Turnbull is a leader besieged on all sides

Turnbull is a leader besieged on all sides

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.

The three battles that defined the Coalition’s rally

The three battles that defined the Coalition’s rally

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.

What Shorten’s election promises mean for women

What Shorten’s election promises mean for women

In comparison to the Turnbull Government’s focus on the economy this election, the Shorten Opposition’s pitch to women is about fairness and “putting people first”.

This is partly because the Labor Party traditionally believes government funding for the services people depend upon, like health and education, is just as important as having a strong economy.

But Labor also hopes that, when it talks about fairness, voters will be reminded of the unfair budget that Tony Abbott delivered in 2014.

That was the budget where Abbott broke a pile of election promises and then increased costs or reduced payments for students, the elderly, the unemployed and the sick, while doing very little to make the wealthy pay their fair share.

When Labor leader Bill Shorten and his team talk about fairness, they want voters to be worried that if Malcolm Turnbull is re-elected, he might also break his election promises and turn out to be just like Tony Abbott.

Apart from trying to scare voters away from the Government, the Opposition is also trying to lure them to Labor. According to one opinion poll, Labor has been very successful in getting men to switch their vote from the Government to the Opposition. But when women are abandoning Turnbull’s team, they are going to the Greens and other parties as well as Labor.

What’s more, three in ten Australian women haven’t yet decided which party they prefer.

This means Labor has to capture the hearts and minds of a lot more women if it is to win the July election.

So what does the alternative government have to offer us?

For women with families, Labor has promised to deliver increases in funding for education and health promised by Julia Gillard when she was prime minister.

In fact, education is the central theme of Labor’s election pitch. It’s an expensive commitment that aims to fund every school according to the needs of its students.

Labor has also promised that computer programming will be taught in all schools, teachers will get better qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths, and there will be additional support for Indigenous students and students with disabilities.

There’s also program to help young people in areas with high unemployment get into work.

In health, Labor has committed to lift the freeze on Medicare rebates that doctors say is putting pressure on them to give up bulk billing, scrap a plan to increase prescriptions by $5, improve the system for helping people with mental health issues, and fund local initiatives aimed at reducing suicides.

When it comes to Australia’s working women, Labor’s election commitments focus on those at the lower end of the pay scale. The Opposition promises to crack down on employers who exploit workers, as well as those who re-arrange their businesses to avoid paying out employees when a business shuts down.

Under Labor, new mothers can receive paid parental leave from their employer in addition to payments from the Government.

Labor also has additional funding for women experiencing family violence, including more funds for legal services, grants to help women be safer at home, and better information sharing between the police, courts, child protection and other government agencies. It has also committed to introducing five days’ paid leave for people who experience domestic or family violence.

If this sounds like a lot of spending, it is. The Opposition says it will pay for its promises by making big business and high-income earners pay more tax, scrapping negative gearing for established homes, and not going ahead with some of the Government’s election commitments such as the company tax cut.

But at the end of the day, Labor says some types of spending, like health and education, are more important than balancing the budget.

It will be in the hands of female voters on election day to say whether Labor is right.

Originally at The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Campaign tricksters make their presence felt

Campaign tricksters make their presence felt

It may not look like it at times, but election campaigns are planned to the tiniest level of detail.

Yet they can be easily derailed by an unexpected appearance by a ghost or two from the past, as we dramatically saw this week.

A calendar of campaign events and announcements is developed months before the election date is even confirmed.

Campaign staff called “advancers” travel to every announcement location, well in “advance” of the actual event, to scope the location for pesky exit signs or shops with unfortunate names that could easily ruin a camera shot of the politician in question. (Remember Tony Abbott and The Reject Shop?)

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Who could forget this doozie? Photo: AAP

Every campaign team also has a dirt unit, which conducts “opposition research”.

This involves poring over the histories of the other side’s candidates in search of even vaguely incriminating comments, photos, videos, tweets or Facebook posts.

By raising the spectre of past behaviours, election combatants hope to inflict maximum damage on the competition.

We saw this strategy in action during the first week of the campaign, when old photos and statements of Labor candidates opposing the offshore detention of asylum seekers made their way to the media.

According to the government, more than 20 Opposition candidates have at some point opposed what is currently their party’s policy.

This dissent is doubly difficult for Labor; it not only fuels voter suspicion that the Opposition might not be as firm on “border protection” as it claims, but reminds us of the bad old days when Labor was riven with internal disputes and unseemly public squabbling.

Bad headlines force resignation

This week, it was the Prime Minister’s turn to face uncomfortable questions about the inconveniently unearthed comments of one of his team’s candidates, opposing gay marriage and constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians.

Mr Sufi announced his resignation on Friday. Photo: Supplied

Mr Sufi announced his resignation on Friday.

Unlike Bill Shorten, who appeared with a couple of his rogue candidates while they affirmed support for “the current Labor policy”, Malcolm Turnbull chose not to share a platform with Liberal candidate Sherry Sufi, and made a point of noting that he did not share those views.

It was also alleged that Mr Sufi was caught mocking the accent of his ex-boss, Michael Sutherland – now Speaker of the West Australian Parliament – using graphic sexual references in 2013.

Mr Sufi resigned from his post on Friday in the fallout to his week of bad headlines.

Before Labor strategists even had time to be relieved that the negative spotlight had moved from them, another remnant from the past arose to give one of the party’s factional heavyweights, David Feeney, a bit of a scare.

Given the Opposition has put considerable effort into making home affordability a key point of differentiation between it and the government, the news that Mr Feeney had forgotten to declare his third property and that he drew negative gearing benefits from the investment, were particularly unhelpful for the Opposition.

Greens boss also accused

The Greens leader was accused of not declaring a property. Photo: Getty

The Greens leader was accused of not declaring a property. Photo: Getty

It was Greens leader Richard Di Natale who was confronted with a media report towards the end of this week, accusing him of having failed in the past to specifically declare his family farm.

Much worse, however, was the additional contention in the story, claiming that Dr Di Natale, a champion for penalty rates, had offered below minimum pay rates to young backpackers who worked for his family as au pairs.

While the Greens leader has rebutted this attack as untruthful, it may nevertheless leave a stain on the party’s otherwise squeaky-clean reputation.

Labor will be hoping its expensive but popular Medicare announcement this week will stick more in voters’ minds than the apparent forgetfulness of a forgettable Opposition MP.

Similarly, the government will likely be grateful for the “look over there” tactics of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who managed to distract the media and the commentariat with inflammatory comments about refugees taking our jobs.

Originally published at The New Daily.

He who wins women, wins the election

He who wins women, wins the election

Back in the nineteenth century, Australia led the way in giving women the right to vote and stand for parliament.

Yet here we are 114 years later and still only around 30 per cent of politicians in Australia’s parliaments are women.

Political parties say they’re doing everything they can to get to 50-50, but so far only Labor and the Greens have managed to get close. Labor has 45 per cent women MPs in the national parliament, while the Greens have 45.5 per cent. The Coalition parties have 27 per cent, and may have even less following the upcoming election.

This is not just a matter of balancing things up for appearances sake.

Without enough female voices in the nation’s decision-making forums, there is an increased chance that governments will make poor or bad decisions that have a negative impact on women.

That’s because it’s easier for a bunch of men on comfy incomes to cut funding for frontline domestic violence support, women’s health services or child care without thinking through the implications for women, families, the economy or the broader community.

In the absence of there being enough female politicians to stand up against their male-centric colleagues, it’s up to female voters to remind politicians what our half of the population wants from elected representatives when it comes to identifying priorities and allocating government funds.

The power of women voters cannot, and should not, be underestimated. Hell hath no fury like a female voter scorned.

Some politicians are alert to this, and while some have tried to pitch themselves as the supporter of women’s interests, many have failed.

Who could forget Tony Abbott trying to neutralise his “women’s problem” with an expensive, badly-targeted and poorly defended paid parental leave scheme.

And then there was Julia Gillard who, on the same day that she delivered her blistering speech about Abbott’s misogyny, also cut payments to single mothers when their youngest child turns eight.

So it’s hardly surprising a major opinion poll found more women supported Labor after Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard in 2013 federal election, even if he did eventually lose to Tony Abbott.

Opinion polls are now showing the Government first led by Abbott and now Turnbull has lost its lead on the Opposition, with at least one poll suggesting this is because women have shifted their votes from the Coalition to Labor.

This may be in part because of decisions in the federal budget, which we highlighted last week as pretty unsatisfactory for women. But female voters have also gone off the Prime Minister, who failed to deliver on the high voter expectations he encouraged before challenging Tony Abbott for the top job.

Back then, 68 per cent of men and women approved of Turnbull, now that has dropped to 46 per cent for women and 49 per cent for men. The PM’s disapproval rating has increased accordingly.

Even so, despite their disillusionment with PM Turnbull, male voters seem to be sticking with the Government.

Accordingly, the outcome of the federal election rests in the hands of Australian women.

That’s why we’ll be providing you with analysis of the parties’ election policies, in light of their track records to date, and an assessment of what each party has to offer Australian women.

In preparation for election day, which falls on July 2, it’s worth checking to see if you are on the electoral roll and your details are correct. If you’re not yet registered to vote, you can enrol online at the Australian Electoral Commission.

Originally published at the Australian Women’s Weekly.

Turnbull campaign off-track

Turnbull campaign off-track

One week down, seven to go. That’s what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is probably thinking after this week’s choppy start to his re-election campaign.

Sure, it’s early days and most voters won’t really start paying attention for another month, but it will be weighing on the prime ministerial mind that this first week of the extended election campaign did not go much to plan.

In case you missed it, this week was meant to be all about the budget, the much-feted economic plan for jobs and growth.

Chris Bowen kept a straight face. Photo:AAP

But the government ran into early trouble when Labor and the conservative rump of the Liberal Party attacked the budget’s changes to superannuation, which reel in concessions for the wealthy, as retrospective and therefore verboten.

Labor’s Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen even managed to keep a straight face during his budget reply this week when denouncing the changes, even though they soak the rich in much the same way that Labor’s super changes do.

PM challenged on super trust

By week’s end, the notion had been successfully challenged, but only after several days of Labor saying Mr Turnbull could not be trusted on super. This is the sort of message that could stick in the minds of voters.

The Prime Minister’s trustworthiness potentially took another hit when it emerged this week that he was mentioned in the Panama Papers.

While there was no suggestion Mr Turnbull was one of the tax avoiders also named in the leaked documents, Labor’s calls for the PM to make a “full explanation” could have encouraged voters to judge him guilty by association.

That’s not to suggest the campaign so far has been stress free for the PM-in-waiting, Bill Shorten.

The cracks in party solidarity over asylum seekers that Mr Shorten managed to paper over at last year’s ALP National Conference re-emerged this week, causing the Labor leader a few anxious moments during campaign press conferences.

Refugee “cruelty” put on the agenda

Boat people sailed into the campaign: Photo:AAP

The first ALP candidate to go rogue on the issue was Sophie Ismail, who is running against the Greens’ Adam Bandt for the seat of Melbourne.

Political observers with a Machiavellian bent might suspect Ms Ismail was given unofficial permission to call for an immediate end to “the cruelty on Manus and Nauru”, given Labor’s support for offshore detention will likely stop progressive voters from supporting Ms Ismail.

If this is what occurred, Labor strategists may now regret the decision. A succession of the party’s candidates followed suit, ensuring that most of Mr Shorten’s press conferences this week inevitably included an interrogation of the featured candidate and their position on Labor’s asylum seeker policy.

This was an unhelpful diversion from what was meant to be Labor’s campaign message of the week: the importance of a properly-funded education system. It not only made the party look ill-disciplined but reminded voters about the last time Labor started to look untidy, namely the Rudd and Gillard years.

“Traitor” question caught Turnbull off guard

When former Abbott supporter Fiona Scott was asked about being called a traitor for switching her support to Mr Turnbull last year, the PM went to her defence and later cancelled a visit to the Penrith Westfield to make up with Ms Scott.

Mr Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, ridiculed Mr Turnbull for calling off the public appearance, calling him Mr Harborside Mansion and suggesting he was out of touch with everyday voters.

Peta Credlin

But it is equally plausible the shopping centre walk had been cancelled because Labor had worked out the location and was planning to plant a few “everyday voters” to challenge Mr Turnbull in front of the television cameras.

This a regular tactic in election campaigns, and the reason why journalists travelling with the leaders are usually not told where the next media event will take place.

Consider the everyday voter “Melinda”, who declined to give her last name when she gate-crashed a prime ministerial press conference this week. The single mum berated Mr Turnbull with an impressive amount of detail on the Government’s plans to cut the Family Tax Benefit, including how the cuts will make it even more difficult for her to give her sons a good education.

Sound familiar?

Whatever the reason for Mr Turnbull vacating the field, he would have been hard pressed anyway to beat the television images generated by the Shorten camp that day.

Accompanied by a handsome piece of chocolate cake and a glowing Chloe Shorten, the Opposition Leader marked his 49thth birthday looking relaxed, comfortable, and unnervingly happy.

Both leaders had their share of campaign challenges this week, but only one seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself despite the turbulence. If good nature was to lead to success in this election campaign, the end of this first week sees Bill Shorten moving in to the lead.

Originally published at The New Daily.