Turnbull’s rise triggers climate change

27 September 2015

Massive dissatisfaction with the Abbott Coalition Government probably had countless people expecting a leadership change.  But there were too many factors making most people, including myself, doubt that it’d happen so soon – hence the sense of shock when it happened just under a fortnight ago, and just after the second anniversary of the election of the Abbott Government to power.

No sensible person would argue that Tony Abbott was ever popular during his time as Liberal Party leader, whether as Opposition Leader from 2009 or as Prime Minister from 2013.  In fact, most people had long disliked him.  They ended up voting for him because the Labor Party became distracting from governing because of internal leadership squabbles, and he’d done a good job of making the voters doubt the competency in office of Labor, particularly regarding economic management.  But despite winning an election, Abbott never had voters warming to him, and once the main players in Labor’s troubles had departed politics, people no longer had anything reminding them of why they’d voted for Abbott and the opinion polls began to show it.

Having lost office to an unpopular rival, Labor was somehow able to benefit from this scenario, and found itself consistently ahead of the Liberal-National Coalition in the opinion polls, despite having done nothing to attract the voters.  The Coalition made some mistakes in terms of policies and explaining the reasons behind them to voters, but these were all that Labor needed to lead in the polls.

However, despite the unpopularity of the Coalition and especially of Abbott, there was doubt over whether a leadership change would happen in the Coalition.  Everybody talked about Malcolm Turnbull as a better alternative, and more popular with the voters, but the majority of Coalition MPs couldn’t abide him.  And no other Coalition MPs even looked like they had what it took to replace Abbott, at least in the short term.

So there would’ve been some surprise when Turnbull quit his post as Communications Minister and moved to challenge Abbott for the Liberal leadership.  He ended up beating Abbott 54-44 in a vote among Liberal MPs, which wasn’t quite an even split but also wasn’t a comfortable margin.  The Liberals were clearly divided over Turnbull, and time will tell whether he can gain the trust of those who voted against him.

Turnbull is seen as too close to Labor on certain issues.  He’s a firm believer in reducing environmental pollution and tackling climate change, which the Coalition is arguably divided over, with many Coalition MPs dismissing the whole notion of climate change as a myth.  He’s more tolerant of same-sex marriage than other Coalition MPs, and he’s long championed the notion of constitutionally changing Australia to make the country a republic.  Labor is more inclined to support these issues than the Coalition, and many in the Coalition ranks can’t abide Turnbull because of his positions on them.

But polls have consistently shown voters rating Turnbull more highly than Abbott as a leader.  Turnbull has firm convictions, and he is articulate and able to sell messages well as a communicator.  Some people argue that Turnbull could lure many voters away from Labor, particularly those who voted against the Liberals more because of disliking Abbott than actually preferring Labor.  It may take several opinion polls over the coming months to show what effect Turnbull’s rise has on the Coalition’s vote.  In a sense, we’ll soon see whether or not his rise to the Liberal leadership triggers climate change, albeit of a political kind rather than an environmental kind.

Now the challenge facing Turnbull as Prime Minister relates to the Coalition’s policies and its ability to sell them to the public.  The Coalition has been burnt in the polls because of unpopular policies in relation to cuts in public spending and possible changes to employment laws.  Although voters seem to accept that there’s a major budget deficit, they’re scared that potential spending cuts will hurt them personally.  They’re not convinced that the Coalition wants to tackle tax avoidance by major companies, and they’re scared that the Coalition might try to deregulate the employment market, removing things like penalty rates for shift-based jobs, as happened when the Coalition was last in office.  Can Turnbull convince voters to accept its policy agenda, or make any cuts seem less painful?

More importantly, can Turnbull convince the crossbenchers in the Senate, whose support he needs to pass laws?  He needs six extra Senate votes to pass any laws, and he needs to engage with those Senators and persuade them as well as the public.  I suspect that he’d do a better job of persuading and negotiating than Abbott did, but it’s not going to be easy.

Turnbull might just bring the Coalition’s vote up in the opinion polls.  But he needs to win over the cynics in his own ranks, as well as the public and the crossbench Senators who could make or break his policy agenda.  Very interesting times lie ahead as Turnbull confronts challenges from different directions.

Mixed signals likely in Canning

14 September 2015

The recent death of Don Randall has triggered a Federal by-election in Western Australia, which happens this Saturday.  Unsurprisingly, it’s been talked and written about as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, with its popularity long on the skids, despite an apparent lack of appeal among voters for the Labor Party.

By-elections usually happen when MPs die or resign well before general elections happen.  These are separate elections held only in the seats of former MPs upon their departure.  In the case of the late Randall, the by-election caused by his death will happen in the seat of Canning, based on the southern fringe of Perth.

Randall had two stints in Federal Parliament, albeit without doing much of note.  He was first elected in the seat of Swan, in Perth’s south, in 1996, and was defeated in 1998.  He stood successfully for Canning in 2001, and held that seat until his death.  But the thing for which I remember Randall most was in fact a grubby jibe, which I’ll come to.

At first glance, the Liberal Party really shouldn’t lose Canning.  It holds this seat by a margin of about 11.8 per cent over Labor.  But when I last looked closely at some opinion polls a few months ago, they showed swings to Labor as high as the Canning margin in Western Australia alone – well above a predicted swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor nationwide, as well as the swing about 4.3 per cent needed by Labor simply to win the next election.  I haven’t looked closely at the polls of late simply because they’ve lacked geographic breakdowns, which I see more value in than the nationwide snapshots that most opinion polls focus on.  Anyway, the polls have actually suggested that Canning is more vulnerable than it looks.

Canning has also been something of a swinging seat over the last few decades.  The Liberals held it during the years when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, lost it to Labor when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister in 1983, and won it from Labor when John Howard was elected Prime Minister in 1996.  Labor regained the seat in 1998, before Randall regained it for the Liberals in 2001.  In later years he survived one strong challenge from Labor candidate Alannah MacTiernan, a former State Labor Government minister.

When Randall first entered Parliament in 1996, he won Swan from Labor, after Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley left that seat to run for Brand, a safer Labor seat at the time.  In the end, Beazley was almost beaten in Brand.  Some observers put his near-defeat down to the reluctance of the Australian Democrats, led by Senator Cheryl Kernot, to direct preferences to Labor, to whom they’d usually directed their preferences at past elections.  Despite this near-death experience, Beazley became Labor leader after former Prime Minister Paul Keating departed.

In late 1997, the highly-regarded Kernot stunned all and sundry when she announced her defection from the Democrats to the Labor Party.  It seemed that Labor figures had been courting Kernot, who was disillusioned with the agenda of the Howard Coalition Government in those days – Labor was trying to distance itself from the unpopular Keating and might’ve seen Kernot as a break from the Keating era.  But Kernot had a hard time in Labor ranks, and was defeated in 2001, before it was revealed that she’d been having an affair with Labor stalwart Gareth Evans.

It was after Kernot’s defection to Labor that Randall did what I remember him most for.  Standing up in Parliament, Randall described Kernot as having “the morals of an alley cat” – a grubby remark.

There might well have been some irony in this incident.  Kernot arguably played some part in almost finishing off the career of Labor stalwart Beazley, but the insulting of her after her defection came from a man who would’ve finished off the career of Beazley if he hadn’t left the seat of Swan to run for Brand.

After this insult, Randall seemingly achieved little else in politics.  He lost Swan in 1998, before returning to Parliament by winning Canning in 2001.

Meanwhile, going back to the by-election resulting from his death, an element of sympathy might save the Liberals in his seat.  By-elections rarely change hands when triggered by deaths, and despite the unpopularity of the Liberals at this time, voters mightn’t be as keen to give them a kick in the rear end as they’d be if MPs call it quits outside election time for no good reason.

Mixed signals await in Canning with this coming by-election.  There’ll be a decent swing against the Liberals, but probably not big enough to lose them the seat, though any swing above 6-7 per cent against them could send Labor cock-a-hoop, despite voters’ doubts about Labor.  My tip is for a swing of 7-8 per cent to Labor, which wouldn’t be too bad a result for the Liberals at this time.  The size of the swing will grab attention, showing whether or not voters might gradually turn back to the Coalition.

Sydney might still have Moore coming

11 September 2015

Local council elections happen in New South Wales in about a year’s time.  There’s been talk that many local councils mightn’t even exist when elections come around, with the State Government looking to merge councils everywhere.

I’m not convinced that council mergers, forced or otherwise, will play that heavily on the minds of voters.  In terms of what local councils do, you’d think of them as the bodies responsible for garbage collection and street repairs, and from whom you need approval if you’re looking to build a new house or extend an existing one.  There have been several council mergers across NSW over the last decade or so, but despite a lot of hype, they don’t seem to have mattered much to voters in the end.

My mind goes back to the forced merger of two councils in Sydney’s inner west, creating a new council named Canada Bay, which came about despite local opposition.  In those days, the Labor Party was governing in NSW, and the merger was talked up as a major issue.  But when local council elections came years later, Labor won several seats on the merged council, and also won the mayoral election, which was by popular vote, quite easily.  This dispelled the notion of local anger over council mergers.

Only one council merger in recent memory has caused local resentment – the merging of Sydney City Council and a neighbouring council in early 2004.  It catapulted State MP Clover Moore into the job of Lord Mayor of Sydney, and she looks like staying forever, despite the efforts of many to get rid of her.

Moore’s election of Lord Mayor of Sydney City Council, which only takes in a relative handful of suburbs in inner Sydney rather than a vast part of the Sydney metropolitan region, was basically a backlash against what inner urban voters saw as grubby politics.  The State Labor Government of the time merged two councils to create one larger council taking in the Sydney CBD and surrounds, and sacked the elected councillors.  It was thought that Labor was trying to stack the council with people more likely to approve projects, specifically new buildings and office towers, which major property developers were really keen to construct in order to make a quick buck, regardless of whether their proposed buildings would fit in with the character of the CBD, among other reasons.  Voters saw Labor, and the Liberal Party for that matter, as beholden to big businesses, or “the top end of town”, which they resented.  Sensing the resentment, Moore chose to run for the Lord Mayoralty of the merged council, and won.  She came across as some kind of “voice” of “little people” against “big people”, despite concerns about possible clashes over the mayoralty and her existing job as a State MP.  Inner urban voters have elected her again and again ever since.

Because of this popularity, Moore has seen fit to pursue ideas like replacing streets’ traffic lanes with bicycle lanes and light rail.  She clearly thinks that voters will support her and her ideas, largely because they distrust the major political parties.  The dedicated bicycle lanes, known as cycleways, have annoyed many business owners, because they’ve taken away parking spaces and disrupted flows for vehicular traffic.  But despite the existence of many small businesses in the inner city, voters seem to think of big business when they hear the term “business”, and see business as caring more about a quick buck than ordinary people’s needs.  Credible or not, this is perhaps inner urban voters’ collective attitude regarding business, and might be why they trust Moore.  Both Labor and the Liberals have tried various things to get Moore out of politics, but she’s beaten them every time.

This might be why the Liberal-National Coalition, which has governed NSW since 2011, has pursued ideas such as building light rail lines through the CBD, despite the inevitable disruption to vehicular traffic and some long-held resistance from the business community.  I sense that the Coalition is trying to paint itself as sharing Moore’s ideals, because it knows that voters seem to like what she’s for, and copying her ideas might be the only means of ending her career.

But I suspect that Moore will stay on, rather than retire.  Light rail will take time to build, and with local council elections a year away, there might be suspicions that the Coalition is only copying her until election time, in the hope of confusing voters into tossing Moore out, before ditching her ideas.  I think that Moore will stay on until her vision of light rail and cycleways and other stuff is complete.  If you’ll pardon the pun, there’ll still be more, or Moore, coming soon in terms of what features Sydney might have.

The trust of Moore in inner Sydney stems clearly from distrust of the major parties.  I can’t see even merging Sydney City Council with other councils or splitting it up as likely to bring Moore down.  Distrust of major parties will probably give Moore at least another mayoral term.