Restless right wing and a troublesome Senate: what’s a ‘good’ win for Turnbull?

Victoria will be a key state for Malcolm Turnbull to make gains in if he is to win the election, and win well. AAP/ Lukas Coch

When she replaced Kevin Rudd as Labor leader and prime minister, Julia Gillard went to the polls to try to win a mandate for her new government. The Australian electorate, however, dealt Gillard a major blow in the House of Representatives.

The surge in Labor’s primary vote that brought the party to government in 2007 had evaporated by 2010. Labor’s majority was whittled away and Gillard had to lead a minority government.

The Labor government was then defeated in a landslide in the 2013 election that brought the Tony Abbott-led Coalition to power with a substantial lower house majority (90 seats to 55 Labor seats). Nearly three years later, the Coalition is giving a good impression of trying to repeat history.

What is Turnbull faced with?

When Turnbull became prime minister, he and the Coalition enjoyed a surge of support in the opinion polls. This enthusiasm has started to dissipate, however, as the government has struggled with policy debates.

There have also been scandals and resignations from the ministry and a growing sense of an aggrieved right-wing rump in the Liberal Party setting out to undermine Turnbull. This group seems to be disproportionately powerful within the party, already throwing its weight around on issues like tax reform and the Safe Schools Coalition.

It is all starting to sound a bit like the lead-up to the 2010 election. But Turnbull also has the option of calling a double-dissolution election. This matters because of the make-up of the Senate in the aftermath of the 2013 election.

Unlike the big lower house majority it gave the Coalition on the lower house, voters handed control of the Senate to a phalanx of right-of-centre minor parties and South Australian independent Nick Xenophon.

This configuration frustrated former prime minister Tony Abbott. Turnbull is also mindful of it as a barrier to policymaking. One solution to this problem would be a clear-out of the microparties. To this end, the government has agreed to change the Senate voting system. This approach has convinced some commentators that a double-dissolution election could be imminent.

Turnbull thus faces an election he may need to win well to consolidate his authority as leader to counter the constant needling coming from the ultra-conservatives within the partyroom. Given that a loss of some of the bloated 2013 majority seems inevitable, what constitutes a “good” result for Turnbull is a problematic idea.

So what’s likely?

The 2013 result is both a blessing and a curse for Turnbull.

On the one hand, it gives the Coalition plenty of scope to withstand a swing against it. It would take a uniform two-party swing of 4% for the Coalition to lose 20 seats and its majority. The opinion polls are not indicating that there is such a dramatic shift of voter alignment at this stage.

The big problem for Turnbull, however, is that seat losses seem inevitable. A redistribution in New South Wales has already converted some Liberal seats into notionally Labor seats, including the ultra-marginal seat of Banks.

There are also marginal government seats that cover areas of economic insecurity such as the regional National-held seat of Page, the Tasmanian seats of Lyons and Bass, outer-suburban La Trobe in Victoria and a number of Queensland seats where voters may not react well to the impression Turnbull gave for some months that he was about to raise the GST and do away with weekend penalty rates.

The Coalition will be hoping that a scare campaign on Labor’s negative gearing proposals will sweep aside residual fears of a possible GST increase.

In this scenario the contest in Victoria offers Turnbull some hope of claiming a “good” result, notwithstanding a loss of some of the 2013 majority. Liberal strategists are very hopeful that Turnbull’s ascendancy might boost the party’s vote in Victoria where the Labor seats of McEwen, Bendigo, Chisholm and Bruce are vulnerable.

Gains in Victoria would significantly boost Turnbull’s authority and could mitigate the consequences of losses in NSW, Queensland and possibly Tasmania. On the other hand, losing La Trobe, Corangamite and/or Deakin could be a disaster.

As if this isn’t enough of a challenge, Turnbull might also be under pressure over how the Coalition fares in the Senate contest, especially if it is a double dissolution election run under new voting rules. Quite simply, the Coalition has to prevail at the expense of the right-wing microparties, although Jacqui Lambie in Tasmania and Glenn Lazarus in Queensland might be difficult to defeat.

The nightmare scenario for Turnbull would be one where the Greens win the balance of power. This would make the restless conservative rump in the Coalition very angry indeed.

So, what would a “good” result look like for Turnbull? In the face of inevitable losses in other states, Turnbull simply must retain all the Liberal marginal seats in Victoria and win at least one of Labor’s marginals.

Turnbull must also hope that a party other than the Greens ends up with the balance of power in the Senate. Anything else would be a serious blow to his leadership authority.

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