The contest that was supposed to be about leadership suddenly wasn’t.
For Malcolm Turnbull, the Super Saturday by-elections were, in hindsight, “about many issues. They are about the candidates, they’re about local issues, they’re about national policies, they are about national leaders.”
With a 9.4 per cent swing against the government in the Queensland seat of Longman, and no luck for the government in collecting seats from the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull’s signature policy of company tax cuts now looks more like a burden than a cut-through message for voters. Turnbull insists it isn’t an “albatross” around his neck.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten was supposed to be the one in strife, but now Turnbull’s colleagues are providing non-attributable quotes considering the future beyond their current leader. All it takes is a few dud by-elections to turn political fortunes around.
Shorten is all but locked in to the Labor leadership thanks to changes made by Kevin Rudd in the bloody aftermath of Labor leadership backstabbings. He looks set to lead Labor to the next election, expected sometime before May 2019. And on the current trajectory, Shorten is leading Labor to victory.
Trust Turnbull to play it all off, though. It was just an average swing and nothing much to worry about, he was at pains to tell reporters.
“Now, I see that Bill Shorten is punching the air as though he’s won the World Cup. The reality is that the Labor Party has secured an average or conventional swing in a by-election to it in Longman and has not secured any swing at all in Braddon, at this stage it looks like it will be a line-ball result. So there is not a lot to celebrate for the Labor Party. There is certainly nothing to crow about,” the prime minister said.
Shorten, whose days as leader were supposed to be numbered, has been buoyed by the results of the by-elections: Labor retained its four seats, despite predictions that nearly a hundred years of history would no longer hold and the government would win a seat from an opposition in a by-election.
That was not to be, so Shorten has been doing the rounds on breakfast television. Speaking to The Today Show, he called on Turnbull to resign. Making these kinds of claims, Shorten knows he’s in a strong position.
“The reality is that he needs to drop these tax cuts on the way out of office. He needs to drop them, and then he needs to leave the keys to the Lodge and he needs to go. He has made his whole case to be prime minister on the basis of reducing corporate tax rates for big business. I mean, it’s a bad idea. But if he can’t even sell his own economic ideas, he should hand over to someone who can sell economic ideas they actually believe in,” Shorten said last Monday.
Who could sell the Liberal party to a sceptical electorate? Perhaps Peter Dutton, the man who presides over Australia’s cruel and inhumane refugee policy as home affairs minister, could give it a shot? He’s widely tipped to be a potential Turnbull successor, but he’s unpopular with the public and sitting on a wafer-thin margin in his seat of Dickson.
The by-election results put question marks over five government seats, Dutton’s included. With government MPs and ministers postulating on what happens beyond Turnbull, there’s a lot of thought being given to the future, but maybe not yet to the bloody reality of the event which will propel the Liberal party into it.
The dilemma about the proposed company tax cuts is the first hurdle.
“Liberal losses put tax cuts in doubt,” screamed the front page of the Herald after the headaches of the Super Saturday weekend wore off and Monday dawned. But as Greg Jericho points out in The Guardian, Pauline Hanson, key to the legislation passing the Senate, doesn’t have the same politically expedient need to block the tax cuts.
For Hanson, the focus is no longer pleasing the voters of Longman, so supporting a tax cut those voters don’t support – and have shown they don’t support at the ballot box – doesn’t generate as much negative PR.
But a short term win for Turnbull in the Senate might spell more long term political pain. Next year’s election might well be contested on policy. Turnbull remains preferred prime minister, well ahead of Bill Shorten. Yet Shorten leads a party that has won more than 30 Newspolls in a row. (This is apparently now a very important benchmark in Australian politics.)
This environment offers a couple of choices: you pick the leader you think is best for the country and put up with the dud party, or you pick the party you think is best for the country and put up with the daggy leader. With an apparently renewed energy for policy debate, it looks there will be more inclination towards the party.
Still, there’s always room for a scare campaign. Last week, I received a leaflet from my local Labor member imploring me to vote for the Labor party to “save the ABC”. “Now the Liberals want to privatise the ABC,” said the card, disregarding communications minister Mitch Fifield’s assurances to the contrary.
It’ll be a tough sell for the Turnbull government: cutting funding to the highly trusted national broadcaster at the same time as reducing tax revenue by lowering the company tax rate.
A voter who asks “Who benefits?” and finds the answer to that question is “Not me” won’t vote for the government at the next election. Turnbull’s rhetoric on company tax cuts hasn’t worked so far, and if he doesn’t find a new way to sell the alleged benefits he will need to be ready to hand over the keys to the Lodge.
Fair winds falter for Fairfax
“A newspaper office is like a pulsing heart, that, while it lives, must never lose a beat. … [It] must never cease to draw its life blood of news.”
That was the metaphor offered by A. H. Stuart, general manager of John Fairfax & Sons, in 1931 on the occasion of The Sydney Morning Herald’s 100th year in print.
A fortnight ago, newspaper offices around the country missed a beat.
Fairfax would no longer be Fairfax. It would, in the words of outgoing Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood, become a wholly owned subsidiary of Nine.
There was shock, sadness and concern when the news sunk in that Channel Nine, home of ‘A Current Affair’ and ‘The Footy Show’, would be publishing Australia’s oldest and most respected mastheads: The Herald in Sydney and The Age in Melbourne. Fairfax’s network of regional newspapers would be thrown in too, vital voices in their communities left almost like an afterthought in a merger that looked more like a takeover.
Current Fairfax journos didn’t have a lot of time for the outpourings of grief from former Fairfax journalists. We’re still here to do the job, they were saying. And we’re not going to sacrifice our independence.
There’s no reason Nine can’t run a quality newspaper. But do they want to? Unless you really believe in them, they’re not a great business asset.
In America, The Los Angeles Times was sold in February to biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong for $500 million in cash. Soon-Shiong hopes the demand for quality journalism and the desire for a tactile, newsprint reading experience will come back into fashion. Maybe this is the way forward.
If you have a lot of cash, care about journalism and don’t mind your journalists causing you strife or going on strike occasionally, Fairfax is still open to competing offers.