There has been a growing observation in political commentary so far this year that Turnbull is beginning 2018 in a better shape than he has been in for some time, and even possibly a little better than Shorten, despite lagging him in the polls. While there is some basis to this, the reasons given are vague.
Certainly there has been no real end to the instability in the national leadership that has been on-going since June 2010. But what has been little commented on is a very important feature of the Turnbull leadership – for the first time since 2010, the Prime Minister’s own party cannot present a remotely convincing electoral alternative to justify dumping him/her.
Of course the electoral reasons given for the dumping of Rudd, Gillard and Abbott were never the whole story either, since the to-ing and fro-ing in the Prime Ministership had more to do with the Turnbull/Rudd push to take their party somewhere new, and the Gillard/Abbott reversion on their failure to do so.
Yet now there is not even a pretence of an electoral alternative. It is noticeable in the declining pressure from the main threat to Turnbull, the party’s right, and especially Abbott. Yet again the reasons given for this are vague, possibly because it mainly comes down to the impact of something that those who would celebrate the fading of Abbott, don’t want to acknowledge had much impact at all – the same sex marriage vote in November.
The result of the SSM postal vote was a hammer blow to the Australian right. It was not just the public voting Yes, but the turnout to do so. It knocked out what had been one of the most useful weapons for the Australian right over the last 20 years, the idea of the “silent majority”.
The “silent majority” for social conservativism had never been a real thing in itself. Social attitude surveys continue to show that on pretty well every social issue, the Australian public is becoming more tolerant and liberal. This is despite what both sides of politics might claim, and is often even counter to political trends (e.g. the public swung in favour of same sex marriage not long after the Coalition and Labor voted to ban it).
However, where the idea of the “silent majority” was useful for the right was in spooking the left, especially Labor and its insecurity about its own declining social base. The idea of the silent majority, Howard battlers, “Real” Australians, and that Labor was getting wedged from its traditional working class voters, were all used by Howard to disorient Labor and turn it inward and defensive. Latham and his enthusiastic Shadow Immigration Minister Gillard, along with the geniuses of Sussex Street, fell for it hook line and sinker to produce lousy electoral results.
This is something that should have been dispelled in Labor’s only outright victory in the last 25 years in 2007 which included such latte-sipping positions as apology for the stolen generation, climate change action and the end of the Pacific Solution. But Labor worked hard to erase the political significance of that singular electoral victory, so it was left to the right to complete the job last year and shoot themselves in the foot by agreeing to a national vote that the polls consistently showed they were going to lose.
The damage done to the right by the SSM vote is difficult for the media/political left to acknowledge since most opposed it happening. While most pro-SSM (and anti-SSM) voters wanted a say, the pro-SSM media/political class almost universally did not want them to do so.
Probably the silliest argument made against the vote was that it would be a “glorified opinion poll”, something even the pro-SSM campaigners didn’t believe as they celebrated the result in a way this blogger doesn’t recall for the numerous opinion polls recording the same thing. The idea that people actually voting is somehow equivalent to a sample poll on how people might vote if they actually did is a nonsense that could only be sustained in media/political land.
Voting is a public act, not a sampling exercise. The public’s vote in November revealed the conservative right for the marginal force it has long been – something to which Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives has now unfortunately confirmed in organisational form.
If the damage done to the right over the SSM vote is a difficult thing to acknowledge, then even harder is the other factor that makes Turnbull look a little more comfortable at the start of 2018, what is happening on the other side.
There has been some useful reporting on what is going on internally in Labor. The recent high media profile taken by left-wingers like Albanese and Butler suggest less a leftward shift than the unravelling of the right.
This has been going on for some time. The erosion of the NSW Right was not only evident at the state level but in Canberra with the rise of Rudd and (to a degree) Gillard. Shorten’s leadership was supposed to restore the factional stability but now we find that the unravelling of the right has gone south of the border to Shorten’s home state.
There is a neat segue here to what has happened to Feeney in that state where an unexceptional but powerful factional heavy that was shoe-horned into a safe Labor seat, now has his political career cut short – partly because the long-standing Parliamentary consensus to ignore Section 44(i) has broken down, but also because it is getting harder for Labor to pin down what a safe seat actually is.
Both the internal unravelling and the erosion of once safe seats are both a sign of program exhaustion – not only on the Labor side, but the non-Labor side that opposed them. This has been long running but partly concealed by a lack of any new viable political force to replace them, culture wars that have helped the parties’ “branding” (but have increasingly turned off the public), and a preferential electoral system that disguises the electoral impact of a long running decline in the major parties’ primary vote.
But it may be precisely because of a lack of a viable political alternative that there also seems some discomfort talking about it. It was noticeable in the Queensland state election last year when Labor posted its third worst vote in a century and the Coalition since the beginning of the two-party system, yet all the talk was on the so-so performance of a minor party like One Nation.
This year such evasion may be harder to do. The South Australian election in March could see a preferential system that has so far disguised the decline of the major parties, go sharply in reverse and accentuate it. This is partly because the third alternative is large enough to challenge the majors (although polling is varying widely) but also because it is not on one side of the spectrum or the other so can be a home for preferences for both parties. If that happens it will be almost like the vacuum of the major parties becomes sucked into the vortex of nothingness that is Xenophon’s SA Best.
If it did happen, no doubt there would be an attempt to isolate the South Australian result from any broader implications for the rest of Australian politics. But South Australia is the most metropolitan of the minor states and has often been a reasonable bellwether of political trends across the country. It was the first state that brought in a “modern Labor” government in 1970 as a product of Whitlam’s move to detach the parliamentary party from the unions. It started off a process that now appears to be reaching its conclusion.