(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

“Why did we not run on the carbon tax?” Liberal senator Eric Abetz asked. “Why did we not run on union corruption?”

Why indeed. Malcolm Turnbull’s message in the 2016 election campaign — “jobs, growth and stable government” — had failed. The politically naive Turnbull and his wife, Lucy, didn’t want to sully his image, or ape his predecessor’s style, by running a negative campaign. Turnbull had come to power with an optimistically grand, if vague, vision for the nation. He believed he could convince Australians to support him through the power of his words — as long as they were on his terms. 

During the two-month campaign, which Turnbull initiated on May 8, 2016, Coalition political advisers implored Turnbull to hold more press conferences attacking Bill Shorten. Instead, he would offer to give a speech, and would write it himself. 

Ironically, Turnbull’s determination to run a less political government than Abbott had contributed to the electoral disaster. Once he became prime minister, Turnbull reversed a trend that began under Kevin Rudd in 2007 and continued under Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin. He relinquished power.

In Abbott’s government, decisions were channelled through the famously abrasive Credlin, who strictly controlled access to Abbott and exerted authority over ministers. Under Turnbull, the prime minister’s office gave ministerial offices more authority. Control of the cabinet agenda went to a senior MP, Arthur Sinodinos, instead of to a political adviser in the prime minister’s office.

The effect was a more smoothly run government that was less politically responsive. Turnbull’s team lacked the personal intensity of Abbott’s office, which often felt under siege because of the strong emotions created by Credlin’s tough style and Abbott’s deep loyalty to her. 

Without centralised power, it became harder for Turnbull to manage what has been dubbed the “24-hour media cycle”, the all-day coverage of politics on websites, social media and cable television. At the same time, some MPs chafed at the management style of Turnbull’s office, and in particular his principal private secretary, Sally Cray. The prime minister was egotistical and distant, they said. Rumours spread among Coalition MPs that Cray was responsible for leaking negative stories about them as punishment for standing up to Turnbull. 

When he took over as leader, Turnbull had approved new rules for the regular meetings of Coalition MPs that approved government decisions. Briefings on new legislation by ministers took priority over political discussion, a shift that led to longish briefings by Attorney-General George Brandis and others.

The new system took up precious time that would otherwise have been used for debate about the government’s performance. Kevin Andrews complained several times, but Turnbull never reverted to the previous approach. “It was a signal from Malcolm that we don’t have time for discussion,” said one conservative who has known Turnbull for over a decade. “Malcolm requires complete sycophancy. Without it, he takes you out.”

On July 11, 2016, nine days after the federal election, Liberal backbencher Angus Taylor wrote a memo for Turnbull. During his children’s annual skiing holiday, he had sat down with a computer and sifted through the results, seat by seat, which he compared with data from the 2011 census. He wanted to understand how the government had come so close to defeat, and warn Turnbull about the necessity of correcting course. To minimise the chance of a leak, Taylor saved the two-page document on his Google Drive, and sent the prime minister a link giving only him access. The memo was written in a constructive tone designed not to offend the prime minister. 

The Rhodes scholar and former McKinsey management consultant believed the Coalition was undergoing a structural shift in support, and that this required political adjustments. The Coalition’s voters were moving from the wealthy inner cities to the outer suburbs, regional cities and towns. What was seen in privileged electorates such as Turnbull’s Wentworth as a sign of economic health — the huge increase in property prices — was causing financial stress for those on the city fringes and elsewhere who didn’t have the earning power to keep up, Taylor wrote. 

Taylor divided the electorate into two groups: those who worked in big cities, where the wages were high, and those who didn’t. The Liberal Party had held 20 seats in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria before the election, each with more than 10,000 city workers. It held 33 seats in the outer suburbs and regions.

Taylor found that the voting patterns in the two classes of electorates during the 2016 election was remarkably consistent: Liberal MPs who represented voters on the fringes suffered swings far bigger than those on the inside. Taylor’s message was clear: Coalition voters were feeling left behind. 

Taylor’s analysis was prescient. He had identified the government’s primary structural problem, and proposed, in broad terms, a policy response. In hindsight, it read like a high-level blueprint for the re-election of Scott Morrison’s government in 2019, when those struggling outer suburbs, regional cities and towns swung back to the Liberal Party.

Yet in 2016, Turnbull, who had already told Taylor he would be given the cities portfolio in the new government, never acknowledged receiving the document. Turnbull had almost lost power, and now appeared to be ignoring the underlying reasons for his near-death experience. 

This is an edited extract from The Surprise Party: How the Coalition Went from Chaos to Comeback by Aaron Patrick, published by Black Inc. Books. In stores now.

Peter Fray

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