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Malcolm Turnbull faced a disunited Coalition party room, as members complained about the election campaign and threatened to revolt on policy. By Karen Middleton.

PM Malcolm Turnbull faces down internal dissent

When Eric Abetz raised concerns in the Coalition party room this week about elements of the Liberal Party’s campaign, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked the long-serving Tasmanian senator a question. “How many branch members are there in Tasmania?” 

Turnbull went on to answer it himself. “I understand,” he said, “there are 1200.”

Abetz argued the toss, insisting there were more like 2000. But Turnbull had made his point.

In response to Liberals and Nationals complaining about the nature of the campaign that was rolled out across Australia over eight long weeks, he was effectively asking: how much did you do to help yourselves?

As the dust settles on election 2016 and the re-elected government starts work, some of the problems that almost derailed its bid are being laid bare.

One of them is that the party has too few members and active supporters on the ground to combat the combined networks of the union movement and left-leaning crowd-funded organisations such as GetUp!

At the bruised Coalition’s first gathering since the election, in Canberra on Monday, the post-mortem on the result began.

Of the four Liberals and one National who spoke up, Eric Abetz was firm in his criticism of how the campaign itself was run, particularly in his home state. 

Tasmanian voters delivered a shock result to the Liberal Party on July 2, unseating all three of its MPs. This was the trio who had styled themselves as “the three amigos” – Andrew Nikolic in Bass, Brett Whiteley in Braddon and Eric Hutchinson in Lyons.

Abetz raised concerns about some of the party’s policy content – especially on superannuation – and the structure of the campaign. He said there was a lack of focus on union corruption and on cost-of-living pressures that resonate strongly in Tasmania, where incomes are lower than elsewhere.

Lack of support

Federal Liberal Party director Tony Nutt told Liberal MPs he took full responsibility for the campaign. But he and party pollster and Crosby Textor managing director Mark Textor said there hadn’t been enough money or enough on-ground support to fully customise the campaign in particular areas.

Nutt said the prime minister’s “standing, authority and resonance” with the electorate had been crucial to the victory overall.

In a lengthy presentation, the ever-diplomatic Nutt said that while the Abbott government had recorded some significant achievements after its election win in 2013, a number of problems had emerged in the two years that followed that had set back the Coalition’s standing in marginal seats.

The “reconstruction” of the government in September last year – by which he meant change of leader – had improved the party’s position as measured in its primary vote, he said.

Nutt said a panel would be appointed to conduct “a no-holds-barred review of the campaign, which will undertake a thorough and forensic examination”. He encouraged submissions, lodged confidentially if necessary.

The review process will begin formally next month when the party’s federal executive meets. As usual, a party elder will likely be appointed to oversee it.

Tony Nutt and Mark Textor reinforced what MPs and senators knew already: they were comprehensively out-campaigned on the ground. 

They said Coalition MPs had not generated the volunteer hands on deck or the money to combat the union-staffed phone banks and the hand-to-hand distributors of material that Labor had.

Nutt and Textor also outlined why the Coalition campaign had been structured as it was. 

Responding to Abetz’s points, Textor said that during the campaign, when superannuation peaked as an issue, it was only raised by 6 per cent of voters as a serious concern, although he conceded media focus on it had drowned out other issues.

Textor said that back at the start of this decade, voters had registered cost-of-living pressures as their highest concern but that their economic focus was now deeper and, in the past three years, they had become more fearful of losing their jobs completely than of having to pay more for their groceries.

He said research showed voters had wanted not only to know that the Coalition had a plan to address this but what it actually was. It was this research that informed the messaging about the budget being “an economic plan” for “jobs and growth”.

Textor told the party room this was why the campaign messaging had to be largely positive, not negative. Voters needed to be reassured about returning the incumbents, not just fearful of what the other side might do.

Textor and Nutt defended the campaign message in the face of criticisms that it didn’t resonate in some parts of Australia, where talk of the new economy didn’t seem to make sense.

These complaints came not only from Tasmania, but from divisions in Victoria and Queensland.

In Victoria, where the Liberals gained a seat from Labor, some argue the federal message-setting wasn’t collaborative enough nor polling willingly enough shared. 

In Queensland, the complaints were more varied.

Liberal National senator Ian Macdonald and MPs Andrew Laming and George Christensen all offered views on the campaign.

Laming read out some of the campaign material that was designed to explain the verbless “jobs and growth” slogan and said it hadn’t meant anything to his constituents.

Laming also said later that dwindling membership was a perennial problem. 

He said in his own electorate, most members were now aged over 50. The Liberal National Party had trouble attracting men aged 30-40, and women aged 30-50 were “almost absent from party membership”. Laming said women mostly joined to accompany their male spouses.

The party-room discussion canvassed similar issues, including the possibility of transitional membership that stepped up as a person became more engaged.

But how to encourage engagement was the underlying issue and Laming said members were being left with little role in decision-making beyond the purchase of a jug to make the coffee.

He said they needed to feel like they had more important decisions to make than just “whether to buy a new Birko for the branch”.

In the joint Liberal–National meeting, Christensen complained about the campaign’s focus but waited until two days after the meeting to announce via social media that he strongly objected to the party’s superannuation policies and would cross the floor and oppose them when legislation came before the house of representatives.

Queensland Liberal Ewen Jones chose not to attend the meeting as he awaits a recount in Herbert. The first completed count suggested he had lost the seat by eight votes. 

In a note he sent to colleagues, he explained his absence by telling them the tale of a former challenger in Herbert, the Labor candidate George Colbran, who thought he’d toppled incumbent Liberal Peter Lindsay in 2007.

As the final counting began he got on a plane to the first Rudd government caucus meeting in Canberra. But by the time he landed in Brisbane to make his connecting flight, he got word that the last 200 votes had come in from Afghanistan and Lindsay received all but two of them. 

“I do not want to tempt fate by attending a party room meeting, not having won the seat,” Jones wrote to colleagues. “Please accept my apologies.”

Inside the meeting, Ian Macdonald suggested Queensland campaigners had not been made fully aware of how serious the threat was in the seat of Herbert – something federal campaign strategists dispute.

He also said there should have been more effort put into a senate-specific campaign in far north Queensland, which he claimed later might have helped avoid the election of Pauline Hanson. He said “jobs and growth” were “just words”.

“The fact that the national campaign was one size fits all – that doesn’t relate in a state as diverse as Queensland,” Macdonald said.

He told The Saturday Paper that both policy direction and lack of engagement of the membership had contributed to the Coalition’s problems.

“The tax on superannuants might have been good economic policy but it was lousy politics,” he said. “Almost everyone with a super account thought, ‘Am I next?’ ”

He said the planned backpackers’ tax – removing the tax-free threshold for working holidaymakers and foreshadowing a 32.5 per cent tax on their earnings – also hurt the Coalition’s vote in Queensland. He said supporters including “donors and the people who man the booths … gravitated to Pauline”.  

Macdonald said more must be done to keep members and supporters engaged with the party.

“They’ve got to feel that their membership counts for something and that means they’re being listened to,” he said. “Had that backpacker tax been debated in any branch from Gladstone north, I can guarantee there wasn’t a branch that wouldn’t have said, ‘That’s stupid, that can’t go ahead.’ ”

The point about policy is one that will be made in the election review as much as on the floor of parliament in the coming months.

Looking in the wrong place

The director of right-leaning think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, Simon Breheny, gave voice this week to some of what is being muttered privately. 

Breheny told Sky News that anyone seeking to blame the structure of the campaign for the Coalition’s near-death experience was looking in the wrong place.

“Clearly there was a trend over a much longer period of time and that trend cannot come back to campaign headquarters,” Breheny said. “It’s not Tony Nutt’s fault. It’s not anyone who was working at campaign headquarters’ fault. That is a collective responsibility. The biggest issue that the government had is they didn’t seem as though they had a direction coming into the campaign … Malcolm Turnbull right through the ministry – you’ve got to take responsibility for that.”  

Breheny called for the upcoming review to reach back further than this year’s campaign.

“It would be a mistake if that review was only to look at the eight weeks leading up to the 2nd of July,” he said. “…You’ve got to go right back to the 2013 election and have a look at what was happening up until the demise of Tony Abbott’s leadership and what happened in the period after that as well.”

Others are saying similar things in the wake of Monday’s meeting. 

Having no money and no members may be one conjoined problem, but lacking clear policies that actually connected with people was another problem entirely.

The push to ensure the review covers Abbott’s period as prime minister will certainly tear the scabs off old wounds.

In the party room, Eric Abetz challenged Mark Textor over a comment Textor made to The Australian newspaper in the wake of last year’s leadership change that particularly stung conservatives in the Liberal Party.

“The qualitative evidence is they don’t matter,’’ Textor was reported to have said of those disgruntled voters in the party’s conservative wing who were angry at Abbott’s removal. “The sum of a more centrist approach outweighs any alleged marginal loss of so-called base voters.’’

Abetz and his right-wing colleagues found those sentiments particularly offensive and he embedded a rebuke to them in his party-room contribution, suggesting the attitude had affected the campaign and that it was Textor who wasn’t a real conservative. 

After Turnbull countered with his point about flagging membership, former prime minister Abbott rose to make his own remarks.

He told the gathering that the most important thing was not to engage in recrimination but to move forward. He agreed the party needed to do something about membership and took the opportunity to urge the New South Wales Liberals to introduce branch-wide plebiscites to allow members to vote in preselections.

It’s a position former prime minister John Howard also holds, and his spokeswoman told The Saturday Paper that “a powerful incentive for a person to join the Liberal Party would be the entitlement to participate directly in the choice of the Liberal candidate to represent his or her area”.

But the issue of members voting directly to preselect candidates – rather than establishing preselection committees – is one that divides left and right in the NSW party. Those on the left argue it could encourage branch-stacking. Those on the right say it’s hardly democratic now.

After Abbott spoke on Monday, Western Sydney marginal seat-holder Craig Laundy stood up and suggested the point about running campaigns and winning elections wasn’t just about membership, but about inspiring people to believe in what a party and a candidate stood for and forming and tapping social networks – enough to get people out on the hustings volunteering. 

Laundy made the point to his colleagues that they didn’t have to persuade people to join the party, just to give them a hand when it counted.

Malcolm Turnbull summed up by insisting the Coalition was going to “hit the ground doing”.

By the skin of his teeth, he has won three years to persuade people he means what he said. But he probably needs to do it sooner than that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "Turnbull faces down internal dissent". Subscribe here.

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