Blame everything but the policies
The election outcome is still unknown but the post-mortem has already begun. The close results have been received as an upset, although the polls did consistently show the two parties were neck and neck throughout the campaign.
Polling had revealed that the majority of Australians expected the LNP to be returned to government. The Coalition have also been supremely confident — a record long campaign and a double dissolution was, after all, a fight they chose.
Sometime on Saturday night that confidence met with the reality of the situation. The result didn’t leave Turnbull chastened, however. In his speech delivered after midnight, the Prime Minister expressed a strange mix of certainty that his party would achieve a majority, and anger at the swing against his party. The blame was directed at Labor, but also at us, the voters. He asserted that Labor had run a campaign based on lies and that “more than a few people were misled”. In Turnbull’s mind, easily-misled voters had cheated him out of the easy victory he otherwise deserved.
The arrogance of this view can’t be overstated. Laurie Oakes rightly called the speech “pretty pathetic”. But the view is not confined to Turnbull. Michael Brissenden of ABC’s AM interviewed New South Wales Liberal Michael Photios shortly after, who told him that “I think that the key learning is that you’ve just got to go negative. The electorate, unfortunately, doesn’t treat politicians with a great deal of credibility who offer a positive message, and increasingly Australia is going to have to go the way of Shorten’s big lie… From a strategic or a tactical perspective its dumbing down politics, but that may be the way that we necessarily have to go.” This is an incredibly depressing take.
As has been pointed out by Kristina Keneally, the Coalition are no strangers to scare campaigns, so decrying a successful one is hypocritical to say the least. But there is something incredibly wrong with a party in a democratic society that responds to a result with what amounts to “the people were misled” and “we should have dumbed down our campaign and been more negative”.
The view that voters were misled and that the Coalition’s poor result is all due to some Labor exaggerations is not just insulting to voters, but demonstrably untrue. After all, support for the government fell during 2014, largely in response to unpopular savings measures in the 2014 budget. Polls rallied following Tony Abbott’s replacement with Malcolm Turnbull, however, they slumped again as it emerged that government policy had not changed much under Turnbull.
This is not to say that the result should be interpreted as a resounding victory for Labor and their policy platform. After all, Labor also has not won a majority, and their primary vote is at a near historical low, even if the results do suggest that Labor is out of the political wilderness earlier than might be expected.
The reasons for the Coalition’s greatly diminished majority will undoubtedly be examined by many people in the coming weeks. Hopefully the dominant narrative that emerges won’t be that the result was purely due to a scare campaign run by Labor.
Update: I wrote this on Sunday night. Since then, the Prime Minister has acknowledged that Labor’s scare campaign flourished in “fertile ground”. He didn’t go into too much detail, but that could be interpreted as him acknowledging that LNP policies were unpopular.