It was styled as a Liberal “rally”, not a campaign launch, and sensibly so, given Australia has been in an election campaign since, it seems, 1951, and “launching” just a week out looked silly even by contemporary political standards. Not to be outdone, Labor was, ludicrously, having another launch in Queensland at the same time — hoping, so the rumours went. to shore up a deteriorating position in the Sunshine State. That’s one to the Liberals in the “accepting basic reality” stakes.

But the late date seemed written on the faces of the speakers at the Novotel at Homebush in Sydney. At Labor’s first launch the week before, another 40 kms further west in Penrith, the Labor heavyweights had performed with energy amid a fireworks display of sentiment and Labor spirit. In contrast, this was a low-key event — and, from the point of view of an attendee, thank goodness.

[Labor’s western Sydney pantomime show]

Craig Laundy, the excellent western Sydney Liberal MP, welcomed attendees, paid his respects to Aboriginal elders and noted they were meeting on Aboriginal land — something you never thought you’d hear at a Liberal campaign launch. Then he disappeared, apparently convinced that a quick game was a good game, having introduced Barnaby Joyce. Joyce began by suggesting he’d been partying hard last night and was a little tired — and indeed he did seem tired. His bizarre speech, during which he suggested we’d been building highways for 60,000 years and that the Coalition could take direct credit for high world agricultural prices, was probably no sillier than the usual stuff we hear from Barnaby (this is the guy who once claimed Australia was about to default), but it lacked the usual uncomprehending truculence that Joyce can serve up.

Lassitude, too, seemed to mark Julie Bishop’s speech — and given she’s been up and down the length and breadth of the country campaigning for marginal and safe seat MPs alike, that was entirely justified. There’s this weird idea being floated by far-right Liberal MPs that worker ant Peter Dutton could replace her as deputy leader, when Bishop has long been one of the most tireless campaigners in the Liberal team, ready to show up anywhere, anytime, no matter what your margin, even when other senior Liberals won’t. The idea that MPs would turn on her is outright bizarre. Bishop, playing the usual attack role that is the deputy’s, savaged Bill Shorten, and we had the first reference to the Liberals’ scare campaign about a scare campaign — unionists, she maintained, had been calling elderly Australians “late at night” to tell them Medicare was under threat. The Liberals do love a good demonisation of unionists — one of the staples of Liberal mythology is unions using political donation disclosure laws to go around small business threatening to beat up Liberal donors. And this one was straight to the pool room, with the midnight (OK, maybe 7pm, in an ad break for M*A*S*H) visit to nanna from a union thug. “Nice ‘elf system you got, gran.” The blue-singleted CFMEU thug delicately flicks some pathology results to the floor. “Pity if anyfin’… ‘appened to it.”

Shame, called the crowd, and rightly so.

Malcolm Turnbull’s speech was interesting for its main theme, and for what was missing from it. It was, in effect, one long plea not to be left in minority government or with a tiny majority (the kind that would enable far-right Liberals to hold him to ransom). The Turnbull who expressed confidence he’d win a fortnight ago was suddenly warning of the nightmare of unstable government, of a Labor-Greens-independent “alliance” (surely “axis” would have been better). Brexit, and all that, of course, and Turnbull much more than Bill Shorten fits the bill of the calm, assured prime minister needed at a time of “global headwinds”. But time and again Turnbull came back to warning about voting for independents and minor parties (this is the man who is in formal coalition with a man like Joyce, but anyway). He correctly warned about the risk voters took if they voted for unknown candidates in the parties led by personalities — PUP being only the latest demonstration that personality-based micro-parties don’t tend to be particularly stable.

[Xenophon is coming — and disruption follows with him]

He even expressly addressed voters considering voting independent: “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.” The slogan of the day was of a piece with this modest “don’t leave me at the mercy of lunatics” pitch — “Stick To The Plan”. It was almost, but not quite, as compelling as #faketradie’s “stick with the current mob for a while”.

What was not in the speech was also notable. No mention of the biggest spending policy of the Coalition campaign, the $50 billion big company tax cut. If you heard the speech, you’d be forgiven for thinking the only proposal on the table was a tax cut for small businesses. No mention at all — literally none, nought, zero — of the NBN. And one solitary, lonely mention of climate change in the middle of an attack on Labor, marooned like a Pacific island caught in Peter Dutton’s hilariously rising sea levels.

The man who once looked set to demolish Labor and rule for years was reduced to pleading for a majority. The man who lost his leadership fighting for action on climate change avoided mentioning it. The politician synonymous with technological acumen and business nous ignored the NBN. As a rally it wasn’t much; as a demonstration of the disappointment of Turnbull’s prime ministership, it was a perfect distillation.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey