Federal politics

It’s the mandate wot lost it
Like its predecessors, the Coalition government is still struggling to find a clear direction


With mates like Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, who needs enemies? 2017 has begun awkwardly for Malcolm Turnbull. The internecine warfare between him and his predecessor shows no signs of abating. Turnbull’s near 18-month regime lacks governing purpose. The prime minister has abandoned or is silent on many long-held, supposedly progressive positions, leading the public to conclude he stands for little aside from retaining the top job. The Coalition consistently trails Bill Shorten’s Labor Opposition in the polls and the gap is widening. Despite an improved showing in last week’s parliamentary sitting, punctuated by a determined effort to shift the national debate to the subject of so-called energy security, the Turnbull government’s ongoing struggles with pesky crossbenchers worsened with the breakaway “conservative” party headed by the maverick Bernardi. Whispers abound that Nationals MP and party whip Christensen might follow his lead.

Meanwhile, the government is all at sea on housing affordability. According to the assistant minister to the treasurer, Michael Sukkar, who is tasked with addressing the issue, the solution is simple: get a high-paying job. Try telling that to the 44,800 Australians who lost their full-time jobs in January alone.

These problems are, however, a symptom rather than the cause of Turnbull’s malaise. As the British tabloid the Sun might have put it: it’s the mandate wot lost it. The Coalition’s real troubles began during the Rudd–Gillard years. Labor’s own internal divisions led the Coalition to adopt a small-target, relentlessly negative strategy. Three-word slogans were favoured over substantive policy development. It was difficult to discern what the Abbott government actually stood for – save opposing a carbon price, stopping the boats and repealing the mining tax – until it handed down the disastrous 2014 budget.

Even when Turnbull seized the Liberal leadership in September 2015 he found it difficult to campaign on his predecessor’s patchy record, or develop a meaningful, coherent program. Slogans around “jobs and growth” and “innovation and agility” – the latter duo anathema to Australians operating in a sluggish economy and facing low growth in real wages and decreasing job security – scarcely amounted to a decent mandate. Enter stage right, Bernardi, his troublemaker-in-arms, Abbott, and hostile media commentators. Granted, mandates can be a tricky thing to precisely define, but Turnbull is by and large bereft of a clear reform program arising out of the last election save for unpopular business tax cuts.

The Coalition is not alone. Many Laborites now concede that the incoming Rudd government did not fully define what it stood for aside from opposing WorkChoices and benefitting from the 11-year-old Howard government’s creaking joints at the 2007 election.

The same lesson applies to Labor’s failure to win the 2001 election. Three years earlier, Kim Beazley, who, much like Bill Shorten, had healed a shell-shocked party after a large defeat, clawed back 18 lower house seats, largely a protest vote against John Howard’s GST plans. Labor won a majority of the two-party preferred vote, but fell eight seats short.

Beazley was expected to lead Labor back into office. It didn’t pan out that way. On one hand, by mid 2001, a government described by voters as “mean and tricky” and “out of touch”, recovered from the backlash against the GST’s implementation by pork-barrelling key suburban seats, ironically by virtue of treasury coffers swelled by tax receipts. The events of that year’s Tampa crisis and September 11 also favoured the incumbent. At the November 2001 election, Howard gained a rare swing to a second-term government. One Nation voters returned to the Coalition, and Labor lost votes to the Greens, especially among inner-city progressives. Granted, Beazley was unlucky to seek a return to office in the ongoing aftermath of the 1996 election loss, the second-worst defeat of an incumbent since Federation, amid buoyant economic conditions. On the other, Labor’s adoption of a small-target strategy through rolling back the GST left it exposed to events such as Tampa.

In 2016, a second-term Labor Opposition is confronted by challenges that recall but are different to those faced by Beazley: the threat to Labor’s left flank from the Greens remains, but now emerges the challenge from populist right-wing parties – especially One Nation – that appeal to those who have lost out from globalisation and, in some cases, are willing to embrace anti-immigration sentiments. Social media and the 24/7 news cycle have altered political debate. Voters increasingly distrust democratic institutions and mainstream parties.

Cognisant of this history, Labor largely eschewed small-target politics. It has, moreover, moved on from seeking to ape the reform agenda of the Hawke–Keating years. Shorten has positioned the parliamentary party as an alternative government more resistant to exogenous shocks. Post-GFC politics, where the agenda is not dominated by cutting personal taxes courtesy of a cashed-up government, but a precariously placed economy and growing inequality, seems to signal that the times might suit Labor, to borrow a Howardism.

Hard, collective toil remains. Labor has formed majority national government twice in the last 25 years: in 1993 when Keating destroyed John Hewson’s plans for a GST and in 2007 when Rudd neutralised the Coalition’s advantage in matters economic. This is a timely reminder that Labor is not going to win an election by adopting a strategy from the progressive playbook of identity politics. Hillary Clinton might concur. By contrast, voters have and will continue to be attentive to clearly enunciated policies built around their primary concerns: jobs, job security and wages, services (schools, healthcare and transport) housing affordability and the safety of the places where they live. It’s certainly preferable to hearing Canberra-based gossip surrounding what Cory said to Tony and/or Malcolm.

Unlike Labor after 2007, one senses Team Shorten will better transition to government without lingering questions of what it is there for. A mandate, in other words.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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