Bill Shorten's Super Saturday wins prove bankers v battlers is a real problem for Malcolm Turnbull

| 29.07,18. 05:39 PM |

Bill Shorten's Super Saturday wins prove bankers v battlers is a real problem for Malcolm Turnbull

Photo: Labor leader Bill Shorten will enter the last few months of this parliamentary term believing he has the right pitch. (AAP: Dan Peled )

It has been a long while since Australia has had a prime minister called William.

The last contender slogged it out as Leader of the Opposition for six years before being pounced on by Bob Hawke just hours before an unaware Malcolm Fraser went to see the Governor-General.

As the ousted Bill Hayden bitterly observed that afternoon, even a "drover's dog" could have led Labor to victory against Fraser, his government was so spent.

Another Bill will get to face off against a Malcolm, and it will be next year after all, just as Malcolm Turnbull has been saying.

The Super Saturday by-elections have washed away lingering doubts about the longevity of Bill Shorten's leadership, just as they have cast away any remnant temptation for the Prime Minister to go early to a general election.

Saturday was not a good day's outing for the Coalition, notwithstanding the Government's insistence that the events were entirely in keeping with the long history of by-elections.

The day turned out to be below the Turnbull Government's expectations, and higher than Labor's.

The Government dodged a health check on the western side of the Nullarbor, failing to field candidates in Fremantle and Perth, but got trounced in Longman and beaten in Braddon.

Make no mistake, the Coalition's mojo was counting on at least one pick-up to give succour to its nascent momentum and Mr Turnbull's confidence.

Mayo was always in the too-hard basket for the Liberal Party, but some in the Government dared to dream in the past fortnight that the Coalition might pick up the other two.

And Labor may have been hopeful in Braddon and cautious about its chances in Longman, but it never expected a near 55-45 turnout in its favour in the Queensland seat.

And Mr Shorten, who has spent five years as Opposition leader, had reason to be nervous, not just because the seat-by-seat polling was infuriatingly erratic.

He knew too that his internal detractors would use a loss (or losses) to visit discomfort on him. Some in Labor have been positing that Mr Shorten's unpopularity was a dangerous drag on the ALP vote.

Mr Turnbull had picked up on this vibe in the campaign, venturing that the contest was about leadership.

"The Longman by-election is obviously a test of the candidates, a test of the parties, but really it is about deciding — for the people of Longman to decide — whether they want to vote for Bill Shorten and his higher taxes, fewer jobs, lower wages, less economic growth," he told ABC Brisbane's Rebecca Levingston on July 12.

So if the Labor voters are about Bill Shorten, are those in the LNP voting for Malcolm Turnbull?

"Of course. The head-up, the contest is between me and Bill Shorten as the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader," Mr Turnbull said at the time.

By the PM's measure, Mr Shorten has won this battle.

Serially underestimated by foe and friend, the Labor leader will enter the last few months of this parliamentary term firmly believing he has the pitch right, on health, hospitals, education and tax.

And it's on delivering corporate tax cuts — where Turnbull has unfinished business in the Senate — that the Coalition may now have cause to reconsider.

The past 10 weeks of campaigning has only affirmed among ALP strategists the effectiveness of Labor's constant riff about the Turnbull Government's tax cuts to the "top end of town".

A Coalition figure says his side needs to cauterise this — and quick.

"We have become the defenders of the big banks. We protected them from the royal commission, want to give them tax cuts," he said.

"If you are on the bones of your arse in Caboolture or Morayfield you are going to hate the banks. Labor has framed us as the bankers' party rather than the customers' party."

This person believes the tax cuts planned for Australia's biggest corporates should be dumped, replaced by greater and faster tax cuts to small and medium-sized businesses.

But the biggest story of Saturday night was what happened to the LNP primary vote in Longman.

Acknowledging all the usual caveats about not transposing by-election results to general elections, the near 10-per cent drop in the LNP's first preference vote in Longman points to a structural problem in the LNP vote. This will cause alarm.

The LNP has a swath of seats that are very marginal: Capricornia and Forde (both 0.6 per cent), Flynn (1 per cent), Petrie (1.6 per cent), Dickson (2 per cent), Dawson (3.3 per cent) and Bonner (3.4 per cent).

Coalition MPs in these seats will look at what happened in Longman with some horror. Yes, the LNP vote was cannibalised from the right by One Nation, but Trevor Ruthenberg only benefited from a 65 per cent return on One Nation preferences.

Coalition government can't be retained when candidates in key marginals score a sub-30 per cent primary vote.

And it's on this simple score that the Coalition might be forced to recalibrate some of its policies, lest William Richard Shorten becomes what Bob Hawke snatched from Bill Hayden.


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