14 July 2017
Hardly any Liberal-National Coalition MPs would have the best of memories at this time, given what they’ve been through.
Actually, this sentiment doesn’t apply only to this month marking one year since a very narrow win in a Federal election – it could also apply to a Federal election that possibly got away from the Coalition around this time thirty years ago, in July 1987.
Back then, Bob Hawke had been Prime Minister for four years, having led the Labor Party to an election win in March 1983, just a month after he’d obtained the Labor leadership. Although he’d long been immensely popular across Australia both before and during his time as PM, his popularity was dropping off to some extent when he called that 1987 election.
Facing him in that election was John Howard, who’d accidentally become leader of the Liberal Party – and also the Coalition Opposition – about two years earlier. His rise to the leadership was accidental because of ridiculous circumstances. Before then, he’d been deputy leader, under the popular Andrew Peacock, but because he was seen as a better performer in Parliament than Peacock and having stronger convictions on many issues, Peacock became flustered, to the point where he tried to persuade the Liberals to vote in a different person as deputy leader – this attempt failed, and he resigned as leader. Howard then became leader, but lots of Liberals didn’t like how he got there.
Despite being virtually a stone’s throw away from becoming PM, Howard didn’t seem as good as Opposition Leader as he’d been a just an Opposition frontbencher.
Worse for Howard, Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen saw fit to campaign for the job of PM, being keen to see Labor lose office but severely doubting that the Coalition could win under Howard. The Queensland Premier, a National, was having delusions of grandeur, but had strong support from some quarters, although ultimately nobody was really interested in running for his mob at the Federal election. When the election came, he’d done nothing more than split the Coalition, with the Nationals leaving the Liberals.
To be fair, even if the Coalition hadn’t split, most people don’t believe that it would’ve beaten Labor in that 1987 election, because the Liberals had problems over policy as well as some of their own infighting. Labor ended up increasing its majority at the election, while the Coalition parties came back together.
History shows that Howard lost the Liberal leadership two years after that election, and then won it nearly six years later. He won an election and became Prime Minister in 1996, and governed for eleven years before losing office at an election in 2007.
Led in 2007 by Kevin Rudd, Labor defeated the Coalition comfortably. But Labor lost its majority at an election three years later, in 2010, and could only govern with the support of crossbench MPs. By then, Labor MPs had dumped Rudd in a surprise leadership coup, with Julia Gillard taking over.
Tony Abbott had led the Coalition to that 2010 election, and after failing to convince the crossbenchers to support him instead of Gillard, he spent three years trying anything and everything to bring on a new election. He’d made his name as an attack dog in Parliament during his time as a minister in the Howard Government. As Opposition Leader, he was constantly attacking and opposing, with constant negativity.
While Labor had problems over policy and governance, it was largely consumed with infighting, as Rudd kept trying to regain the leadership that he’d lost to Gillard so suddenly. He got it back in June 2013, but lost an election just months later, and Abbott became PM, winning a healthy majority.
But Abbott had never been popular with voters, and even as PM, he still seemed to behave like an attack dog, which voters hated. He was totally incapable of taking voters with him, as far as policy and other issues went. Less than two years after he became PM, there was an attempt to dump him from the leadership, with a large proportion of Liberal MPs – but not a majority – wanting him out. The numbers weren’t quite there to dump him then, but months later, in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull challenged him for the leadership, and beat him.
After initially seeming very popular among voters as PM, Turnbull saw his popularity suddenly drop off. His problem was that he’d long been known as a man with principles, but he couldn’t act upon them because so many Liberals disagreed with them – some more strongly than others. Somehow, the PM looked fake.
Frustrated with an inability to get support for key policies and pieces of legislation, Turnbull saw fit to call an election in July 2016. And he almost lost. In the end, the Coalition came away with a two-seat majority over Labor and various crossbenchers.
At this point, a swing of around 0.7 per cent to Labor will cost the Coalition its majority, although the presence of the crossbenchers – five in all – means that Labor needs a bigger swing to win an election outright.
The close result of the last election, a year ago this month, comes amid joyless memories at this time for Coalition MPs. Polls now point to defeat at the next election. How they respond will keep many observers interested.