8 April 2018
The closeness of the last Federal election doesn’t really need repeating. Having taken power in 2013 with a healthy majority, the Liberal-National Coalition got there in no small part due to leadership squabbles within the Labor Party over the previous few years. But the Labor squabblers left politics, and Labor became popular with voters again. The Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, hadn’t been popular under his leadership, and looked certain of election defeat until Malcolm Turnbull rolled Abbott in a shock coup in 2015. Turnbull was initially popular, but his popularity didn’t stay very high for long, and when election time came in 2016, he almost lost.
Winning a Federal election requires 76 seats. As counting of the votes from the 2016 election took place, it initially looked like neither the Coalition nor Labor would win the election outright. Parliament looked like it’d be hung – as it’d been two elections earlier, in 2010. That hung election in 2010 was the first in Australia, at a national level, since the 1940s. And the period between elections in 2010 and 2013 was very nasty, as 2010 loser Abbott tried whatever he could to force the country back to the polls. Election night in 2016 looked like seeing in a return of those unpleasant years after 2010. In the end, the Coalition only just got to 76 seats, without having to deal with crossbench MPs, so a hung result was narrowly averted.
Since that close result in 2016, Turnbull hasn’t exactly enjoyed the smoothest of runs as Prime Minister. Being a seat away from losing his majority and needing support from crossbenchers, he’s looked nothing like the leader that people were expecting him to be. It wouldn’t have helped to have Abbott still around, perceived as lurking behind and awaiting any possibility of regaining the leadership.
Some people see Abbott’s mere presence in Parliament as distracting for Turnbull, even if Abbott’s not actually seeking to regain the leadership. Of course, within the Coalition there are many MPs who want Turnbull gone. And they’re unlikely to be going anywhere soon, no matter how much their critics wish for that. The thought might be that the retirement of some, if not all, of those critics would give Turnbull clear air and the freedom to be the leader that everyone has long seen him as.
There’s not much truth in the notion of a few retirements saving Turnbull, because his critics aren’t exactly small in number. However, perhaps ironically, there’s one retirement possibly having been a factor in saving Turnbull.
The retirement in question took place at the last election. In another case of irony, the retirement was that of a Labor MP, whose seat the Coalition won.
I refer to Anna Burke, a Labor MP from eastern Melbourne. Since 1998, she’d held the seat of Chisholm, which she’d won from the Liberal Party. The seat had changed hands a few times previously. As such, when the 2016 election came, by which time Burke had announced her retirement, I’d tipped the Liberals to win her seat, because I felt that Labor couldn’t hold it without her. As it turned out, my prediction for that seat was correct, and the Liberals won it. And it arguably enabled Turnbull to come out of the election with the minimum number of seats needed to win the election.
Created ahead of a general election in 1949, Chisholm was a Liberal seat for decades, falling to Labor for the first time in 1983. This was when Labor was winning seats right across the country, under the leadership of the hugely popular Bob Hawke.
The Liberals regained Chisholm in 1987. It was one of only two seats lost by Labor that year – the other seat was Lowe, in inner western Sydney. The successful Liberal candidate in Chisholm was Michael Wooldridge, who would go on to hold the seat for over a decade and would serve as Health Minister in the Howard Government.
There was a swing against the Liberals in 1993, but Wooldridge was able to retain Chisholm, as were other Liberals who’d won seats from Labor in eastern Melbourne in 1990. These Liberals were generally effective as local members.
In 1998, when the Howard Government proposed a major tax reform, Wooldridge left Chisholm to stand for a safer seat in outer Melbourne. It was perhaps fortunate for him, as Chisholm fell to Labor. And the Labor candidate was Burke.
There were swings against Labor a few times over the years. But Burke was very effective at keeping Chisholm in Labor hands. When she retired, even though there was an overall swing to Labor, her seat became vulnerable.
Her retirement made it possible for the Liberals to win her seat, and they managed to win it. This one win arguably saved Turnbull from defeat. This probably showed the power of incumbency. But there would be irony in that a Labor MP’s retirement could’ve saved the Coalition from losing in 2016.