What's next for maybe-PM Malcolm Turnbull



State politics shaped this federal election. Malcolm Turnbull should send Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, in particular, a thank you card.

Bill Shorten campaign busWhatever the eventual outcome, federal Labor's poor performance in his state, probably caused by the lingering dispute between the volunteer firefighters and the state government and other state factors, might just have made the difference between defeat and victory for the federal Coalition. Rather than Labor winning one or two seats in Victoria it may have lost Chisholm, its sole loss anywhere. In football parlance such losses are worth eight points.

As we await the final House of Representatives outcome two things are clear, using criteria for judging the leaders against seats won and lost which I laid out last Thursday ('How the scores could read', Canberra Times, 30 June 2016).

The performance of the Opposition Leader exceeded expectations. The pass mark for Bill Shorten was a net gain of ten seats and a credit mark was 15, which was going to push the government close to minority status.

As it turned out Labor looks likely to make a net gain somewhere in the range of 12 to 16 additional seats. That might just give them a chance of minority government. But even if it does not it should guarantee Shorten's tenure as Opposition Leader as well as win him greatly increased respect within the wider community. Labor has won a significant increase in momentum if nothing else.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the other hand has fallen well below his highest expectations. A loss of seats of this magnitude was always going to weaken him at a time when he cannot afford it.

Turnbull's strength has always been related not just to his capacity to govern but to his apparent electoral popularity. This election result was another hit to that perception following on falling personal opinion poll results.

If he remains Prime Minister, as he probably will, he now lacks the strength necessary to fight the plethora of battles which will now confront him. His challenges will include:


"While Turnbull did much better than Abbott would have at this election conservative Liberals will never admit this."


How to manage the dynamics within the House of Representatives, including a potential period of negotiation with cross bench members about forming a minority government.

How to prevail in the battle of ideas about social and economic policy in the wider community, including the forthcoming same sex marriage plebiscite where his authority will be on the line again. He now cannot afford for that plebiscite to fail. He also must attempt to regain leadership in matters of economic policy reform, which should be his forte.

The continuing bitter conflict within his own party between progressive and conservative Liberals will continue. He leads the former and Tony Abbott leads the latter. While Turnbull did much better than Abbott would have at this election conservative Liberals will never admit this. Furthermore, Turnbull will be held responsible for choosing the double dissolution election which has failed to improve the situation of the government in the Senate.

This election has also weakened the Liberals within the Coalition because the Nationals have gained a seat while the Liberal Party has lost a large number. This will tip the Coalition against Turnbull's inclinations in a conservative direction and cost the Liberals at least one ministerial position.

Turnbull's most pressing early decision, assuming he is returned, will be what to do with Abbott himself, whether or not to bring him back into the ministry or whether to leave him on the backbench with the promise of a future diplomatic posting, perhaps to London. He will also need to renegotiate the Coalition agreement with the Nationals from a position of weakness and in the context of both these decisions begin to think about what to do with the big issues of climate change, asylum seekers and refugees and same sex marriage.

If Turnbull is fortunate enough to continue as Prime Minister, then he must not just gird his loins for many tough battles but recognise that the battlelines themselves within Australian politics have been re-set to his disadvantage.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Main image: David McKelvey, Flickr CC

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull, Election 2016



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Existing comments

I think that the double dissolution caused many people to read the policies of minor parties and find others to vote for. There had been a hope that Malcolm Turnbull would cause a modification of the government's policies and actions. Because this didn't happen many voters felt powerless and so became refugees themselves. Tony Abbot returning to the bench might be appropriate for the party but will lock in the loss of followers looking to a government with a greater sense of social justice and moral integrity; not a patronising morality, but one that encourages confidence and a genuine inclusiveness and generousity - not fear.

Kerry | 05 July 2016  

The recriminations have already began in the Liberal Party. I suspect that so called advisors gave Malcolm a poor piece of advice. Now he has a situation far worse then he could have imagined . Certainly heads will roll over this outcome . Sadly he lost the popular mandate of the people when constrained by the ghosts of Abbott, his progressive stance was whittled away when he took on the Prime Ministership, thus losing him the support he had from all sides of political opinion. What I can't understand is why the Lib's did not take notice of the Polls which quite correctly forecast the result. The thought of Abbott with his devise policies being anywhere near the front bench fills me with horror!

Gavin | 05 July 2016  

For me the biggest issues are climate change,asylum seekers and refugees. The only chance of Australia doing some degree of justice to these vital issues is with a power-shared government between Labor, the Greens and others. As this now seems unlikely, I fear that the desperate asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru will be left in desperate Limbo, with increasing depression, rape, murder and self-immolation. The world is heading for 4 degrees Celsius warming by 2100 and Australia is intent on opening up new coal mines. Is it really an exciting time to be an Australian?

Grant Allen | 05 July 2016  

NSW politics almost certainly helped the Labor Party win so many seats from the Liberals last Saturday. The arrogance of the Baird government in refusing to listen to the electorate on so many issues was severely punished in a State which has undoubtedly the worst record in terms of criminal corruption in a political party, namely the State Labor Party which should have ensured its oblivion for many years. Baird, so cock-a-hoop at the lack of credible opposition, chose to ignore the electorate and dictate what he wanted. Baird is far more to blame than Turnbull for the poor showing of the Liberal Party in NSW, aided and abetted by Bishop (Bronnie), Abbott and Credlin who collectively simply don't get it and live in a fortunately dead but smelly, unburied past. Surprisingly perhaps, Bernardi in his post-election comments seems to be a voice for sanity in the midst of chaos contrary to all attempts of the media to paint him as some sort of irrelevant ratbag simply because he espouses a moral persona and opposition to the moral corruption of modern society

john frawley | 05 July 2016  

Regarding "Turnbull's strength " ie. his popularity in the above article. Isn't it important to ask why was M. Turnbull so popular prior to the decline during his prime ministership and the election campaign? In my view his betrayal of core principals eg. real and effective action on climate change.Similarly the republic and his promise of more civilized debate and discourse.To me all of these surrenders (to the right in his party) amply explain the disillusion and disappointment in the voters.

Richard Davies | 06 July 2016  

What Would Wran Do? Turnbull should channel his former investment banking partner who, five months after the federal ALP debacle in December 1975, won the 1976 NSW state election with a 1 seat majority in the Assembly while facing a 39 Coalition:23 ALP disadvantage in the Council, and innovated his way to two wranslides.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 July 2016  

Malcolm Turnbull will need to come down to earth if the Coalition have more seats than Labor. This is still in doubt. John Frawley is quite right: Abbott, Credlin and Bronwyn Bishop are sore losers and should be consigned to the dustbin of politics. Abbott is someone Turnbull should never ever trust. A 'prestigious' - but basically 'status only' - embassy such as the Holy See or UNESCO would be well suited as a dumping ground. The Nationals - a conservative but sane political party - have done far better than the Liberals. They have real concerns with the environment, communication services, infrastructure, education and fairness to the bush. Like the legendary 'Black Jack' McEwan - one of the few people who could tell Menzies to go to hell - I think Barnaby Joyce could be one of the really great Australian politicians. Things like same sex marriage are really of minor importance to most Australians. The main issues concerning them are jobs, the country's economic and border security, education and the future of their children. Turnbull needs to help move the political troglodytes like Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews into suitable retirement. They are unwanted and well past their use by date. This country deserves a future. We need to get on with creating it.

Edward Fido | 06 July 2016  

Too many Australian voters have been duped in by the right of the "liberal" Party, The tactic to make Malcolm Turnbull has largely paid off for them despite the great loss of seats. Malcolm might seem more progressive and sympathetic to human rights and social justice because of his utterances on same-sex marriage, the republic and climate change. The reality, of course, is that he faithfully carried out the policies of Abbott and the extreme right of the party. Let's face it, he is a millionaire merchant banker, has some of his wealth in overseas tax havens etc. There was never a chance that he would do anything much about social justice and human rights apart from some vague utterances. And then there is the issue of his deputy, Barnaby Joyce. I find the claim by some that he is a credible leader is extremely misguided. He is a promoter of coal seam gas drilling (fracking) and the opening of more coal mines to the point where there is much dissention in the Nationals from farmers who want to produce uncontaminated food. The result should have seen the election of representatives committed to social justice, human rights, care for the environment and fairness in international relations. Tragically, it didn't.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 10 July 2016  

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