SUBURBAN Melbourne rag the Manningham Leader is running a feature this week on its local MP, Kevin Andrews, which canvasses not only his inclination to serve beyond another three-year term, but circumstances in which he may challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the Liberal leadership “and therefore the Prime Ministership.” Conservative as he is, Andrews is a political disaster whose aspirations would be entertained to the Liberal Party’s detriment.
I think it is fair to say that in addition to the resentment and smouldering anger felt by a sizeable portion of the conservative component of both the parliamentary and rank-and-file membership of the Liberal Party over the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister last year, a large amount of salt has been rubbed into their wounds by the apparently organised process of knocking off conservative MPs and candidates at preselection contests across the country with the explicit aim of bolstering Turnbull’s parliamentary numbers, in some cases by “head office” delegates overturning the more conservative edicts of local members.
And I think it is also fair to say — of conservative Liberals, bandwagon-jumpers and a growing number of moderates alike — that few are bullish about Turnbull’s performance over the past seven months, insipid as it has been, and fewer still are enthusiastic about the proposition that Turnbull will lead the Coalition to the thumping election win that appeared to be in prospect prior to Christmas.
This column has taken the view a) that whatever its faults, and despite the undesirability of its present leader, the Liberal Party remains the best available vehicle in the longer run from which to advance a program of moderate conservative policy in government; b) that Malcolm Turnbull — and the softly pink Left social program that outweighs any good that might come of the buccaneering, let-it-rip free market capitalism he’d pursue if he had the bottle — will not be around forever; and c) with a surfeit of “conservative alternatives” (for want of any better term) coming out of the woodwork that mostly aren’t fit to piss on, the best course of action for genuine conservatives within the Liberal Party is to bid their time: and to wait for better weather.
There is always the prospect a new, mass-based and moderate conservative party might emerge; if and when that occurs, we will assess it on its merits.
But whilst people can make their own assessments, lunatic personality-based “parties” do not fit the bill; voting for the ALA (as I mentioned at the weekend) does not appeal; and the noisy demands from the right-wing Liberal rump (perhaps comprising a few percentage points at most of the national vote, but no more, despite their unqualified insistence to the contrary) to “get (their) elected Prime Minister back” are delusional in their sense that Tony Abbott might actually be restored to the Liberal leadership at any time soon (if ever) and dead wrong in their pronouncements that he would win an election now.
He can thank his blind “loyalty” to Peta Credlin and the apparatus of uselessness she assembled around the government for that.
But just as Liberal moderates set about having a grand old time trying to either knock off conservative MPs at preselections or to snatch vacant Liberal seats that had been conservatively held, general perceptions of drift, indecision and a lack of general competence and judgement where Turnbull’s performance is concerned are beginning to spread, and as they do, the veneer of government solidarity — brittle at best — that formed around the government late last year has begun ever so slightly to crack.
Regular readers know I have lamented the paucity of leadership talent among conservative Liberal MPs; given the underlying balance of the parliamentary party still tilts toward the Right — even if some of its number backed Turnbull in September — and despite the overall Liberal membership being perhaps composed in a 60/40 split of conservatives over moderates, the Right does not have an obvious candidate to run against Turnbull (or any other future moderate contender) if and/or when the question of the party leadership again arises.
There is a gap between the generation of MPs that included John Howard, Alexander Downer, Peter Reith et al and a number of promising, similarly classy up-and-comers including Josh Frydenberg, Dan Tehan and Angus Taylor; the former are mostly all gone, whilst the latter, unfortunately, are not ready yet and won’t be for at least another couple of parliamentary terms, by which time the Liberal Party could plausibly find itself once again on the opposition benches.
In this sense, the carefully worded intervention of former minister Kevin Andrews, in an interview with his local suburban paper for an article ostensibly to mark 25 years as the member for the north-eastern suburbs seat of Menzies, is a curious development.
Andrews is a good man; a decent man; well-educated and articulate, he is also — based on my extremely limited contact with him — highly personable.
But (and this is an old story) his record as a minister, in terms of delivering constructive national outcomes and/or adding politically to the governments he has served in, is not good.
As Employment and Workplace Relations minister in the Howard government, it was on Andrews’ watch that the notorious WorkChoices laws were introduced; flawed, politically mishandled and introduced soon after an election without a mandate, it was this political liability instituted by this particular minister that contributed most — directly and indirectly — to the fall of the Liberals from office after almost 12 years.
Subsequently, as Immigration and Citizenship minister (also under Howard), Andrews presided over the bungled Mohammed Haneef visa affair which, in addition to the brouhaha it generated at the time, also helped seal the Howard government’s fate at a time public opinion was turning against its tough border policies.
His performance as Social Services minister under Tony Abbott was an unmitigated disaster in a portfolio ripe for reform, efficiencies and cost savings; as I wrote in a comprehensive analysis of the Abbott government in January, Andrews managed to simultaneously turn every welfare recipient in the country against the government whilst not in fact enacting any measure whatsoever that could make them worse off: the worst of all worlds, and yet again reaping for the post-Howard Liberals all the opprobrium of an unpopular suite of policies without deriving any of the benefits that might have been realised from them had any or all been legislated.
And as Defence minister prior to Abbott’s dumping, Andrews’ management of the letting of contracts to build new submarines for the Navy was turned into an international debacle and a national embarrassment.
Andrews boasts a pedigree that should make him not just an archetypal Tory MP, but a leader of conservative thought inside and outside Parliament: socially conservative and economically rational, life experience straddling both rural and urban Australia, a distinguished legal career, experience within the charitable sector, and wide-ranging ministerial service spanning 15 years.
It reads as it sounds — like someone destined to lead, and to be followed, by the great silent majority of the mainstream — and especially in a global climate of growing illiberalism and the pandering to politically correct “elites” and minorities.
But Andrews has repeatedly demonstrated that his is a reverse Midas touch: just about everything he has touched, on the big stage of Australian politics, has turned to excrement.
And now, amid a soft-soap piece for the Manningham Leader, he has casually dropped the hint that he sees himself as the leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Australia some day.
Andrews isn’t stupid; he knows what he’s doing, and anyone who thinks his justification that he might stand against Turnbull one day on an issue like an emissions trading scheme — as he did in 2009, as a stalking horse for the more substantial candidate who nominated for the post and beat Turnbull for it six days later — is able to be taken at face value misses the point that the only time Andrews has ever nominated for the party leadership, it was with the explicit intention of mortally wounding his leader.
Today, the same man he stalked seven years ago is again Liberal leader; once again, the threat of an Andrews challenge has been made, irrespective of how heavily qualified that threat might be.
Andrews does note his leadership of the conservative group within the Liberal Party is an “intellectual leadership” and I think that’s a fair point to make.
But past history and a slew of abysmal (and politically damaging) performances as a minister are evidence enough that were he to ever lead the Liberal Party, electoral disaster would quickly follow.
This is one fairy story that, can, and should, be summarily dismissed by anyone serious and particularly by those with the potential power to make it happen: Andrews’ parliamentary colleagues.
Those who do not support Malcolm Turnbull and/or who are aghast at the lack of action over the past seven months will form their own judgements, and proceed from those as they see fit.
But the guidance of this column is that conservatives should sit tight for now, and wait for better weather: any more leadership instability now could well seal a Labor win at this year’s election, and however much people dislike or despise Turnbull and his sycophants, even less progress on conservative ideals will be achieved under Labor than is currently the case under Turnbull, and throwing an election deliberately is not going to alter that reality.
Yet whilst one must stereotypically never say never, when it comes to the prospect of a Kevin Andrews Prime Ministership, “never” is the very first word any thinking conservative should utter as they contemplate the ramifications of it ever coming to pass.