Greg Ashman is a teacher, originally from England but now living and working in Ballarat, Australia. He was the deputy head of a London comprehensive and is currently head of maths and pursuing his interest in educational research.
Halfway through their last term in government, the centre-right Liberal-National Coalition government in Australia ditched its leader, Tony Abbott. Abbot had become increasingly unpopular. The media ran with his personal qualities and choices such as his decision to award a knighthood to Prince Phillip – roundly derided from even within his own party – and his awful, cringe-making public comments such as when he threatened to ‘shirt-front’ Vladimir Putin. Yet there was a policy angle. The 2014 budget was a complete disaster. It was ostensibly an attempt to get the public accounts back on track and reduce the deficit but the opposition Australian Labor Party were able to paint it as an inequitable. Instead of taxing the rich by, for instance, removing some of the tax breaks on large pension pots, the coalition had chosen to introduce measures such as the GP co-payment and the deregulation of university tuition fees.
There is no equivalent of The National Health Service in Australia. Instead, we have Medicare. This is a less comprehensive arrangement that gives free access to many services with certain restrictions. Australians are penalised through the tax system if they can afford private health insurance but don’t take it out – an effort to reduce the burden on Medicare. If you go to a GP that ‘bulk bills’ – and many don’t, especially in country areas – then you won’t have to pay any money to that GP because they will claim it all back through Medicare. The idea of the co-payment was that, even with a bulk-billing doctor, you would still have to pay $7 each time. Part of this was revenue-raising but it was also meant to ensure that people always had a good reason for making an appointment. Nevertheless, Labor were able to portray it as a “GP tax” and it became extremely unpopular.
Labor also ran a campaign warning of $100,000 degrees if university fees were deregulated (because this deregulation would be accompanied by a reduced government subsidy as well as a new student loan arrangement). Again, this was seen as the coalition trying to balance the budget by hitting the young and vulnerable.
Ultimately, many of the 2014 budget measures came to nothing because they were blocked by cross-benchers in the Senate. The Coalition lacked a majority in the senate due to minor parties prospering in the 2013 election and they also seemed particularly inept at negotiating with these minor parties, leading to The Coalition suffering all of the political harm without any of the anticipated fiscal gain.
So the Coalition ditched Abbott in favour of former leader Malcolm Turnbull. Initially, Turnbull had a huge lead in approval ratings over Bill Shorten, the Labor leader. Shorten was seen as wooden. He was roundly mocked for his heavily premeditated, clunky jokes. One TV satire dubbed these Bill’s “zingers” and the name stuck. Bill never seemed to miss a chance to present himself badly. At one marriage equality rally in Melbourne, he shouted into the microphone while all the other speakers had talked normally and naturally. He didn’t look much like a leader compared to slick Malcolm Turnbull and there was talk of a snap election to cement Turnbull’s mandate while Labor were vulnerable.
However, snap elections are not easy in Australia. Government’s are intended to go to term. The main way of triggering an early election is a double-dissolution – if the senate keeps blocking a measure that the lower house votes for then this is a trigger for a double-dissolution. In such an election, all seats in both houses are up for grabs. When the election is over, both houses can convene in a joint sitting to vote on the blocked measure and the larger number of members in the lower house can therefore outvote the senate. By now, there were a number of blocked measures that Turnbull could have used to trigger a double-dissolution. So he made his stand on a particular issue – the setting-up of a commission to regulate the building industry – and pulled the trigger. Unfortunately for Turnbull, this whole process took some time and, in the end, only shaved a few months off the natural parliamentary term.
During this period, Turnbull appeared to do nothing on the policy front. He threw-up a few thought-bubbles. What about increasing GST (Australian VAT) to give more funding to the states? What about having a state income tax? None of this came to anything and support seemed to be ebbing away as he dithered. At the same time, Labor were embarking upon a policy blitz. Announcements came from Labor on everything from ending a tax concession on second homes to funding education according to the ‘Gonski’ plan. The ideas were relentless. In the last few weeks prior to the election, Labor also ran a negative scare campaign about the Coalition’s plans for Medicare. The Coalition complained that they had no plans for privatisation, but a public who could remember the GP co-payment were not in a trusting mood.
In the end, the Coalition squeaked home to form a government with 76 seats in the lower house and majority of just one (although some votes are still being counted and so this is likely to increase to 77). This was down from 90 seats in 2013. The senate is, if anything, even worse for the Coalition now than it was after the 2013 election and this is despite a change being made to the senate voting system. There is little prospect now of a joint sitting and so Turnbull has won something of a Pyrrhic victory. Nobody thought at the outset of this campaign that Labor would do so well against a first-term Coalition government. They are right back in business.
So what do I draw from this for the UK? I think we overestimate the role of personality. Turnbull is slick but he still lost ground to wooden Bill Shorten. Why? Because of policy. Despite what the pundits think, people really do pay attention to the policies that are being discussed. It is negligent to assume that people voted for Brexit because they were hoodwinked by a charismatic Boris Johnson – they voted Brexit because they wanted to leave the EU. If you want to influence the demos then you need to explain your policies to them. Presentation certainly helps but it is not everything. I have been as vocal as anyone on Twitter with my complaints about Jeremy Corbyn’s inept leadership. But ultimately it is about much more than that. Corbyn is a disaster for Labour because of his hard left policies. The public won’t buy them.