As has always been the case in Australian politics, the wildly unexpected is also the prosaically predictable.
So we head into the summer break with pieces of the political chess game not quite where we expected them to be. Malcolm Turnbull has had a few wins, perhaps most notably the marriage-equality postal survey, while the recent wrecking behaviour of Nationals MPs has made their Liberal counterparts look positively mature in comparison.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has recently faced outbreaks of factional discontent and leadership murmurs after years of Labor Party stability. This could be because Labor MPs have caught a whiff of an imminent election victory and are jostling for their share of the spoils. Or they have become anxious that Mr Shorten might just let that victory slip between his fingers.
Nevertheless, the only thing that hasn’t shifted this year is the opinion polls, which have consistently foreshadowed a determination by voters to throw out the Turnbull Government when they next get the chance. However the strength of this threat is now debatable in light of the New England and Bennelong byelections.
The Bennelong result in particular suggests Liberal voters are not (yet) as keen to desert Mr Turnbull as his opponents and other detractors would suggest.
Let’s remember that Bennelong was one of the few electorates to vote No in the marriage equality postal survey. In contrast to that electorate’s 50.2 per cent No vote, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats picked up only 7.4 per cent between them at the byelection. That’s barely more than the 6.4 per cent the Christian Democrats picked up on their own at the last federal election in 2016.
This means the bulk of the No voters stuck with the Liberals or Labor, which is very inconvenient for those who claim there’s an election-changing groundswell of conservatives just waiting for the chance to dump the Coalition for more conservative parties.
Both major parties also made it clear during the Bennelong campaign that electing Labor candidate Kristina Keneally would not only send a strong message to PM Turnbull but have the potential to change the government altogether. Yet voters declined to take up this generous offer, suggesting Labor still has some work to do to convince the nation that it’s a viable alternative government.
The supporters of Tony Abbott are facing a similar wake-up call as they measure the impact of their insurgency in 2017. Not only was their hateful marriage equality campaign rejected by a majority of Australian voters, their predictions of a Hanson rout failed to materialise in the Queensland state election. And then their poster boy, Cory Bernardi, proved incapable of leading the voters of Bennelong out of the wilderness.
Much more fortunate were the conservative supporters of Malcolm Turnbull or, more correctly, the next generation of right-wing MPs that senior conservatives Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann have cultivated and brought into the Turnbull camp. Those conservatives were among the Queensland and WA MPs to be promoted by the PM this week, drawing them even further from Tony Abbott’s grasp.
Malcolm Turnbull also richly rewarded Mr Dutton and Senator Cormann for their ongoing protection of him from the Abbottistas. Mr Dutton’s appointment to the new Home Affairs portfolio makes him one of the most powerful people in the government, while Senator Cormann’s ascension to Senate Leader also raises him in the seniority stakes.
Who would have thought that 2017 would draw to a close with Malcolm Turnbull looking more relaxed and comfortable than Bill Shorten, let alone Tony Abbott? Not this writer, who was sure the Abbott camp would inflict a mortal wound on the Prime Minister by this year’s end, leading to his political demise early in 2018.
That’s not to suggest Mr Turnbull is now a sure bet to be leading the Liberals to the next federal election, which is due any time from August next year. If political observers learned anything in 2017, it’s that nothing is certain when the fate of a politician, their party or the government of the day can be reversed by the simple revelation of a previously undisclosed donation, statement, meeting, purchase or fealty to another nation.