On election night, Bill Shorten delivered the line that will haunt the rest of Malcolm Turnbull’s time as Prime Minister, however short or long that time proves to be.
“Three years after the Liberals came to power in a landslide,” crowed the Labor Leader, “they have lost their mandate.”
While this is true more generally of the Coalition, it is even more applicable to Turnbull.
If this election was about anything, it was about securing Turnbull’s authority; not only a mandate to pass his more contentious policies, but also to legitimise Turnbull’s replacement of Tony Abbott as Liberal leader.
Now Turnbull must do what he can without either. If he manages to form a majority or minority government, the presumptive PM faces a future filled with obstructionism and pamphleteering from Labor and the crossbench parties in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Labor took the Faustian decision in the final fortnight of the election campaign to embrace the devastating power of Abbott-like negativity using faux facts, and found that it liked it very much. The Mediscare campaign is now being credited (along with the ousting of Abbott) as the reason western Sydney turned on Coalition MPs.
We can expect more such Abbott-like tactics from Labor if it continues as the Opposition.
During the previous parliament, the Coalition was able to work around a similarly obstructionist Labor by doing deals with the newly pragmatic Greens. It is unclear at this point whether the Greens will again be prepared to be amenable to a returned Turnbull Government.
Accordingly, Turnbull will be forced to play to the whims of an even larger Senate crossbench than before the election. It will be weeks until the final numbers in the Senate are known, but early indications suggest the Coalition has 30 senate seats, Labor 27 and the Greens nine, meaning a Coalition Government would need nine of the 10 crossbenchers to pass legislation.
Turnbull will likely be beholden not only to the protectionist demands of Nick Xenophon, but also to Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, the anti-paedophilia crusader Derryn Hinch, and the xenophobes Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson.
Conversely, Labor combined with the Greens would need only three other votes to block government legislation – although, beyond the NXT senators, it is difficult to see three others whose votes Labor and the Greens would be willing to accept.
This spells the end of Turnbull’s “plan for jobs and growth”, given Labor will support corporate tax cuts only for the smallest of businesses. Then again, Labor in Opposition may become born again fiscal conservatives, belatedly seeing the merit in preventing increased government spending (as long as it is Coalition government spending that is stopped), and causing even further grief for the PM.
Legislation to facilitate the plebiscite on same-sex marriage would also be doomed, with nine supporters of same-sex marriage (let alone the plebiscite) difficult to find within the predominantly conservative crossbench.
Of course Turnbull’s conservative problem is much closer to home than the Senate crossbench. Nothing short of an increased Coalition majority would have satisfied the conservative rump within the Liberal Party and the commentariat that the Turnbull experiment justified the knifing of Abbott.
The former PM made a point of staying above the ground war waged by his supporters against Turnbull, leaving the heavy lifting to his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and other right-wing commentators on Sky News and in the Murdoch press.
These forces were gearing up to fight a modestly-returned Turnbull on superannuation and the same-sex marriage plebiscite. They would have had to respect Turnbull’s mandate but still make him fight for his signature policies.
But as the results came in on election night, their disgruntlement turned to fury, setting off a round of recriminations that likely will not subside completely until Turnbull is replaced.
It is difficult to see a safe path for Turnbull to navigate through the minefield that he alone has created. Returning Abbott to Cabinet would simply provide the former PM with a stronger platform from which to build community and party room support. Julia Gillard made this mistake with Kevin Rudd, as did Abbott with Turnbull.
However, leaving Abbott on the backbench allows him to speak more freely than a Cabinet minister could, and gives him the time to duchesse the MPs who abandoned him for Turnbull and may now be experiencing buyers’ remorse.
Either way, the authority Turnbull needed to get contentious measures through the party room is seriously if not fatally diminished. Perhaps the only way he could get anything through both the party room and the Senate would be to pander to the conservatives in both. In effect, to become Abbott in a nicer suit.
Such a transition would put an end, once and for all, to the hope progressives and centrists once vested in Turnbull to be a truly liberal Prime Minister. But it might just be enough to win back the Liberal base.
It would mean selling his soul to the conservatives, but such a sacrifice might be the only way Turnbull can regain the mandate he threw away on election night.