IN AN EMBARRASSMENT to the Liberal Party and to Australia, former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull has been restored to the position by a snap ballot of the Liberal party room; it is the second time in just over two years an egomaniac deposed by his colleagues has toppled a Prime Minister to slake an ego. Tony Abbott’s defeat is self-inflicted. But Turnbull is no “solution,” and those responsible for his ascension should be ashamed of themselves.
I begin with a message to readers that over the next few days — perhaps over a week or so — I will be giving very careful consideration to my membership of the Liberal Party, and specifically to whether there is any point in either continuing as a member of the party or for the party to continue to exist in its present form at all; on the latter, some of my comments today will explain my thinking, but whether or not I remain within the organisation this column will continue to articulate conservative views and advocate for rational, practical, moderate conservative policies as it has always done.
Let’s be frank: Australia did not receive conservative government from Tony Abbott, despite the initial false promise and in spite of the insults hurled around that his was a “hard Right” government. It most certainly will not receive conservative government from Malcolm Turnbull.
But first things first: congratulations to Malcolm on winning the ballot for the party leadership last night. I heard him talking on Sky News some time afterwards, and he made what at face value were encouraging noises — as he had to — but it remains to be seen whether he can deliver on them, or can deliver a slate of constructive policy outcomes at all. To some extent whether he can or not is well out of his hands, and I would warn those who naively think the messiah has been elevated through this process that he may not in fact be able to satisfy them.
I think what we have seen play out — and I had advance notice that moves were afoot, which is why articles targeting Peta Credlin and Malcolm Turnbull were published in this column at the weekend — is the end result of a classic “three into two” situation, and has produced an outcome that will prove as unsatisfactory to its proponents as the mess it was contrived to clean up.
We had a conservative Prime Minister — unpopular, but elected with a solid mandate and a healthy enough stipend of public goodwill at the outset — who eschewed the provision of conservative governance and made no serious attempt at broad reform in the face of a hostile Senate and a noisy but intellectually and morally bankrupt opposition in the form of the ALP and the unions.
That reticence was informed by a virtual proxy Prime Minister in the form of his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, whose paw prints could be found upon every conceivable aspect of the Abbott government: its staff, its strategies and tactics (such as they were), its management — or inability thereto — of Parliament; its misfiring apparatus and strategies for communication; its (fraught) relationships with the Liberal Party membership, the business community, and just about everyone and everything else.
And we had a relentlessly ambitious, egomaniacal former Liberal leader, whose mistakes and misadventures cost him the post six years ago, and who has given every indication ever since that the job was one he regarded by right to be his.
The conservative Prime Minister refused to bring his proxy to heel, despite repeated warnings, protests, and the near-death experience of the spill without a candidate seven months ago: even at risk of being booted from the Prime Ministerial suite, Abbott steadfastly and stubbornly proclaimed “loyalty” to Credlin (and other unworthy recipients of this virtue) and elevated that position above all else. The resultant flow of support to the vanquished failed leader has seen him restored to the job he has coveted as an arrogated right: only this time, Turnbull will become Prime Minister himself, provided the National Party does not act on its past hostility toward Turnbull as leader and terminate the coalition agreement with the Liberals.
In the most politically lethal fashion possible, what transpired yesterday graphically illustrates the adage that three into two does not go.
Yesterday’s events are an embarrassment: they are an embarrassment to the Liberal Party, which — for whatever reason, or aggregation of reasons — has performed poorly in government to date and exhibited a distinct degree of political amateurism for which those charged with running the government through the Prime Minister’s Office and the organisational wing of the federal Liberal Party are heavily culpable, and who must now be removed: involuntarily if need be.
They are an embarrassment to the Liberal Party because — despite the lofty talk of “grown-ups” and not being like the ALP — the party has been shown to be no different to the ALP at all; whilst the likes of Credlin and her insidious influence and Abbott’s refusal to curb it have been the ostensible triggers for the leadership change, the true reason Malcolm Turnbull will become Prime Minister today is because people are frightened of losing an election, and not for anything more high-minded or grounded in principle.
And yesterday’s events are an embarrassment to Australia, which for the fifth time in seven years (and for the third time in less than three) faces its international partners and friends to tell them we’ve got a new leader: what is traditionally one of the most stably governed countries in the world has become little better than a banana republic for executing its leaders in midnight coups and replacing them with messiahs — real, perceived, or (usually) imagined.
I believe the defeat Tony Abbott has suffered is entirely self-inflicted, and I direct readers no further than the piece I published on Saturday — having been privately alerted a move against him was just a few days away — as to the reasons for it. Enough said, without rehashing that argument contemporaneously.
So today we have Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister. The very notion of it is ridiculous.
I truly hope Turnbull has learned — as he claims he has — from the disaster he presided over in 2008 and 2009, that very nearly rent the Liberal Party asunder beneath the weight of the burden and the structural stresses he inflicted upon it: he will have had to, because being a distastefully ambitious (if flawed) opposition leader is one thing. Discharging the responsibilities of the Prime Ministership is another matter again.
I am — despite my trenchant criticism of Turnbull and my total opposition to his ascension to the highest office — going to attempt, initially at least, to give him the benefit of the doubt; I do actually like Turnbull very much on the personal level, but politically my reservations about him are extreme. We will see how he does.
It was encouraging to hear that he wants to lead “a truly liberal government,” for one of the criticisms we have made in this column is that the Abbott government wasn’t liberal, it wasn’t conservative, and in fact it wasn’t even following the path of least resistance: slugging its own swinging voters in marginal seats, worrying more about appeasing opponents than delivering for supporters, and running away at the first sign of trouble whenever it attempted anything difficult, the Abbott government will — sadly — become a footnote in the country’s political history to rival Julia Gillard’s and Bill McMahon’s for their torpidity and their lack of rigour.
Turnbull correctly noted the free trade agreements signed (or being developed) by Trade minister Andrew Robb as a crucial foundation stone for Australia’s future prosperity, and he is right; these — along with the re-establishment of proper border controls — are the two shining legacies Abbott as Prime Minister leaves behind.
But in what the sycophantic Left that has championed Turnbull ought to interpret as a shot across the bows — but won’t comprehend — his stated commitment to “freedom, the individual and the market” signals a classical liberal emphasis on personal responsibility and untrammelled capitalistic freedom that sits at odds with notions held by Northcote and Balmain elites of a watermelon-style welfarism predicated on some concept of noblesse oblige that will see the well of entitlement run deep on Turnbull’s watch: it won’t, and it shouldn’t.
If Turnbull’s actions find fidelity with his stated objectives in this regard, I will accord him acknowledgement and a little respect.
But it has to be remembered that this is a deeply defective leader we are talking about.
Turnbull is the man who charged off, half-cocked and without verification, on accusations of a criminal conspiracy involving a ute and Kevin Rudd’s campaign office on the pretext of a doctored email which Turnbull never bothered to authenticate before relying on it.
Turnbull is the “leader” who told his National party coalition partners to pull their heads in and to do what they were told — over the fraught issue of climate change, which is of paramount importance to the Nationals’ farming community — and compounded that with his insistence on pursuing the “market-based” emissions trading regime which, bluntly, was just a tax, later shown under Julia Gillard to be little more than ineffectual at cutting greenhouse gas emissions in any case.
Turnbull is the leader whose concept of Australia is disturbingly evocative of his inner-Sydney electorate, with Oxford Street and Kings Cross at one end and Double Bay and Point Piper at the other; the rest of Australia really bears no resemblance to that sliver of Sydney at all, but Turnbull as Liberal leader the first time showed every inclination of aspiring to govern as if the whole country was a carbon copy of it.
Turnbull is the leader with the undeniably Left-leaning agenda — a republic, gay marriage, climate change — in a party still comprised in the majority by mainstream conservatives; it’s an obvious and dangerous clash that he couldn’t reconcile last time, and it will be interesting to see how he attempts to do so now.
Turnbull is the man who — by repute — you are either for or against; slavering, simpering affection and support is welcome but criticism, notoriously, is not: and there are anecdotes everywhere you look for them of Turnbull’s fits of rage, his grudges, and his vindictiveness against those who don’t fall into line with the mantra.
And whilst Turnbull is obviously a more articulate communicator than Tony Abbott, he’s famed for waffling and going off on tangents — and even watching his brief remarks to the press last night I saw signs he was straining to do just that.
But even if Turnbull manages to control his personal shortcomings, he may still fall flat on his face on account of some of the same obstacles that bedevilled Abbott, the albatross of Credlin around the latter’s neck notwithstanding.
The viciously hostile Senate that confronted Abbott will now confront Turnbull; the new Prime Minister might heed my advice, get rid of Credlin and her coterie, and bring in people with real nous and ingenuity where political strategy and tactics are concerned.
He will face the same noisy, vacuously populist, and intellectually abhorrent opposition in Labor and the unions; Bill Shorten isn’t going to change his ways, even if he’s been “nice” to Turnbull to date — he will merely recalibrate his filthy and dishonest attacks to reflect the new opponent he faces, and rip into Turnbull instead.
The unions aren’t going to treat Turnbull any differently than they treated Abbott; in fact — given Turnbull’s vast wealth, professional background and stated objective of tackling genuine economic and industrial reform — it is conceivable Abbott might be seen in hindsight to have been let off lightly by the unions in particular.
And anyone who thinks the media puppets of the political Left who have gazed adoringly on Malcolm for years — Fairfax, the ABC, the Private Media, and so on — will give his government a free ride are in for a rude shock, especially if he proves to be serious about the things he has said he wants to focus on.
Like Andrew Peacock and Kevin Rudd before him, Turnbull reclaims his leadership with stratospheric personal poll approval numbers; I think the first round of polls will see a sharp spike in the Coalition’s ratings, followed by a decline at a yet-to-be determined rate of knots — and I say this not to be anti-Malcolm, but because that is exactly what happened to Peacock and Rudd after the proverbial first five minutes had passed.
Quite candidly, if Turnbull were serious, he’d call an election later today once he’s been sworn in, and seek his own mandate.
And why? Unlike Julia Gillard (of whom conventional wisdom concurs made a mistake in “rushing” to an election on becoming Prime Minister), voters know him well; he’s been around, with a sky-high profile inside and outside Parliament, for decades; and the impression voters have of him is never going to be higher than it will be when the first round of polling comes in a week or two.
Better to go now — to an election for both houses of Parliament — and try to cash in.
Because the longer he leaves it, the likelier it is the Coalition will lose anyway; the obstacles to Turnbull’s success — within and beyond his control — will eat away at whatever support he might bring back to the Coalition’s pile. As we saw with Rudd Mk II, that erosion can happen very quickly.
If the formidable coalition of the Senate, Labor, the
Communist Party Greens, the unions, the ABC and Fairfax take to the new Liberal Prime Minister with malicious vengeance, Turnbull could find himself standing in Tony Abbott’s debased position very quickly indeed.
And to go today — literally — brings with it the added benefit of locking Labor’s greatest liability, Bill Shorten, in as “leader.”
Make no mistake, when Parliament rises for three weeks on Thursday, little helpers associated with Tanya Plibersek are likely to go looking for the 48 autographs that are required from Labor’s 80 MPs to trigger a special leadership ballot and circumvent Rudd’s ALP leadership election rules that supposedly make Shorten immune to challenge.
Turnbull might beat Shorten now, but a new Labor leader, after time to wear the government down, and with the distinct prospect all of the forces ranged against it could scuttle any renaissance Turnbull might hope to spark, could be a different proposition altogether.
Yet discarding my anti-Turnbull political prejudices and being objective about it, I’d rate Malcolm’s re-election prospects at no better than 50/50: and that’s right at the beginning, when his stocks are highest.
Those who deserted Abbott — searching for the quick fix and motivated by electoral desperation, panicked into something that might keep their own arses comfortable in a marginal seat held onto just once more — really ought to be ashamed of themselves, for to fail to give forethought to the realistic prospects of electoral success under Turnbull that are far from a sure thing means they may well have put the Liberal Party through a desperately undesirable trauma for nothing.
I’m not saying Abbott shouldn’t have been overthrown and in fact, I think I have made it clear that he probably needed to go on account of his refusal to remove an unelected “Prime Minister” and the existential damage she was doing to the party and its support in the country.
But there were other options (not that this column will ever advocate for Julie Bishop again in a hurry) that weren’t explored: a ticket featuring Bishop, Robb, Scott Morrison and even Turnbull in a different capacity could have achieved everything the party needed without chancing its arm on a proven liability with questionable claims of rehabilitation underwriting his sales pitch.
It may be at some stage that serious people across Australia — from the Liberal and National parties, other smaller political entities of the mainstream Right, business, industry, and key constituencies in defence and the elderly — examine the prospects for a new, mass-based and unified conservative party; that’s a prospect I am open to, but I think the Turnbull experiment, for better or for worse, must first run its course.
Obviously, we will be talking about this extensively in coming days, so for now (at 1.25am) I am going to leave it there: today is a very heavy day for me, and I’m pushing it as it is on very little sleep to begin with.
But to say I am disgusted, angry, and extremely disappointed by what the elected servants of the Liberal Party did yesterday is an understatement.
Let those who have volubly and remorselessly advocated for a Prime Ministership for Malcolm Turnbull enjoy their moment of triumph.
A moment is all they may get. For all of the reasons we have discussed — and then some — the Liberal Party’s problems may only just be starting.