The electorate has fractured into three economic and cultural zones
By George Megalogenis
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Malcolm Turnbull can divide his political year into halves of indecision. The first six months were lost in a fruitless search for an agenda, the last six months were spent watching his back.
The defining event of the prime minister’s year, and ours, was the election count on the evening of 2 July. It was probably Turnbull’s last meaningful chance to persuade the public that he could break the curse of the Rudd–Gillard–Abbott era. Unable to claim victory on the night, he could have used his time at the lectern to project a humble authority. To assume his government would be returned with a working majority, but accept that he had disappointed voters. If he had found the rhetorical sweet spot between confidence and contrition, the nation might have gone to bed that night with an open mind.
Instead, he closed it with a flash of entitled anger that is not easily forgotten. Turnbull protested that Labor had run “some of the most systematic, well-funded lies ever peddled in Australia”. The text message to voters on the morning of the election, warning that the Coalition would privatise Medicare, was tricked up to look as if Medicare itself had sent it. “No doubt the police will investigate,” Turnbull bellowed. “But this is the scale of the challenge we faced. And regrettably more than a few people were misled.”
A crooked opponent and a rigged election. These would be Donald Trump’s complaints whenever he fell behind Hillary Clinton in the opinion polls.
Obviously, Turnbull is no Trump. He is neither buffoon nor demagogue. But on the night of the election, Turnbull channelled Trump in one surprising respect. He couldn’t see past the Liberals in the room to the other side of the television camera, where Australians of all colours, from the partisan to the apathetic, were watching. At one point in his war cry, Turnbull even uttered a banality that recalled the manic sloganeering of Tony Abbott. The Coalition stood for “the values of freedom, of business, of enterprise and entrepreneurship”, he said. Labor’s alternative was “more debt, more deficit and higher taxes”.
But the conservative base wasn’t persuaded. Over the following days, MPs on the right took pot shots at Turnbull and his team for straying too far to the centre during the campaign.
Liberal senator Cory Bernardi put the critique this way: “You cannot turn your back on your party base, and this is something I’ve consistently warned about for many, many years. We had our chief pollster, Mark Textor, say that ‘the base doesn’t matter, they’ve got nowhere to go, we’ll pick up more votes in the centre’. We had the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, say Pauline Hanson has no place in Australian politics and yet she … reflects the concerns of many, many people.”
You see what he did. Bernardi defined the conservative base as the heart of the nation, and Hanson as a member of the political mainstream. This is a very American way of looking at the Australian electorate.
Yet the Bernardi formula has clearly been on Turnbull’s mind. In the six months since the election, the prime minister has been the very model of the uncompromising conservative his internal critics told him to be. Yet still the conservatives whinge that he is not one of them.
No Coalition government has been this conflicted since Malcolm Fraser’s final term in 1980–83, when the incumbent wets and the insurgent dries engaged in open civil war on economic policy. That argument suited the times because the old protectionist model was broken, and it crossed party lines when the Hawke–Keating Labor government implemented much of the dry agenda.
The fault line running through the Coalition now has nothing to do with economic policy. It is cultural. Should gay couples have the right to marry? Should bigots have the right to say whatever they want?
Before he became prime minister, Turnbull answered an emphatic yes to the first question and a disinterested no to the second. He thought parliament was the forum to rule on marriage equality, and called out Abbott’s proposal for a plebiscite to determine public opinion as a delaying tactic. He did not see why the government should waste time on the Racial Discrimination Act.
Turnbull reversed his position on the plebiscite to help swing conservatives in the leadership ballot against Abbott in 2015, and is now prepared to entertain changes to the RDA. Only a zealot could look at the RDA and think it is a pressing concern for Australians. Especially when the previous push for “reform” in 2014 ended in tears because there was virtually no public support for it. Yet the conservatives have talked about virtually nothing else since the election.
There is a maddening circularity to these debates. Politicians and activists enter them knowing they can’t convince those on the opposing side to change their minds. If pressed, most will agree that these issues are a distraction from whatever the main game is. Yet the combatants willingly return to the field of obsession, for another nil-all draw. We are used to Labor being the party of tedious introspection. Now the virus of self-absorption has spread to the side of politics that was supposed to be the practical one.
The risk, acknowledged across the main parties, but never taken seriously enough to change their behaviour, is that they are undermining democracy through neglect.
The Australian electorate has already fractured. To see it, consider the nation as three economic and cultural zones.
The people most comfortable with globalisation in the Asian century live in the south-east corner: New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT. These states (and territory) generally pay their own way in the federation.
The people who are whiter than the nation are in the mining states of Queensland and Western Australia. Conservative-leaning, these states track the extremes of our national income, collecting the greatest windfall in the boom and suffering the hardest landing in the bust.
The people most dependent on government welfare are in the outsider belt of Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory. This is ground zero for both white and indigenous disadvantage in Australia.
In the south-east corner, Labor was the majority party of the 2016 election, winning 44 of the 86 seats. The Coalition won 40, the Greens one and independents one.
In the outsider belt, Labor claimed 12 of the 18 seats, the Coalition just four and independents two.
If the election had been decided in these two zones, between the winners and losers of globalisation, Labor would be in power.
But the Turnbull government was returned because its vote held up in the mining states. The Coalition held 32 of the 46 seats, Labor had just 13 and the independents one.
This was the first time in federal history that a government had such a narrow geographical mandate, and the first time that the south-east corner did not decide who ruled the country.
Rather than betraying his right flank, as his critics claimed, Turnbull was saved by it. The result mirrored the 2010 election, when Julia Gillard’s Labor government won a majority of seats in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, while the Tony Abbott–led Coalition dominated in Queensland and Western Australia.
Think about what this is really telling us about the national mood. In 2010 and again in 2016, voters were offered a choice between platitudes: moving forward versus stop the boats, jobs and growth versus Mediscare. With no one to inspire them, voters reverted to tribal type.
The promise of Turnbull when he replaced Abbott as prime minister in September 2015 was that he could unite conservative and cosmopolitan Australia. But he second-guessed himself into policy stasis, and lost the opportunity to build a genuine coalition across the continent.
His performance at the ballot box was actually worse than Gillard’s in 2010, even though the parliament wasn’t hung this time. Turnbull lost 14 seats in total, three more than Gillard, but survived because he entered the election with a larger buffer.
Gillard could govern for three years because the balance of power titled leftwards in both chambers. The lower house Green and independents who supported her minority government came from Labor states: Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. The Greens held sway in the Senate. It is easy to forget this detail. Gillard could legislate because she didn’t have to negotiate twice. She began with a unity of purpose on her side that Turnbull would kill for. The big decisions of her government – the price on carbon, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and reform of schools funding – did not split the Labor caucus between environmentalists and sceptics, between interventionists and free-marketers, between advocates for public and private systems. The minor parties had Gillard’s back; their interests and hers aligned because neither wanted to see an early election.
Turnbull, by contrast, has to navigate the hornet’s nest of his own party room and the viper pit of the Senate. Conservatives and cosmopolitans are butting heads within the government, while the Senate minor parties are in direct competition with the Coalition. Pauline Hanson threatens the government in its strongest states, Queensland and Western Australia, while Nick Xenophon and Jacqui Lambie circle in its two weakest states, South Australia and Tasmania.
Logic says that Turnbull, or whoever succeeds him in the event of another coup, can only jump this trap by pitching to where the majority of voters reside, in the south-east corner. If that is too much of a stretch for the conservatives, the government could look to the outsider belt.
But the catch 22 of a majority anchored in Queensland and Western Australia is that any attempt to broaden the base will be taken by conservatives as a declaration of culture war. The mining states are not used to compromise. They have traditionally seen themselves as separate from the rest of the nation, trapped in the extended adolescence of the pioneer settlement.
Queenslanders voted for Joh Bjelke-Petersen when South Australia had Don Dunstan as premier, and they stuck with Joh through Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser and even the first five years of the Hawke government. Western Australians were still talking secession as recently as the 1970s. The sense of separation in the west is accentuated by the mining cycle. In the boom years, the state complained that it was subsidising the rest of the country. Now, in the bust, it cries poor and demands a handout. Western Australia had closed the last decade in the strongest financial position of any state. By 2016, it had the largest debt, at $20 billion, and that debt is forecast to reach $26 billion in 2018 before it stabilises.
The mining states gave Pauline Hanson her second coming in 2016. She won two Senate places in Queensland, another in Western Australia and a fourth in New South Wales.
The One Nation vote repeated the pattern of the late 1990s and fell the further south one travelled down the east coast of Australia: 9.2% in Queensland; 4.1% in New South Wales and 1.8% in Victoria. It spiked again in Western Australia at 4%. Here’s the twist: Hanson had little traction in the two poorest states. She polled 3% in South Australia and just 2.6% in Tasmania, where Jacqui Lambie trebled the Hanson vote with 8.3% and the Greens almost quadrupled it with 11.2%.
Take the Bernardi formula to its logical conclusion, placing the Coalition and Hanson in the same column, and the Senate vote reaffirms the polarity between the mining states and the outsider belt. The conservative primary vote averaged 44.8% in Queensland and Western Australia, and 35.3% in South Australia and Tasmania.
This is a little-understood aspect of Australia’s political character. The outsider belt has a more substantial democratic heritage than the mining states. The voters there are among the most strategic in the country, and for decades they have sent deal-makers to the upper house to bargain on their behalf. Xenophon and Lambie are cut from the same pragmatic cloth as Janine Haines and Brian Harradine. Long may the outsiders negotiate, because if the nation’s two poorest states ever joined the Hanson insurgency it could take many years to bring them back to the political centre.
The lesson of 2016, from the United States, Britain and Europe, is that voters, once disengaged, can be easily re-animated to wreck the system. Australians are well into the disengaged phase. All it would take to tip them into a Brexit or Trump mindset, a white rage against globalisation, is a deep recession.