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While the Turnbull campaign had various flaws, its troubles began in March when he picked a fight with the minor parties. By Karen Middleton.

The 2016 election postmortem

Malcolm Turnbull in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices last week.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

In late April, almost 100 would-be political candidates gathered in a rented office in the centre of Sydney. Representing a kaleidoscope of parties, issues and interests, they were united by two things: a dream of electoral success and a desire for retribution against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the federal Coalition.

The meeting’s convenor was the man they call the “preference whisperer”, electoral strategist and micro-party adviser Glenn Druery.

Druery has been holding such gatherings for the past couple of years – a kind of how-to-get-elected seminar for political little guys, which usually focuses on the micro parties’ chamber of choice, the senate.

But this time, though the new rules affecting the senate dominated their conversation, they were talking about the house of representatives. And many of them were talking about revenge.

Across Australia, the representatives of smaller special-interest parties were so enraged by the Turnbull government’s decision to change the voting method for the senate and make it harder for them to be elected, that many who were gathered in that room in April vowed to punish the government by preferencing Labor first.

Though the extent of any impact of that won’t be clear until the overall results are known, Druery believes they affected the Coalition’s house of representatives tally. Others are less convinced.

“One thing is for sure: it has fatally wounded Turnbull,” Druery told The Saturday Paper. He argued the prime minister had been damaged by his own policy actions and inactions before the election.

“This,” he said, “is going to finish him off.”

As the week wore on, Turnbull’s mood appeared to lift as he grew more confident of retaining majority government. But it has been a bruising experience and that’s not over yet.

Effective or not, the micro parties’ determination to make their anger felt is only one of a long list of factors being named as contributors to the swing in last Saturday’s election.

In the final week of the campaign, what Liberals insist had always been a tight election – much tighter than the commentators realised – got tighter still.

As the electronic electoral advertising ban was about to descend on Wednesday night last week, the Liberals did another round of temperature-taking research. The results were not good.

Prime Minister Turnbull made his final pitch at the National Press Club at lunchtime on Thursday and afterwards he went to Coalition headquarters for a briefing.

That’s where the message was conveyed that Labor’s “Save Medicare” campaign was biting, and biting dangerously.

After midnight on Saturday night, when a shellshocked Turnbull finally emerged to hopefully claim an unconfirmed victory, he blamed trickery for the result.

Some – especially on the conservative side of the Coalition – are blaming Turnbull instead.

Newest among the returning Liberal MPs, former Special Forces soldier Andrew Hastie, is leading the public criticism, saying he “threw away the talking points” the national campaign team had sent out after a father of five asked him how the Liberals’ policies were going to benefit his family.

Hastie said he couldn’t answer.

“It was at that point I realised that a lot of what we were campaigning on nationally just wasn’t resonating with everyday Australians,” he told the Mandurah Mail newspaper in his electorate.

“There was a disconnect with everyday Australians who might vote Labor or might vote Coalition depending on the merits of the policy. And then there were Liberal rank-and-file people. And I had pushback from both of those groups. I had a lot of kickback on super, I had a lot of kickback on the branding – rank-and-file Liberal people are very proud of the Liberal logo and they didn’t like the change.”

Bernardi speaks out

South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi is scathing of more than just the style of campaign.

“‘It’s a disaster,’” Bernardi wrote on his weekly blog this week. “They’re the words many conservatives use to begin their election analysis. And they’re right.”

Bernardi believes the Liberal Party has drifted too far to the centre and he is canvassing support for a new breakaway conservative movement.

“It’s the next step in making sure our voice is never taken for granted again,” Bernardi wrote. He told Adelaide radio it was time people were “held to account” for the loss of the Liberal Party’s reputation “in the public square”.

“He wants more love from the prime minister,” Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos said in response on Thursday. “Well, my message for Cory is the prime minister loves all members of the Liberal Party.”

Former prime minister John Howard had some advice for Bernardi, too, and other conservatives unhappy about the direction of the Liberal Party.

“If you’re a bit worried about the party, stay in and fight,” Howard said. “Don’t start talking about separate movements. Stay in and fight and argue your case.”

He said the Liberal Party was a combination of small-l liberals and conservatives.

“I just say to people who feel that this or that kidney of the party is being ignored: you stay in and fight. You don’t start wandering off the reservation.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is enjoying the spectacle of Liberals turning on Malcolm Turnbull.

“If he scrapes home,” Shorten said, “his problems have only just begun.”

Liberal campaign spend

Sinodinos has confirmed there will, as ever, be a Liberal Party review of the bad result.

“That will look at what went well, what did not go well, and we’ll learn from that,” Sinodinos told ABC Radio National.

He said Labor outdid the Coalition in its ability to mobilise campaign support on the ground through the union movement.

“That ground game is something that we in the Liberal Party need to do more to counter in the period ahead.”

He conceded the Coalition underestimated the impact of Labor’s Medicare campaign.

There is also frustration within the Liberal Party that it wasn’t able to raise enough money to adequately counter Labor’s blanket advertising and union personnel staffing phone banks, calling voters direct on what has become known as Mediscare.

Despite those complaints, ad-tracking analysts Ebiquity report that the Liberal Party outspent Labor overall. By its analysis, the Liberals spent $6.9 million, Labor $4.9 million and the Greens $500,000. The other parties combined spent about $1 million.

But the Liberals would have spent more if they could have. Some are blaming Turnbull for the fact there wasn’t more to invest, accusing him of refusing to attend night-time fundraisers and suggesting he was complacent about the problems the party faced. The Nationals have accused him of being too “aloof” and too focused on innovation and other issues not relevant to their constituents. These are allegations his team rejects.

Others say it would have been worse had Tony Abbott remained as prime minister.

“Abbott left us with nothing in the kitty,” one senior Liberal said. “Nobody wanted to give us money. It was just toxic.”

The ongoing fundraising troubles under Turnbull during the election campaign were attributed variously to corporate fears of being dragged into public debate about political donations and anger among traditional Liberal constituents over what was seen as the retrospective application of new contributions caps on tax-free superannuation accounts.

One supporter from corporate Australia said that particular policy move generated huge resentment.

“They lit a fire amongst their supporters who believe that is unprincipled and stupid,” the Liberal backer said.

Turnbull backers rally

A Praetorian-style guard has formed around Turnbull, led by Attorney-General George Brandis, leader of the house Christopher Pyne, fellow South Australian frontbencher Simon Birmingham and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop. They are defending both his campaign and his leadership.

Bishop is calling Turnbull “the prime minister for our times”.

“I think he did a very competent job,” she told Sky News. “He’s a very good prime minister. He’s a very consultative leader.”

She said she had faith in him. “I think he’ll be a great prime minister.”

Curiously, she used the future rather than the present tense.

Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger, who had a difference of opinion with federal strategists during the campaign over preference negotiations, has praised Turnbull’s campaign as “faultless”.

“He was word perfect on every opportunity,” Kroger said. “But the result’s not what we wanted and that’s something we’ll have to look at.”

Kroger urged people not to rush to judgement about the results.

Senate prospects

The Australian Electoral Commission is continuing to count the votes in both chambers and warns the final results, especially in the senate, could be some time coming.

The Nick Xenophon Team looks likely to retain Xenophon’s existing senate seat in South Australia and add two more.

The last of the 12 senate seats in several states are still very much up for grabs. In Queensland, the last seat could go to the Liberal Democrats. In New South Wales, Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats or the Liberal Democrats are a possibility.

In Victoria, the last seat could go to the Sex Party, the Animal Justice Party or, as an outside chance, One Nation.

Former MP Pauline Hanson is returning to parliament, this time in the upper house for Queensland, and looks likely to have two One Nation colleagues with her, one from New South Wales and probably one from Western Australia.

Such a mixed senate poses a danger to the incoming government’s agenda.

But some Liberals are saying quietly that this may not actually be as difficult a senate for them to deal with as the last one had been.

“I’d rather have this senate than the previous one,” a Liberal senator told The Saturday Paper. “I actually think this is a more conservative senate.”

Cabinet make-up

The conservative side of the Liberal Party is certainly beginning to press for stronger influence on Turnbull’s policy direction and greater representation on his frontbench.

Despite Turnbull’s public assurances during the election campaign that it would remain as is, names are being thrown around as possible contenders for elevation onto what will likely be a re-cast frontbench. The likely loss of Innovation Minister Wyatt Roy’s Queensland seat of Longman will ensure at least minimal change.

There is also some pressure on Turnbull to replace Health Minister Sussan Ley, in whose portfolio area Labor did much of the political damage, relying on what Turnbull has called “a grotesque lie” about plans to sell off Medicare. He did concede this tapped into what were reputational problems around the Coalition’s commitment to the public health system.

“What we have to recognise is that many Australians were troubled by it,” Turnbull told journalists on Tuesday, when he emerged for his first full post-mortem news conference after meetings with Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce. “They believed it or at least had anxieties raised with it. It is very clear – it is very, very clear – that Barnaby and I and our colleagues have to work harder to rebuild or strengthen the trust of the Australian people in our side of politics when it comes to health. There is no question about that.”

Turnbull said Labor’s “shocking lie” had persuaded many people. “The fact that significant numbers of people believed it or at least believed it enough to change their vote, tells us that we have work to do and we are committed to that. That is a very clear lesson.”

Turnbull’s crossbench talks

That preliminary work has begun. Turnbull has been holding talks with members of the crossbench – or their party chiefs – about where there might be common ground on policy and how much support he might expect.

On Wednesday, he hosted talks with South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, whose NXT candidate Rebekha Sharkie looks to have taken the Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo from the Liberals.

On Thursday, in Brisbane, he saw Queensland maverick Bob Katter, whose controversial campaign ads, in which he purported to shoot Labor and Liberal National representatives, did him no electoral harm. Indeed, Katter achieved an 11 per cent swing in his favour on primary votes.

Katter presented Turnbull with a list of 20 issues to which he sought responses. In return, he offered a guarantee that he would support supply bills and back the Coalition in votes of no-confidence – crucial in securing government.

Afterwards, he nominated foreign ownership and Australia’s dependence on foreign oil supplies as two of those concerns.

“If I can put somebody in, I can put somebody out, too, I can tell you,” Katter warned.

And he said there was “no agreement” on passing the Coalition’s bill to resurrect the construction industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission – the legislation upon which Turnbull based his request for a double-dissolution election.

“I will not be brooking any [union] bashing in those areas,” Katter said. “I’ve had very strong feelings about it right the way through and I will not be modifying those positions.”

He warned Turnbull that if he formed a government without a clear majority, he faced a torrid time.

“You try running a government with one vote up your sleeve,” Katter said, laughing. “Don’t have your mother die because you can’t go to the funeral. Don’t go to the bathroom.”

Katter said he had spoken with Nick Xenophon and the pair was planning to meet.

On Friday, it was the turn of Victorian independent Cathy McGowan to sit down with Turnbull and discuss the future.

The wish list for policy change is growing by the day.

Emerging from his meeting, Xenophon named government action to save the Arrium steelworks in South Australia as featuring heavily in his discussions with the prime minister.

“This is a critical issue which needs to be resolved sooner rather than later and it was good to discuss this with the PM,” Xenophon said. “It’s in no one’s interests for Arrium to fall over.”

Greens MP Adam Bandt – who had not been invited to talks – is urging other minor parties and independents to consider joining forces to push for a national anti-corruption commission, clean up political donations and reform parliamentary entitlements.

But the Coalition is not taking kindly to demands from either the Greens or Labor.

Bill Shorten is urging the government, if returned, to pour more money into the Medicare system.

Treasurer Scott Morrison dismissed Labor’s calls to unfreeze the per-patient Medicare rebate paid to GPs, citing the cost.

“We can’t have the health system being a money pit where the argument is just about how much money you throw down the hole,” Morrison said. “The system has to be effective and it has to be efficient… We have to ensure we can fund the system and it’s sustainable. It can’t be a choice between a budget, your fiscal responsibilities and your health responsibilities.”

After saying he would keep any advice he had for Turnbull private, former prime minister John Howard offered the observation that the Coalition should now pursue reforms that had stalled in recent years.

“It is obvious that Australia faces a challenge to get her budget back under control and it is no secret … to hear from me that I think we have to return to the reform list,” Howard said. “And that means returning to taxation reform, it means returning to industrial relations reform and it also means returning to fiscal repair. Now, how one does that and when one does that is obviously the responsibility of the government of the day.”

Major parties target minors shut-out

The strongest message of the past week came from the voters themselves and was one of disenchantment with the larger established parties across the board.

As the week neared its end, the Liberal Party’s primary vote, including the Country Liberals and the Queensland Liberal National Party, sat at 37.1 per cent – a fall of 4.2 per cent.

In contrast, its conservative cousins, the Nationals, recorded an increase of 0.65 per cent, sitting on 4.9 per cent.

Despite its extraordinary clawback of seats, Labor’s primary vote is still too low for comfort. Up 1.9 per cent on last time, it was only 35.2 per cent – its second lowest primary vote ever.

Even the Australian Greens, who are boasting a double-digit swing in their favour in the inner-Melbourne seat of Batman, did not advance their vote in their normal stronghold, the senate. In fact, with 95 per cent of the first-preference vote counted, their support had slipped 0.5 per cent to 8.74 per cent nationally.

Having lost a senate seat in South Australia, the Greens’ net movement in raw seat terms is backwards. And while Xenophon’s movement by that measure is forwards at a pace, his team’s first-preference vote actually fell in South Australia, too, by 3.08 per cent compared with the last election.

What that says is that the emergence of all the tiny parties – and voters’ willingness to support them – has robbed all the old hands of a bit of their previous vote.

Late this week, the calls began for the major parties to find ways to work together that might shut out those on the extremes.

“We have to find a way on matters of mutual national interest to get reform going,” Arthur Sinodinos said in a Radio National debate. “And if we can find a way to do that it would be to the benefit of everybody. Now that also means we undermine those at the extreme ends of the spectrum left or right who are essentially running on very protectionist agendas, very inward-looking agendas or very xenophobic agendas.”

But in response, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen seemed disinclined.

“There’ll be areas where we come together on things we agree with,” he said. “But the parliament is not a rubber stamp … It’s a debating chamber.”

In the end, the senate is expected to feature more micro party representatives and independents after the election than before.

Sex Party doubts about micro-alliance

Among those vying for the last seats is the Sex Party, whose candidate Meredith Doig remains in the contest in Victoria.

Sex Party leader and member of the Victorian Legislative Council Fiona Patten notes that simply being small is not enough to unite the voices of the micro parties.

Patten attended Glenn Druery’s April meeting in Sydney.

“It’s a pretty disparate group when you’re looking at over 50 different parties,” she told The Saturday Paper.

“There was that little whisper in the air that maybe we could work together. But I don’t think anyone was actually willing to say that out loud…  I’d like to think that the Sex Party can play well with others but there were certainly plenty in that room that couldn’t.”

For all the bravado about threatening to preference against the Liberals, she is not convinced many of the right-leaning small parties did. She also points out that unless they had hordes of supporters handing out how-to-vote cards, they weren’t likely to have made much difference anyway.

But those micro-party and independent candidates who do find themselves seated in the senate will discover their influence has suddenly increased. Significantly.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "What got us to where we are". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.