In the aftermath of both the South Australian election and the Batman by-election there are two broad conclusions. Only one party was a clear winner, namely Labor, in the Batman by-election, its candidate increasing the party’s majority from the narrowest of narrow wins in 2016. The Greens, full of confidence that the seat was theirs for the taking, have suffered a stunning and major defeat on what should be their home turf, an electorate sown thick with virtuous bicycles, mung beans and social-justice activism.
In South Australia, the change of government notwithstanding, no single party could be described as a genuine winner. The relatively poor performance of the minor parties — Nick Xenophon’s SA Best, Greens, and Australian Conservatives — enabled the Liberals to secure a lower house majority despite falling some 7% short of their primary vote at the previous state election.
What to make of all this?
Let us start with Xenophon, for whom the result was utter humiliation: only two seats in the Legislative Council, none in the lower house. Widely touted as a kingmaker, even as a possible premier, Xenophon saw a collapse in his personal popularity and now holds no elected position. The closer voters looked at SA Best and the other minor parties, the less they saw them as viable alternatives to the established centre-right and centre-left.
Steve Marshall’s emergence as premier is not so much a win for the Liberal Party as it is a victory for the mainstream centre-right over what proved less-than-viable competitors. This suggests the centre-right, represented by the Liberal Party and its Coalition partner, the Nationals, will see off any competition from that flank at the federal level — in other words, the likes of One Nation and the Australian Conservatives. Similarly, the Labor Party should have the confidence and fortitude to recognise that the Greens have hit a ceiling, their policies, attitudes and hyperbolic rhetoric alienating the vast majority of Australians and, apparently, quite a few of their erstwhile supporters.
The Australian Conservatives’ failure to meet predictions and expectations is another matter. Senator Cory Bernardi attracted large crowds of disillusioned Liberals and right-inclined voters at meetings conducted around Australia during 2017. Nationwide, more than 15,000 Australians joined the Australian Conservatives. Yet among voters at large, the party seems to have gained little traction. In Bennelong in December, the party polled less than did the Christian Democrats in the 2016 general election. In South Australia, the Australian Conservatives attained little more than half the votes formerly garnered by Family First, meaning the parties’ merger has yielded less than nothing in terms of electoral success.
It seems that widespread personal support for Cory Bernardi simply does not translate into votes for his party. The Liberals’ would-be competitor just cannot get traction, or so it seems on the basis of the latest returns.
Why the gulf between great expectations and the anti-climatic thud of tally room numbers falling way short? Well, by my reckoning, Tony Abbott must take much of the credit for keeping conservatives inside the Liberal tent.
Let me explain: against furious opposition from the NSW party’s “moderate” power brokers, he secured passage of the so-called Warringah Motion which aimed to ensure all members of the Liberal Party have an equal say on the selection of parliamentary candidates, an initiative endorsed by a large meeting of rank-and-file party faithful at Randwick Racecourse. At a subsequent meeting of the Liberal Party State Council, the faction bosses staged a partial fightback, failing to realise that Tony Abbott and his fellow conservatives had saved the Liberal Party from a mass walkout by giving ordinary branch members hope that the cronyism, branch-stacking, general deviousness and Labor-lite policies of the current NSW regime are not beyond reform.
NSW’s so-called moderates must now reckon with the emergence of Senator Jim Molan, a solid conservative and Abbott ally. Further displays of malice or self-serving stupidity by the Left faction — witness Molan’s relegation to the un-electable seventh spot on the Senate ticket and his subsequent rise as a result of the liabilities and deficiencies of those placed above him — can only further incite those on the party’s right. While the dominant faction is sly, rather than smart, its heelers, advocates and operatives surely have the wit not to provoke mutiny.
Far from being the disruptive and divisive force, as so often depicted by the lockstep thinkers on the left who opine for the ABC and Fairfax Media, Abbott and his fellow conservatives in the Liberal Party continue to provide a conservative ballast against the further heeling to port of the ship whose bridge Malcolm Turnbull and his minions seized and still control. Much as he might wish, Turnbull cannot cast himself in full measure as the antipodean Angela Merkel. In this regard he owes Abbott a great debt for saving him from his own worst impulses and instincts. The more Abbott, Molan, Andrew Hastie and others continue to speak out, the more irrelevant any rival party on the right, such as Bernardians and Hansonites, will remain.
My prediction, both an inkling and reasoned surmise, is that the inevitable defeat of the Turnbull government will see the re-emergence of a genuinely conservative Liberal Party and, quite possibly, Bernardi re-submitting his membership papers and the end of the Australian Conservatives as a separate party. Should that happen it will be Tony Abbott’s doing.