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12 July 2016

After a long, close battle, Malcolm Turnbull retains power in Australia – how it happened

The incumbent Liberal party has returned with a narrow majority after the closely-fought Australian election.

By James Chater

Eight days after polling stations closed – and despite nearly 20 per cent votes having not yet been counted – Malcolm Turnbull declared victory in Australia’s federal election. With only two seats left in doubt, the Liberal-National Coalition Party has secured the 76 seats out of 150 required to form a majority government in the House of Representatives. Bill Shorten’s Labor Party has secured 67 seats – and is expected to win the remaining two. Five seats were won by independent parties.

In an emotive victory speech, Turnbull said:

“Politics is not about us the politicians. It’s not about the media, the political commentators, the pundits, or the pollsters. It’s about the Australian people.”

“Everything we do is about the future. Everything.”

Securing a stable economic future for Australia was Turnbull’s major campaign promise. The country is reaching the end of a long mining boom, and outlining a clear trajectory through this transitional economic period was essential for both party leaders.

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Bill Shorten, the “down-to-earth” Labor leader, campaigned on a manifesto for: “Health. Jobs. Education.” He claimed to provide the wider social security that Turnbull would neglect.

Turnbull focused particularly on job creation and accelerating growth. And although not directly responsible for them, his economic footing was bolstered by the signing of a number of major free trade agreements last year – with South Korea, Japan, and most importantly, China. A vote for him, Turnbull argued, was a vote for economic security.

But despite his broad personal popularity, Turnbull’s policies failed to impress voters across the board.

Across the country, the Coalition lost considerable ground to Shorten’s Labor Party. Of the 14 seats that changed hands, ten were Labor gains. Chisholm in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs – a marginal seat – was the only constituency to swing from Labor to Liberal.

The morning after polling day, Shorten said: “Whilst there was no clear winner, there was clearly one loser: Malcolm Turnbull’s agenda.”

Further testament to the weakening of Liberal authority was the rise in votes for independent parties; an insurgence that caused major concern for Turnbull and Shorten in the weeks before the election. The possibility of independent seats holding enormous bargaining power in the event of a hung parliament was to be avoided at all costs. Turnbull said that a vote for an independent party would be “a vote for chaos.”

Although the vote “for anyone else” was up 13 per cent, Turnbull scraped by unscathed.

However, this percentage rise does show the anti-establishment sentiment in global politics present in Australia. Brexit was keenly followed by the country’s politicians, and whilst independent parties used the political earthquake to steer voters away from the mainstream, the two main parties seized upon the result to reiterate the necessity for political stability. Turnbull and Shorten both claimed they could offer it.

The image in this tweet is, of course, not coincidental. During the campaign, Turnbull attempted to cast himself as the heir apparent to John Howard – the last long-serving Prime Minster of Australia (1996-2007) – by-passing the other four Prime Ministers the country has had in the past six years. He projected himself as a symbol of longevity; a leader that would rise above the vicissitudes of recent political volatility.

Critics of Turnbull pointed to the manner in which he deposed his predecessor, Tony Abbott, as evidence to the contrary.

Healthcare became one of the most sensitive issues of the campaign. Labor claimed that the Liberal Party would privatise Medicare, the Australian healthcare system. They hammered home the risk a vote for the Liberal party would pose to its survival. Turnbull vigorously refuted the claims of privatisation.

The Liberal party accused Shorten of outright lying about their policy on Medicare. It became the known as the Labor scare-tactic, or “Mediscare”.

Particularly divisive was an election-day text message sent from Labor’s Queensland branch. The message read: “Turnbull’s plans to privatise Medicare will take us down the road of no return.” On iPhones, the message sender read “Medicare”.

The move attracted widespread criticism, and has become a matter for police investigation. In the days immediately after the election, a spokesperson for the Labor Party in Queensland responded: “The message was not intended to indicate that it was a message from Medicare, rather to identify the subject of the text.”

Turnbull labeled the message “an extraordinary act of dishonesty.” Attorney-General George Brandis called it “disgraceful” and “fraudulent”, suggesting it had the power to change the election result.

But Shorten has since acknowledged and defended the text message.

The government now faces considerable challenges. With an extremely narrow majority in the House of Representatives, a conflicted Parliament will find it difficult to pass legislation through the Senate. Turnbull will need to effectively manage a restive right to his own party; many of whom are at odds with his socially liberal views, and are also uncomfortable about the narrow majority of their victory.

A likely first challenge will be the plebiscite on same-sex marriage promised by the Liberal Party. Although both Turnbull and Shorten support it, there remains a question mark whether it will pass in a national vote. If it doesn’t, it could be the first blow to any continued cross-party support. Shorten promised a vote on same-sex marriage amongst MPs – a motion that, he insists, would pass easily in the House of Representatives.

Although Shorten assured Turnbull that “where there is common ground, we will work very hard to accomplish”, he has also hinted at the fragility of Turnbull’s government and authority. He has even suggested that Australians could be back at the polls within a year.

But with pronounced election and political fatigue felt around the country, the public might resent such a move by Shorten.

Michelle Landry, whose win in Capricornia, Queensland, took the Liberal party over the finishing line, hit at the heart of national sentiment: “People are sick of the fighting in politics. They want everyone to get together and work.”

Regardless of the narrow majority won by Turnbull, some will see the election result providing more questions than answers.