Inside Story

An autumn of wintry discontent for Liberals

With a Queensland election on the horizon, the party is still coming to terms with the size of the WA loss

Norman Abjorensen 31 March 2017 1029 words

More turbulence ahead? Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull inspecting the relief effort for Tropical Cyclone Debbie at the Crisis Coordination Centre in Canberra on Wednesday. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Continuing fallout from the election rout in Western Australia has heaped more problems on the Liberals in Canberra, and on Malcolm Turnbull in particular, as the ramifications echo across the continent.

The usual deflection – that state elections are fought on local issues – simply doesn’t wash here. National issues, including the attempt to cut Sunday penalty rates and the distribution of GST revenues, figured high on voters’ lists of concerns. Federal and state issues also intersected with the Barnett government’s proposed privatisation of Western Power, which coincided damagingly with the federal debate about energy insecurity and rising power prices.

The Liberal Party had long been aware of the problems facing the government and its decidedly unpopular leader, Colin Barnett. With its private polling pointing to a train wreck, the swing of almost 16 per cent came as no surprise. “We saw it coming, no doubt about that. But there was nothing we could do,” a senior Liberal told me.

Of course, a key factor was the sudden downturn in the WA economy after the end of the mining investment bonanza, to which Barnett owed his eight-plus years as premier. The preference deal with One Nation, an act of pure desperation, backfired spectacularly among both Liberal and One Nation supporters – and the Nationals, at whose expense the deal was done, remain furious, with deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce making no attempt to conceal his disgust.

The Liberals in the west, down to just thirteen seats in the Legislative Assembly (having lost eighteen), are numbed by the magnitude of the defeat, even if it was predicted. The election of former treasurer Mike Nahan as leader looks like a holding operation rather than a step towards the future. Nahan will be seventy at the time of the next election.

Party members remain angry that repeated attempts during the last term of government failed to remove Barnett, whose approval rating –in freefall since the 2013 election – had plummeted to just 28 per cent by late last year. At the time, the mild-mannered Labor leader, Mark McGowan, was enjoying a rating of 46 per cent.

With another round of poor federal polling for Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition, the take-out messages from the west are both ominous and confusing. Western Australia has been the strongest state for the Liberals in recent federal elections, so the local setback is shaking national confidence.

Despite the strains in the Coalition caused by the One Nation dalliance, the prime minister is refusing to rule out a similar deal at the next federal election – a stance that has infuriated many in the party. Backbencher Tim Wilson was bluntest, calling One Nation “crazy.” Another federal Liberal MP, Andrew Hastie, weighed in with a warning that Western Australia, his home state, can no longer be taken for granted. According to Hastie, the state’s share of the GST must be increased.

Tony Abbott and other conservatives are publicly urging Turnbull to move to the right to counter the growing threat from One Nation. But other figures – including Wilson, a former human rights commissioner – take the opposite view. “The Liberal–National Coalition is at its best when it starts from its centre-right mainstream base and reaches into the mainstream middle – not when it legitimises the fringes,” Wilson said on the day after the WA election.

On the other side of the country, the outcome in the west almost certainly rules out an early election in Queensland this year. Labor is hoping One Nation will unravel in its home state by 2018, a view encouraged both by past experience and by the chaotic and contradictory campaign the party ran in Western Australia. The opposition Liberal National Party faces dilemmas posed by the possibility that One Nation will make inroads into its voter base. Should it seek to accommodate One Nation or oppose it? And will it be tempted by a preference deal in Labor-held seats?

For his part, Malcolm Turnbull is working to shore up his own position – but in a way that could be counterproductive. Shedding the Mr Reasonable tag, he has adopted a harsher, shriller tone, stepping up personal attacks on opposition leader Bill Shorten and the trade union movement generally. Coupled with his support for cutting Sunday penalty rates, this might serve his primary purpose of keeping the business community onside; but the generally unfavourable reaction suggests this might come at the expense of electoral support.

The prime minister needs to deliver more than ever to the business community – hence his championing of corporate tax cuts – because his power base there is all that stands between him and a restive conservative base in the parliamentary party. Whether this is good policy or merely a sop to his friends is debatable. Certainly, among economists there is considerable scepticism as to whether the cuts will actually work to deliver the much-vaunted jobs and growth.

The forthcoming budget will be a further test for the prime minister and for treasurer Scott Morrison. The ill-fated 2014 budget ruined the careers of Abbott and treasurer Joe Hockey, who ignored at their peril the maxim that politics is the art of the possible. Whether this year’s budget fares any better – and Turnbull’s hopes of retaining support from the big end of town and Liberal donors ride on it – remains to be seen. Morrison’s one-speed style of debate is scarcely adaptable to the negotiating table and Turnbull will have to consider concessions that won’t go down well with his power base.

On top of all this, another worry lingers in the minds of Liberals: the prime minister’s political judgement, as evidenced by his decision to call the 2016 double dissolution election that produced a Senate just as intractable, and perhaps even more so, than the old one. The Liberals, increasingly uneasy, are beginning to see another disaster looming, just as they did in the west but seemed powerless to avert. Truly, all the makings of a bitter and protracted winter of discontent are in place. •