responsible economic manager that also cares about people.
The PM’s speech on Sunday suggests Coalition strategists believe this is a misjudgement on Labor’s part, particularly now that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has increased economic uncertainty.
Claiming “this is no time to pull the doona over our heads”, Turnbull homed in on the Opposition’s unashamedly big spending budget, saying Labor could not “pretend that the good times will just keep rolling no matter how much you tax, no matter how much you borrow, or how much you spend.”
“That is just not how it works in the global economy of the 21st century,” the Prime Minister proclaimed.
Of course the Coalition is not above a blatant scare campaign either, particularly given the former Coalition prime minister Tony Abbott essentially rewrote the negative campaigning rulebook when opposition leader to fight the Gillard government’s “great big new tax on everything”.
The scare tactic being used by Turnbull against Labor is based on another Abbott favourite, border protection, due to the issue’s ability to tap into a broad range of voter prejudices and anxieties.
Shorten has fought hard to keep party dissenters inside the tent on border protection and asylum seekers, even managing to get the Labor Party’s national conference to agree to boat turnbacks, thereby reducing any policy difference between Labor and the Coalition.
Nevertheless, the Coalition has seized upon every utterance by Labor MPs and candidates against offshore detention or mandatory detention as “proof” the Opposition is not only a poor economic manager but also “soft” on border protection.
The PM hammered this point in his speech, comparing the strength of border protection policies under the Liberal’s John Howard with the weakness of those introduced by Labor’s Kevin Rudd.
“We must never forget how Labor in government failed Australia at the border,” Turnbull intoned, noting that “Labor’s abandonment of John Howard’s proven border protection policy opened the door to the people smugglers” and that “today marks 700 days without a successful people-smuggling venture to our country.”
Turnbull’s speech also made it clear the Coalition is awake to the need to not only prevent Labor from securing government, but also minimise the opportunity for minor party and independent MPs to hold the balance of power. This is Turnbull’s second battle.
The PM urged the electorate to think twice before lodging a protest vote, arguing that “if you only really know the leader of a minor party, but you don’t really know their candidates, and you don’t really know their policies then don’t vote for them.”
According to Turnbull, “only a Liberal or National vote ensures stable government, a clear economic plan, real funding for the aged, Medicare and education; more jobs and strong borders.”
“If your local vote is for Labor, Greens or an independent, and you are in one of the 20 or so key battleground seats across the country, it is a vote for the chaos of a hung Parliament, a budget black hole, big Labor taxes, less jobs and more boats.”
If Turnbull is successful in getting Australians to “back a strong and stable Coalition majority Government that can press ahead with our plan for a stronger new economy” he will be faced with a third battle that could be even more important to his future than the election.
The man who Turnbull replaced as prime minister, Tony Abbott, attended the Liberal launch in what could be seen as a provocative or conciliatory move depending on one’s preference for the past or present Liberal leader.
Turnbull has praised his vanquished predecessor in the past after having succeeded Abbott, and yesterday the PM uttered similar words to recognise Abbott’s role in bringing an end to “the chaos and dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years”.
While the audience was predominantly made up of NSW Liberal Party members, and therefore the home base for both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, it was a subdued crowd that seemed reluctant to break into the spontaneous applause that usually characterises such events.
It was as if they were distracted by the sound of teeth quietly being clenched behind the former PM’s grim visage as his successor laid claim to Abbott government achievements such as stopping the boats and landing a clutch of important trade deals. As a result, Turnbull’s speech seemed to be awkward and badly paced at times despite his confected enthusiasm.
Not only did Abbott’s presence loom large at the Coalition launch, it will do so in a re-elected Turnbull Government. At no time did Turnbull mention the consequent battle between the two men that threatens to tear the future Coalition Government asunder – the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
In recent days Coalition conservatives have said they will not be bound by the outcomes of the intended plebiscite if the Australian community votes in favour of same-sex marriage.
This is despite Malcolm Turnbull’s claim he is confident that legislation to formalise the plebiscite’s intent will “sail through” the Parliament. The Cabinet and then the Coalition’s joint party room must first approve any such legislation, providing at least two opportunities for conservatives to slug it out with progressives on the matter.
The last time such a battle between the philosophical extremes of the Coalition occurred, Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership to Abbott by only one vote.
Clearly some of those MPs changed their minds and voted for Turnbull to replace Abbott, but that choice would have been based on who had the best chance of leading the Coalition to an election victory.
Turnbull may be in a weaker position after the election due to conservative MPs being less focused on their immediate re-election prospects.
Labor is correct in suggesting that peace within the Coalition’s ranks is only paper thin. Granted, a similar observation could be made of the Opposition if reports are true that Labor strategists shelved plans only four months ago to replace Bill Shorten.
At least if Labor is elected, which is looking increasingly unlikely, Shorten would be relatively secure as prime minister thanks to the Labor leadership voting rules initiated by Kevin Rudd.
Turnbull will enjoy no such security of tenure.
Even after delivering an expected election victory for the Coalition, the PM will continue to be at risk from the conservative forces that resent and distrust his leadership.