THE NOTORIOUSLY AMATEURISH touch shown by Malcolm Turnbull in his first outing as Liberal leader — which helped terminate his tenure in the post six years ago — re-emerged in stunning fashion yesterday; his assertion to the NSW faithful that the Liberal Party has no factions and is not governed by backroom deals is delusional. It continues a series of political judgement calls that should alarm those who backed his return to the leadership.
The problem with having perfectly pitched and polished verbal communications skills used to deliver messages with clipped, articulate precision is that if you’re talking rubbish — or are just wrong — you’re prone to appear even more of a fool than some bogan mouthing invective in broad Strine at a local pub.
Yet Malcolm Turnbull used an address to the NSW State Council of the Liberal Party yesterday to declare — among other things — that the Liberal Party does not have factions, is not run by “backroom deals,” and is not governed by big business.
I’m inclined to agree where the influence of big business is concerned, but where factional considerations or the decisive influence of backroom hacks and spivs are concerned, the fact the Prime Minister’s error warrants observation speaks volumes on its own.
Readers have probably deduced that I am taking a “wait and see” approach to the experiment of a Turnbull Prime Ministership (even if, for now, it seems to be more a case of “wait” than “see”); since his ascension to the Liberal leadership there has been a mixture of refreshing clarity and inadvisable own goals forthcoming from the Prime Ministerial suite, and it remains to be seen which of these two trends becomes the dominant storyline of the born-again Turnbull — who claims to have learned from his past mistakes.
It has to be remembered that Malcolm has been made Prime Minister by his colleagues for the express purpose of winning an election and salvaging their seats from the restive ALP bear: and this objective was made even more brutal in its clarity by the man himself than the snap coup that saw Julia Gillard depose Kevin Rudd in 2010, or the counter-coup that saw Rudd revisit the favour on Gillard three years later.
It is ironic that one of the most lethal charges that could be levelled against those closest to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was one of rank amateurism: wherever political strategy, tactics, communications, policy formulation or the management of the hostile Senate was concerned, Abbott’s office and the supposed support offered by the Liberals’ federal secretariat reeked of simply not being up to the job.
However loathsome some of Turnbull’s trendy wet social ideas may be to the more conservative wing of the party, his elevation at least elicited some grudging hope that the snafus and self-immolation emanating from the Prime Minister’s Office might be consigned to the past.
But Turnbull himself has form for an equivalent dearth of political nous, and those with short enough memories to be hoodwinked by a series of appearances on the ABC’s #QandA programme and/or who simply wish to accept the highly likeable Turnbull’s charms at face value overlook the fact that a directionless ship spinning out of control on account of erroneous captain’s calls — with mutinous officers and passengers from first class down to the steerage lashing out with increasing desperation as rocks loomed in the foreground — is precisely how Malcolm’s stewardship of the party came to a crashing halt late in 2009.
Indeed, we looked at some aspects of this past track record when he regained the Liberal leadership a month ago.
The declaration that his was a faction-free party, innocent of the influence of subterranean specimens working to nobble others within the Liberal tent with a hatchet-job mentality and a deep hatred of their own that often transcends the animus shown to the party’s real opponents at the ALP and the
Communist Party Greens was rightly greeted by some at the NSW State Council with boos, jeers, laughter and heckling.
So factually incorrect was this asseveration from Turnbull, he might have had an easier time trying to convince the assembled delegates that the sun had risen in the west yesterday.
And just what “experience” the defiant Turnbull had in mind as he responded to the catcalls and hoots of derision as proof of the veracity of his claim is anyone’s guess, for “experience” is hardly suggestive that even Turnbull believed his own fatuous rhetoric.
The wholesale purge of several prominent figures from the Liberal Party’s dominant conservative wing in his recent ministerial reshuffle is a good example of what I am talking about; it is true the Turnbull ministry — judged solely on merit — is impressive, and it is also true that some of the people who got it in the neck in that reconfiguration of government ranks were well past their use-by date in political terms. But the “coincidence” of a purge of the Liberal Right was too pronounced and seemingly deliberate to be any accident.
The question of whether the party is run by backroom figures requires a single glance in the direction of so-called “power couple” Peta Credlin and Brian Loughnane to instantly find answer in the negative: and whilst the departure of the dreaded duo is to be applauded, nobody should believe for an instant that where there were two, there are not others.
But there are other tentative signs that the Turnbull of old has well and truly resumed his place at the helm, too.
For all the talk of policy continuity with the Abbott government, Turnbull shows every sign of being sucked into the Labor/Green narrative that government investment in public transport should transcend just about every other priority where quantitative investments in infrastructure are concerned; it is inconceivable that the federal government will continue to seek to claw back the $3bn in Commonwealth funds handed to the Victorian government to build the East-West Link — which would have produced widespread logistical benefits for a huge chunk of Melbourne — and which will apparently now be channelled into a metropolitan rail project whose primary value will be to commuters in the inner north and south.
It is showing early signs of resuming the mindless obsession with climate change — devoid of any rigour or accountability where ambit claims of doomsday scenarios are used to validate inane demands for money by the warmist industry — that almost rent the Liberal Party asunder the last time Turnbull presided over it.
For a week, Turnbull stoutly refused to acknowledge that the murder of a civilian Police officer in Sydney ten days ago was anything other than “political violence:” to his credit, this stance was abandoned on Friday, with the Prime Minister instead describing the attack as “religiously motivated” — albeit refusing to specify the religion or to denounce the utter defiance of the Australian way of life and our laws it represented.
Meanwhile, well away from the Canberra crucible and ignoring the anti-Australian cheer squad of the Fairfax press and the ABC, anyone with insight could see that someone running around screaming “Allah Akbar” and shooting “infidels” after attending “worship” in a Sydney mosque was, to put it bluntly, a Muslim fanatic making an attack on the country that had provided opportunities that would not be forthcoming in traditional Islamic heartlands.
And speaking of the ABC, exactly what the Turnbull government might do to hold it to its charter and insist on an unbiased, balanced presentation of Australian political goings-on is anyone’s guess: he has managed to escape his tenure as the responsible minister under Abbott without having ostensibly done any such thing; now, the ABC continues to act as a cheer squad for the Left. In fact, it is cosying up to the government looking for more money to fund its brazen socialist diatribes and its refusal to hold the Left — especially the unelectable Labor “leader,” Bill Shorten — rigorously to account. There is no indication to date Malcolm’s government will spurn those overtures.
I could go on, of course. But hint, hint, hint…disturbingly, it seems the Malcolm of old is the very same Malcolm claiming to have undergone a political reformation whilst in exile from his leadership.
Malcolm has been restored as Liberal Party leader — with an explicitly stated eye on the party’s opinion poll numbers — to win an election; he may, in fact, do exactly that.
But at what cost such a victory would come when viewed through the paradigm of the orthodox liberal and conservative objectives the party traditionally represents remains to be seen; disconcertingly, there are growing indications that far from representing the core constituency of the party he leads, Turnbull will indeed be the sellout to the soft Left many have always feared he would prove if ever entrusted again with the party’s fortunes at least some of the time, and especially where the dominant conservative wing of the party is concerned.
The faction, no less, among others in the party Turnbull claims does not exist.
It evokes memories of the infamous telephone call Turnbull made to former Prime Minister John Howard on election night in 2007, when he saw fit — just as the Coalition lost 20-odd seats to the ALP and with them, government after 12 years — to rub Howard’s nose in the fact that despite the carnage, the brilliant news was that he, Malcolm, had scored a mild swing to himself in his electorate of Wentworth.
The tentative early signs of Turnbull’s renewed leadership of the party are potentially as bad as that.
For now, we simply note that in making the address to the NSW Liberal State Council that he unwisely chose to make yesterday, Malcolm has effectively told the party to its face that black is white despite all available evidence suggesting otherwise: it was a stunningly naive episode at best, and an inflammatory poke in the eye to those interests he ought to be seeking to reconcile to his leadership at worst.
Turnbull is a highly successful individual whose achievements in life are well reflected in his personal circumstances, and for those achievements and the rewards they have generated, he deserves acknowledgement and praise.
Regrettably, this column has never believed a sophisticated political perspective or genuine political acumen exists amongst them. Turnbull has exhibited a distinct lack of political professionalism and skill this week. In that sense, his words and deeds are more suggestive of a return to form than the product of any enlightened epiphany.
And in turn, it warrants remembering the adage that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
All rhetoric and posturing to the contrary aside, it has not been a good week for the Prime Minister. Only time will tell if this disturbingly familiar assessment of Turnbull’s performance becomes permanent, and if it does, the election win he is charged with delivering may prove as elusive as the one he is said to believe was stolen from him two years ago by Abbott.