X MARKS A DARK SPOT FOR PM
NICK Xenophon’s shock decision on Friday to quit Canberra and run in the upcoming South Australian state election is a much bigger political story than some might think. Without a Liberal loyalist leading the Liberal Party, we’ve got a situation on the conservative side of politics where the traditional supporter base is up for grabs. It’s also a risk for an underperforming Labor. This mirrors examples overseas where mainstream parties are being challenged, internally and externally, by populist contenders on the Left, Right and in the centre. Galvanising support by their articulation of grievance, players like Xenophon and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, are a thorn in the side of the two major parties but particularly for the Prime Minister, with his wrongheaded belief the Liberal base have nowhere else to go. They do, and as a 36 per cent primary in Malcolm Turnbull’s latest Newspoll proves, they’re going.
On the conservative side, his antagonism of the base has meant a growing list of entrants are vying for the vote of disenchanted Liberals. Just as Cory Bernardi’s new Australian Conservatives party is a risk in SA and along the eastern seaboard, Xenophon’s decision to stand for the state seat of Hartley, and field a wider team of candidates, is a game-changer. With the twin horrors of a statewide power blackout and stagnant economic outlook, SA voters should be lining up with baseball bats to oust Premier Jay Weatherill and his tired 17-yearold Labor government; only they’re not. A recent Galaxy poll published in June had the two major parties neck and neck at 50-50 two-party preferred. On primary vote, Xenophon was at 21 per cent and reports of polling that has him mid-20s statewide and over 30 per cent in some electorates, meaning he’ll likely pick up seats. Instead of bad Labor government producing a Liberal landslide, it looks as though it will instead send voters to Xenophon and other independents. If he gets an anticipated foothold in state parliament, it will bolster his chances at the federal election because incumbency, used well, is a boost in other contests. Despite $50 billion spent on submarines to save his skin, Christopher Pyne is facing extinction when SA loses a yet undecided federal seat due to population decline. Xenophon’s departure as Senate deal-maker will also hurt the Coalition. While he says he’ll continue to play a significant part in all major negotiations, in reality that’s almost impossible once his state campaign ramps up. That’s a problem for Turnbull, who has relied on his support, it makes Hanson the expected beneficiary of this power shift, and it makes legislation more uncertain.
With a Queensland election due any moment, One Nation will be watched very closely. Some polls list Hanson support in the north at well into the mid-20s and, while lower in Brisbane and southeast Queensland, this makes it an unpredictable race. A wily operator and underestimated by many, Hanson has more party infrastructure than previously and if she ends up holding the balance of power, it won’t just be chaos in the Queensland parliament, it will be panic in the national one.
It’s often said but always true; you can’t govern in Canberra unless you win in Queensland and that’s Bill Shorten’s big challenge. Unfortunately, Turnbull is about as popular in the Sunshine State as daylight saving, and with former Queensland senator Barnaby Joyce now a NSW resident (and his citizenship still up in the air), the loss of Joyce’s common touch is keenly felt by the LNP. Where Tony Abbott worked well in middle and regional Australia, these areas remain Turnbull’s Achilles heel. Things are grim for the Liberals in Perth too. Turnbull’s MPs are telling him the GST issue must be resolved but the hardheads fear his inaction will see the loss of future leadership contenders like Christian Porter.
Victoria is interesting. A Leftwing leader in an increasingly Leftwing state, it’s the Greens that are the real threat to both parties. Without a big presence like Peter Costello, federal Liberals have struggled to cut through against Shorten’s home-ground advantage. Here, like everywhere, Turnbull’s disconnection with the Liberal base is telling. I’m told where he does deign to front party fundraisers, long-time supporters are greeted with a morose PM who spends more time on his phone than on the charm offensive.
But above all of this noise, it’s the energy crisis that will determine his fate, for a second time. Despite having Daniel Andrews and Weatherill in sight over Hazelwood and the SA blackouts, Turnbull couldn’t help himself and overreached by making it his issue. It’s classic Turnbull; lack of judgment, overblown rhetoric and a failure to deliver on the ground. Unless he can urgently address the energy crisis in ways that don’t make a bad situation worse, Turnbull will have given them his head on a platter.