When Malcolm Turnbull declares victory on Saturday night — which, based on current polling, he will do — will he have achieved all of the goals he set out in pursuit of when he started this ridiculously long campaign many weeks ago?
Obviously he’ll have achieved his primary goal of securing re-election for the Coalition. It won’t be the comprehensive victory he could have secured if he’d gone to the polls last year, when the Coalition led by 10 points or more on a two-party preferred basis, but any victory is good enough in politics — just ask John Howard, who scraped home in 1998 by the barest of margins and went on to lead until 2007. There are no good defeats in politics — they all suck.
But Turnbull also had two other goals — to secure control of his own, deeply divided party by winning a solid mandate, and getting rid of a recalcitrant Senate that looked more like the cantina sequence from Star Wars than a house of review. As a footnote to that second goal, we might as well add passage of that assault on basic rights that is the ABCC legislation, an issue that has been hidden at an undisclosed location for most of the campaign.
On those goals, Turnbull’s success on the first is uncertain, and depends heavily on how the minor parties perform tomorrow, and on the second he looks to have failed.
On current polling, Turnbull appears set to lose around eleven seats, though the final tally will depend on preference flows, Tasmania and how successful NXT is in South Australia. A single-figure loss of seats will give Turnbull respite from his internal enemies, but double figures will spell trouble — especially if a nightmare scenario unfolds where NXT grabs seats in South Australia and Labor picks up seats in Tasmania, lifting his losses closer to 15 than 10.
Like Kevin Rudd in Labor, Turnbull will be hostage to opinion polls; once he falls behind — especially given he used polling as the basis for launching an assault on Tony Abbott — the knives will be sharpened.
In the Senate, however, Turnbull’s decision to call a double dissolution election in the wake of the Coalition-Greens deal to change Senate voting laws looks likely to backfire, with the Coalition looking likely to lose at least one seat, Labor pick up one, and a new set of independents — including the toxic One Nation — and Xenophon party senators replacing the former menagerie of crossbenchers.
Remember, Turnbull had no need to call this double dissolution; he could merely have waited a few more weeks and held a normal half-senate election. He will thus bear full responsibility for ushering back into political relevance a deeply poisonous entity like Hanson, and possibly introducing new sources of instability like Derryn Hinch.
This doesn’t merely augur poorly for Turnbull’s chances of passing legislation, but is likely to further concern ratings agencies already worried that the Australian political establishment now lacks the smarts and institutional wherewithal to successfully curb spending or increase taxation sufficiently to return Australia to budget surplus over the medium term. That, too, will be on Turnbull.
In terms of campaigning, the numbers suggest Bill Shorten has outperformed Turnbull: he has improved his approval ratings with voters while Turnbull has marked time, and voters’ perceptions of Labor on key issues has improved while the Coalition has gone backwards or remained steady. But Turnbull has had one advantage all along — he has easily remained voters’ preferred prime minister.
And one key aspect of Turnbull’s political persona has been present throughout the entire campaign, but unacknowledged by most of those participating: voters retain some hope he can become the leader they want him to be, despite their disappointment, that the “real Malcolm”, the “old Malcolm” can emerge, post-election, to offer the kind of leadership they crave. The Turnbull who wins tomorrow will, in an important sense, be The Man Who Wasn’t There, invisible since Turnbull ascended to the leadership, the one voters know is inside the Prime Minister but who hasn’t dared show his face.
That’s why Labor has been unable to seal the deal with voters, despite leading in the polls for much of the campaign: ultimately voters aren’t ready to abandon Turnbull yet, and he’s given them no cause to during the campaign. He might have bored them, he might have irritated them, but he hasn’t alienated them. The Man Who Wasn’t There, they feel, could still appear and lead the country.
That, of course, means Turnbull is vulnerable in his next term — if he continues to disappoint voters, then they will abandon him in droves, having given him the gift of election victory, they’ll be in no mood for further disappointment. And that’s when Turnbull’s enemies will move in for the kill. The leadership stability of Australian politics over the next three years will therefore depend, to a significant extent, on how many at-risk seats the Coalition can hang onto tomorrow. The more the better for Turnbull, and for stability.