Monday, 27 June 2016

Malcolm Turnbull is betting on stability. But what if voters cannot be sure of anything?

 Extract from The Guardian

The prime minister’s stress at the Liberal launch on the uncertainty unleashed by Brexit was predictable, but it carries risks for his own strategy too

Malcolm Turnbull Liberal launch
Malcolm Turnbull greets the crowd after his speech officially launching the Liberal campaign in Sydney on Sunday, opening the final week of the election campaign. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian
Malcolm Turnbull has added two more words to his three-word “jobs and growth” slogan: “stable government”.
The Brexit bombshell has stripped away the flim-flam and laid bare what this election has been about from the start.
Turnbull’s strategy always assumed Australians were sick of political upheaval, weary of waking up to find that their prime minister had changed, again. He’s been betting his popularity – still sky high when the plan was hatched – and his message of economic reassurance would be enough to persuade Australians to “stick with the current mob for a while”, as the #realtradie so half-heartedly put it.
He’s calculated that Bill Shorten is not the opposition leader to sufficiently excite the electorate to persuade them to look again at Labor after just one term. He’s been arguing, in essence, that they should roll over this government, like they would roll over a mediocre investment – to see how it turned out over time rather than taking a chance on something new. And he now believes Brexit will clinch his argument.
Conventional wisdom does say that uncertainty favours incumbents and that economic uncertainty favours conservatives. But a sharp focus on “stability” in the final campaign week also risks that voters will think through the potential for instability no matter who wins next Saturday.e
The Coalition’s new ads implore voters to “be sure, vote Liberal”. And they might. Or they might start thinking about whether they can really be sure of anything.
With the polls still close and minor parties and independents gaining ground in both the lower house and the Senate, Turnbull’s launch speech on Sunday took the international uncertainty unleashed by Brexit and used it to directly plead with Australians to shun all parties bar the Coalition.
“The upheaval reminds us there are many things in the global economy over which we have no control ... At a time of uncertainty, the last thing we need is a parliament in disarray,” he told the party faithful gathered in Sydney.
“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.”
Turnbull insisted, once again, that a Labor government dependent on Greens votes would create “chaos”.
But even if a Coalition government does not face a hung parliament (and with more than five independents looking likely to be elected in the lower house that cannot be assured) it will definitely need the backing of either the “chaotic” Labor and Greens in the upper house, or the votes of Nick Xenophon and his senators and a handful of other independents, including possibly Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson.
In truth, major parties have almost never been able to guarantee certain passage for their agenda. And demanding voters return to the Coalition in the interests of stability ignores the reality that they might be deserting the major parties for a reason.
His own late-term ascent to the prime ministership means Turnbull has been forced to go to the polls with deep uncertainty hanging over some of his own policies – even some he mentioned in his launch speech.
“A strong economy means a mum whose kids are now at school and wants to work a few more days, or work full time, will have plenty of opportunities to do so. And our childcare reforms will make it easier for her to do so too,” he said.
And they would, except the Senate has rejected them and is likely to continue to do so because the Coalition insists they are tied to cuts to family payments. Their future is, in fact, uncertain.
“A strong economy means we can meet and beat our international obligations to address climate change and do so without massive hikes in electricity prices as Labor would do,” he said, except the Coalition is being deliberately opaque about how it will make its Direct Action plan workable.
Even the $48bn in company tax cuts at the heart of Turnbull’s re-election bid cannot be guaranteed. The stated positions of Labor, the Greens and Xenophon suggest the Senate is likely to pass tax cuts only for companies with an annual turnover up to $10m.
Launching a pre-emptive strike on Turnbull’s “stability” message, Bill Shorten pointed out the other uncertainty hanging over another Turnbull government – the fact that he has not yet reconciled deep internal divisions with the conservative wing of his party.
“The single biggest risk to the Australian economy in the next three years is three more years of a divided Liberal government,” Shorten claimed, warning of an “impending civil war” in the Coalition after the election.
The Coalition is working hard to undercut that message – Tony Abbott turned up to the launch and was duly praised by Turnbull for “bringing an end to the chaos and dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years” and remaining a “dedicated advocate for our cause”.
But it is impossible to paper over the Coalition’s divisions on issues such as climate policy and marriage equality, where Turnbull has been forced to carry through Abbott’s plebiscite policy despite having himself so convincingly argued against it.
Besides his own government’s capacity to deliver stability, Turnbull is talking up Labor as a risk – to the economy, asylum policy and workplace relations.
Brexit could well convince voters to accept his message. Alternatively, a final campaign week spent thinking about political certainty might convince them it cannot really be promised by anyone.
They might be persuaded that their attraction to the Greens or the Nick Xenophon Team or the independents has been misguided, or they might find it patronising for a prime minister to tell them that their disillusionment or consideration of any party other than his own was equivalent to retreating under their doonas.
The Coalition appears to be ahead in many of the must-win marginals. But not by much. Brexit might boost what has been Turnbull’s central message from the start – that a vote for him is the best way to avoid any more upheaval. Or it might focus voters’ attention on the validity of that claim. In this 2016 election there’s little room for miscalculation. 

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