Malcolm Turnbull says he’s “ungaggable.” Tony Abbott says supporting Coalition policy is a condition of Turnbull’s membership of the shadow cabinet.
Tony Abbott’s remarks on Channel Nine yesterday represented the shot across the bows.
Abbott said that Turnbull’s position as a shadow minister was conditional on his support for the Coalition’s direct action policy on climate change. “It’s not his job to talk about a whole range of policies, it’s his job to talk about communications policy and he’s doing a very good job,” he said.
Turnbull’s reply was tantamount to a declaration of war. “Nobody has gagged me. I’m ungaggable, I assure you,” he said. “I’m beyond gagging.”
Although, he added, he supported the Coalition’s policy.
This has gone on long enough and Turnbull can’t have it both ways. Either he supports Coalition policy or he doesn’t, and if he does, he must stop picking at it, implicitly criticising it, and making favourable references to the government’s own policy — the very policy the Liberals and Nationals are committed to oppose.
He also said he wouldn’t be defecting to Labor.
One has to feel some sympathy for Tony Abbott — having carved out a position on this issue which clearly resonates with the voting public, he is by necessity forced to continually defend Turnbull, insist the latter supports the official policy, and praise his efforts in his own portfolio area.
Defend Turnbull? It’s fast approaching the point where his conduct is indefensible.
Turnbull supporting Coalition policy on climate change? If you believe that then here’s a tip for you: tomorrow, the sun will rise in the west.
And Turnbull on communications policy? As this column has previously observed, his utterances on issues such as the NBN have an eerily silent quality about them.
It is clear that Turnbull is angling for a return to the Liberal leadership — the role he lost as a direct consequence of his approach to climate change policy. Nothing has changed; neither his approach in terms of his prescriptive policy preferences nor his support for an agenda which, by every objective and quantifiable measure, is deeply detested by the Australian public.
It is true that certain polls — some scientific, some not — purport to show Turnbull is the overwhelmingly favoured candidate to lead the Liberal Party.
But in late 1988 and early 1989, they also showed Andrew Peacock as the overwhelmingly preferred candidate to resume the Liberal leadership from a then-hapless John Howard whose initial stint in the job was just north of abysmal.
Once reinstalled in the role in May 1989, Peacock’s opinion poll ratings — and those of the Liberal Party — quickly headed south, admittedly after a little help from Peacock’s friends who went on national television to brag about the sheer dishonesty of the coup they had sprung on Howard.
And Howard — only by virtue of being the last man standing in January 1995, after the useless Hewson had been replaced by the hopeless Downer, with disastrous consequences — is the only leader of either major party since Menzies in the 1940s to have lost the leadership of their party, subsequently regained it, and gone on to win an election.
Turnbull would do well to heed this little lesson in Australian political history.
It is a lesson I believe is not lost on his colleagues. Some of them are resentful; Abbott was handed the same poisoned chalice that Turnbull (and before him, Brendan Nelson) had been handed; unlike Turnbull, Abbott has worked the Coalition into an election-winning position and on balance was probably unlucky not to have won last year.
Some are simply angry — and that anger is growing — that Turnbull refuses to play the team game, is determined to speak on matters beyond his gambit, and appears to want to play the wrecker on his pet issue simply because he hasn’t been allowed to have his own way.
But all of them — including those who still support Turnbull and would likely back him in any leadership election — having grown reaccustomed to the slog of Opposition know that they would much rather be again sitting to the right of the speaker in the House.
Abbott may be consistently be polling the sorts of numbers indicative of a landslide, but there is no guarantee those numbers would hold after a change of leadership and again — given Turnbull’s own polling history as leader — there is every reason to expect that they would collapse.
Quickly. Very, very quickly.
I’m sorry I am making some of the same points that have appeared in previous posts. But Turnbull won’t go away; he won’t stop what clearly now is a pattern of destabilising and disloyal behaviour; and it has gone beyond a joke.
Malcolm Turnbull has effectively declared that he is a law unto himself and a loose cannon, attempting to arrogate to himself a right held, by convention, only by leadership members of the Coalition parties — the right to speak across portfolios.
He has declared it is impossible to silence him, bragged that he won’t stop what he’s doing, and seems unconcerned by the political damage his actions could inflict on the Liberal Party he nonetheless professes to love and support.
As I said at the outset, this is tantamount to a declaration of war. The odds are not stacked in Turnbull’s favour. The public is not behind him, neither is a majority of his colleagues, and the patience of his leader must surely sometime soon expire.
That cross-bench seat is looking, more and more, a mighty fine place for you, Malcolm.