WITH LEADERSHIP SPECULATION now swirling around the Liberal Party in the wake of the Queensland state election debacle, capping as it did a decidedly dismal year for the government, attention is falling on who might replace Tony Abbott if, regrettably, push should come to shove. This column restates its longstanding position that not only is Malcolm Turnbull unfit to lead, he should not be permitted to do so under any circumstances.
I remain supportive of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, as I have been through his Prime Ministership, his tenure as leader of the opposition, and as an MP and minister prior to his ascension to the Liberal leadership in December 2009.
But the denial of reality is required if we are to ignore the fact that the government has performed poorly, and that Abbott himself now faces the real threat of being removed from his position for the first time during the Coalition’s relatively short stint in office.
This column has increasingly (and unhappily) come to the view that a disproportionate degree of the federal government’s troubles emanate from the Prime Ministers’s office: from the rigidly excessive and unhealthy degree of control it exercises over virtually every aspect of governance, including its arbitrary veto of every government policy or initiative (making it in fact responsible for some of the abominable measures the government has pursued), and from everything from media strategy to micromanaging even the most junior staffing appointments in far-flung electorate offices, and from micromanaging the government’s political strategies and media and communications efforts (which have been largely botched) to bizarrely failing to prevent the Prime Minister from kicking the ludicrous own goal that was the “Prince Sir Philip” fracas on Australia Day.
And just about everything in between.
Even the Prime Minister’s staunchest and most loyal friends in the media have tried to tell him where the problem lies — and one of the better articles that has appeared in recent weeks can be accessed here — in addition to, reportedly, a growing number of his MPs and ministers, who are as angry and as frustrated as those loyal Coalition adherents in the press, elsewhere in the Liberal Party and among the millions of supporters who voted for this government, that stubborn and blind loyalty to the official responsible for the mess the PMO has made of its brief apparently transcends all other considerations.
I had hoped good common sense would prevail upon Abbott — particularly in light of the disastrous state election result in Queensland, which was unquestionably influenced by federal factors — and that he would dismiss Chief of Staff Peta Credlin; the hope is and was that with a fresh hand in charge of the PMO and a more outward-looking focus adopted (and new people able to replace Credlin’s hand-selected, personally vetted ministerial personnel wherever necessary) the government would be in a position to dispense with the mistakes the PMO has presided over; that the Prime Minister and his colleagues would begin to receive a flow of advice and support of far superior quality; and that, gradually but distinctly, the Coalition would start to reset and retrieve its political position.
This, regrettably, has not been the case — and despite a modest but uninspiring attempt in his speech to the National Press Club yesterday to recapture the political mood and defend his position, the outbreak of leadership speculation that has gripped the Liberal Party of late seems set not just to continue, but to accelerate if the government’s performance fails to show rapid and marked improvement.
In a perfect world, I would prefer Abbott to remain as Prime Minister and develop as the success I always thought he could make of the role.
I don’t intend to canvass every infinitesimal aspect of any leadership ructions that are at hand.
But disturbingly, there is widespread speculation in the press that any change of leadership would involve a deal that sees Malcolm Turnbull become leader (and Prime Minister) with Foreign minister Julie Bishop as his deputy, and if Turnbull is to be the favourite as a successor in any leadership switch then that undesirable development must be addressed.
There is no question that on economic matters, Turnbull’s liberalism (in the classic sense) is beyond reproach.
But on social policy matters, his leanings are distinctly to the Left; and far from this representing any positive to the Liberal Party or, indeed, providing it the opportunity to access and build new constituencies as some suggest, Turnbull’s social views are simply a recipe to alienate and detach huge chunks of the party’s more conservative base.
We already know this: the first Turnbull leadership saw support for the party all but disintegrate, as conservative Liberals began to withdraw their support for the party in every reputable instrument of opinion polling.
Turnbull as leader the first time was a political disaster; his idea of “leadership” involved providing “bipartisanship” to the ALP that all but removed the difference between the Coalition and Labor, and it is no coincidence that many of the measures being pursued by then-PM Kevin Rudd were abandoned after the switch to Mr Abbott in 2009: as measures that the Liberal Party would ordinarily never support, that Turnbull’s leadership had appeared to enable, had been taken off the table.
In dumping Turnbull in 2009, it was the Liberal base that was listened to, rather than the ALP to which the party under Turnbull was in danger of selling out to.
Politically, his stint in the leadership was a disaster, with the “Utegate” affair revealing a dangerous penchant to shoot first and worry about details later; that the fabricated emails over which Turnbull’s attack on Rudd was based were unquestioningly adopted as genuine belied a nascent and amateurish regard for detail. At best, it was careless. At worst, it could have led the party into far more trouble than it did.
But either way, it was a warning about Turnbull’s approach to the hard detail of sensitive political material that ought to be heeded even now.
Suggestions that Turnbull would bring a flood of new support to the Liberal Party if restored to its leadership are and were baseless: after all, no such army of minions swung its weight behind the Coalition last time he led it.
It is one of those enigmatic realities of Australian politics that Turnbull is genuinely regarded with warmth and some respect by the Liberals’ political opponents on the Left, principally on account of his social views.
But this “support” for Turnbull among the government’s implacable political enemies has never translated into widespread voting intention; it didn’t during his first ill-fated tenure as Liberal leader and it won’t now.
The wildly euphoric polling numbers finding Turnbull the “most popular” candidate to lead the Liberals are inflated and distorted by those on the Left who may indeed like him, but who would never vote for the Liberal Party even if he were to lead it.
And Turnbull was, where voting intention is concerned — a more salient consideration than how much people like him — an abject failure, with average two-party support for the Coalition under his leadership sitting at just 44%, but fluctuating between 42% and 48%. Not once did the Coalition under Turnbull head Labor in the polls, even as the wheels began to fall off the Kevin Rudd cart.
In short, there is no reason to believe a second Turnbull leadership would be other than an unmitigated disaster, and that view is underscored by the hard available evidence from his own performance as Liberal leader in the first place.
This column does remain supportive of Malcolm as a senior minister; we feel he has much to offer the Liberal Party in spite of our views on his calibre as a leadership candidate, and I restate my view of some months ago that — bluntly — he is the best candidate to fill to role of Treasurer, and should be appointed to that position forthwith.
I hope that Abbott is able to retrieve his position and again reiterate the view that for the good of the government, for the Liberal Party and for the country, Peta Credlin must be removed from her position: and if she refuses to depart voluntarily, that the Prime Minister has no alternative but to sack her.
As night follows day, a refusal to enact this change will inevitably bring on a leadership contest.
And if that were to occur, other candidates must be considered as alternatives to the Prime Minister; in fact, virtually every other hypothetical candidate has a superior claim to the Liberal leadership than Turnbull does if viewed through a purely political and performance-based prism.
Under no circumstances should Malcolm Turnbull be restored to the Liberal leadership and invested with the role of Prime Minister.
The Liberals’ march toward a return to opposition will continue until or unless a circuit breaker is provided. Making Turnbull the leader of the party would simply accelerate the process.
The Liberal Party owes Australia sound governance and the means through which to redress the consequences of Labor’s shocking ineptitude. Losing an election will not achieve this.
The restoration of the Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott through a proper restructure of the PMO is one way to avoid such a fate. His replacement by Turnbull would merely guarantee it, and would speed the government’s demise.