CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Liberals' soul searching too painful to publicise
, April 22, 2017
The post mortem on the Liberal Party’s 2016 federal election campaign is now in, but the review won’t be released publicly because the findings are apparently so raw that senior Liberal figures fear they would only make things worse for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull if they were given a public airing.
There may be some common sense in this, given that the Liberal Party actually is hoping to learn some genuine lessons from the disastrous campaign, which saw the loss of 14 seats to Labor and which almost cost Malcolm Turnbull government.
Recriminations for recriminations’ sake serve no one.
The campaign review was led by recently retired cabinet minister Andrew Robb and assisted by former NSW Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell, the general secretary of the Queensland division, Carol Cashman, and former cabinet minister Chris Ellison.
Federal director and long-time party stalwart Tony Nutt quit ahead of the release of the report, suggesting that he was at least prepared to take responsibility for some of the issues identified inside the party’s campaign headquarters.
But Mr Nutt’s resignation, while noble, will not solve the problems identified by the review.
Despite the secrecy, we do know quite a bit about the poor Liberal campaign.
First, Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to break the cycle of negativity in Australian politics (and be seen to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Tony Abbott) failed.
Mr Turnbull wanted to ignore national security issues and asylum seekers and concentrate instead on a positive “jobs and growth” campaign.
But Labor had an appalling scare campaign all set to go based on a lie that the Government was planning to sell Medicare. It was an extraordinary falsehood, but tens of thousands of voters if not hundreds of thousands abandoned the Coalition because of it.
The Coalition had no counter to this scare campaign.
Second, Labor has in recent years managed a better ground campaign using paid union officials as its foot soldiers. This is certain to be repeated at the next election, when the unions will again be out in force, this time on penalty rates.
Unions are constantly campaigning as their day job and the Coalition has apparent no counter force, with business more interested in things such as “marriage equality” campaigning.
Third, Malcolm Turnbull appeared not to be comfortable on the campaign trail.
Australian elections are unique in that they appeal to the disinterested middle, rather than, as in the case of the United States, campaigns that ignore the disinterested middle and seek only to mobilise the already engaged and ready-to-vote registered Democrats or Republicans.
Fourth, there was a complacency within the Coalition that they might lose a few seats but would retain government with a comfortable majority.
Clearly, the cerebral Mr Turnbull’s reputation as a retail politician was damaged by the election.
The reason he was able to topple Tony Abbott was because he was said to be more popular, but that popularity appeared to be more among Labor voters, who were not going to vote for him in a real election.
Finally, alienating the conservative base by introducing a form of tax on self-funded retirees’ superannuation before the election, was very unhelpful.
The party’s finances were in dire straits in the lead-up to the 2016 campaign, and Mr Turnbull himself was forced to contribute $1.75 million of his own money to keep advertising running.
Coalition conservatives have since argued that policy positions, including the super changes, alienated many traditional donors.
Following the review, Mr Turnbull refused to acknowledge that the election was a disaster, arguing that the Coalition was “returned to government in a very difficult environment”.
Perhaps he is right, but it has been very tough going for Mr Turnbull ever since, and having a razor thin majority in the House of Representatives has made governing very difficult.
The reality is that Australia is facing electoral trends that are now a phenomenon in Western politics – the rise of populist, anti-politician parties.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has re-emerged as a force in Australian politics because she is not like the major parties, and if the West Australian election is any guide, voters will punish her too if she too closely aligns herself too closely with the other parties.
Besides One Nation, there is Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), which now rivals the ALP in South Australia in popularity.
Voters are becoming increasingly cynical and jaundiced about the major parties. Perhaps it is the politicians, perhaps it is the media, perhaps it is a combination of both, but the similarity of the major parties and the exaggerated fighting over minor issues must be a big factor in this disillusionment.