The irony of stridently warning people against voting for minor players and then, all charm, ringing those players when you personally might need their votes may be lost on Malcolm Turnbull. After all, a politician’s skillset includes being able to stand on your head without going red in the face.
As he waits impatiently for the results in the ten outstanding seats, Turnbull doesn’t know whether, if he survives in government, he’d have the slimmest majority (76 of 150 seats) in the House of Representatives, or be coping with a hung parliament. His calls indicate he is planning for the latter while desperately hoping for the former.
Turnbull bunkered down on Monday but Bill Shorten returned to the still-warm campaign trail in western Sydney to flaunt his unexpectedly extensive gains.
There remains a chance he could form a minority Labor government, though it is considered an outside one. Shorten’s call for Turnbull to quit the leadership signalled that a precarious Coalition government would face an energised, aggressive opposition.
Labor’s Anthony Albanese, who confirmed on Monday night he wouldn’t make a leadership run in the automatic spill that comes if Labor remains in opposition, predicted Australians would likely be back at the polls “well before” the end of the three-year term.
What has become in recent years Australia’s continuous election campaign will just intensify after Saturday’s vote.
If Turnbull is to go into minority government he would either have to strike crossbench deals or at least obtain enough backing on the central matters of supply and confidence to allow him to govern.
The lower house crossbenchers will be independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie, Bob Katter of Katter’s Australian Party, the Greens’ Adam Bandt, and the Nick Xenophon Team’s (NXT) Rebekha Sharkie. By Monday Turnbull had called all but Bandt. Possibly the crossbench number could be larger – the NXT candidate is in a close race for the South Australia seat of Grey, held by the Liberals.
Wilkie and McGowan shy away from the idea of formal deals with either side. Xenophon is more pragmatic, while the Greens would be eager to power-share with Labor (but the ALP says never ever).
In considering his position, Xenophon would evaluate what he could extract for his policy agenda, as well as considering the question of stability.
Would a minority government be the horror Turnbull painted before the election? Those who argue it wouldn’t point out such governments operate satisfactorily abroad and at state level, and note the Gillard government passed much significant legislation. They observe that having to negotiate on legislation can make for improvements.
But remember a minority Turnbull government would face double jeopardy. Its problems would not be just in the lower house. The Coalition would have an obstacle course in the Senate whether in minority or majority government. Albanese argues the Senate would be easier for a Labor government.
In retrospect, calling a double dissolution, with its small quota for getting elected, was a disastrous decision by Turnbull. The old Senate crossbench was difficult enough – the new one is potentially more so. Among the crossbenchers will be three from NXT and, on ABC election analyst Antony Green’s reckoning, three from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Turnbull, who preaches the values of an inclusive society, has inadvertently not only facilitated the re-entry to parliament of a woman who stands for the very opposite, but likely enabled her to get a significant Senate bloc.
While the Hansonites and NXT are vastly dissimilar in many ways, they are both populist on economic issues, tapping into and articulating community fears about the fallout from market economics and globalisation. This works against the prospect of getting significant economic reforms through the parliament.
A minority government would be especially hostage to having to provide costly benefits. Xenophon is already making more help for Arrium Steel a core demand.
The Western Australian government is complaining it won’t have any chance of a greater slice of the GST revenue because the federal government will have to do a deal with Xenophon, “a South Australian protectionist”, whose state is a beneficiary under the existing distribution.
A well-functioning political system requires checks and balances. In the years when the Howard government controlled the Senate, the mechanisms for scrutiny of administration were lessened, and legislation could be just rammed through. This came back to bite the government when WorkChoices was passed without its harsh edges rubbed off. But if the roadblocks make things unworkable, a government can do little.
Of course the right balance is in the beholder’s eye. The Liberals condemned the Senate’s refusal to pass controversial 2014 budget measures; many voters were relieved.
Whether he has to work in minority government or with the finest of margins, Turnbull – if confirmed in power – will face the toughest period of his political life.
In a hung parliament he would need to have regular “face time” with lower house crossbenchers (Julia Gillard was very good at this). The kettle should always be on. Whether the parliament was hung or not, crossbench senators would require attention by the leader. But Malcolm and Pauline, over tea?
The personal touch is vital – crossbenchers who have power want a prime minister to acknowledge it, including in small ways. They are sensitive to slights and react badly to neglect. Tony Abbott failed to give crossbench senators enough attention, to his cost. Not all this work can be delegated.
At the same time, it would be vital for Turnbull to set limits. If a leader is willing to negotiate virtually everything away, it’s almost as bad as refusing to give anything.
A prime minister has the ultimate whiphand – calling an election. In a hung parliament the crossbench can withdraw support and force the government to the polls. The stakes are extraordinarily high all round.
Turnbull gave the Senate crossbenchers an ultimatum: pass the industrial relations legislation or face the people. They called his bluff and it didn’t end well, for him or those of them who lost their seats. The legislation is no nearer being passed after the double dissolution – the government doesn’t have the numbers to get it through a joint sitting.
Facing a hung parliament Turnbull would be juggling a bunch of crossbenchers while trying to cope with the critics in his own party, who will become more emboldened and strident. Members of the right, seeing him wounded, will want to get their way at every opportunity. They too would have to be stared down on occasion. Turnbull already has had to trade away much of his political persona – go much further and he becomes a hollow man.
Is Turnbull up to what he will face if his government survives? One senior colleague believes so. “I think it will be the making of him. He’ll become more conciliatory.” Other people doubt his temperament for it.
But Turnbull would have one big reason to try to make it work. His political reputation, at this moment, is trashed. He wouldn’t want that to be the way he goes down in Australian prime ministerial history.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra