DESPITE THE RHETORIC about “grown ups being back in charge” and repeated, solemn pledges that the Liberal Party was “not like Labor,” the undignified and unedifying spectacle of leadership wars between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull now being laid bare in the Fairfax press are every bit as bad as the death pact fought out between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Australia deserves better. Its “leaders” indeed need to grow up.
At the outset, I want to be emphatic about something: the government led for two years by Tony Abbott was not a “conservative” government; it was not (despite the insult, trendy in the circles of the Left at present, being repeatedly thrown at it) a “right-wing” government; and it sure as hell wasn’t a “liberal” government; in fact, when all is said and done, the Abbott government and its legislative program — enacted, attempted and/or abandoned — was a mishmash of contradictory measures that were impossible to pigeonhole.
It raised taxes on middle incomes; it cut spending, yes, but to target its very own supporters in marginal seats, whilst utopian monoliths like the $24bn per year NDIS were left untouched and unfunded; it botched simple measures like a $5 GP co-payment for anyone not on a health care card by setting the price at an irregular level, applying it far beyond what was originally proposed, and advocating a ridiculous research fund be set up with the proceeds that was neither credible nor warranted against a budget haemorrhaging red ink.
It correctly withdrew subsidies to the car industry, but dithered over whether to hand out money to profitable businesses in other areas. It promised modest industrial relations reform based on a Productivity Commission review, but scampered at the first sign of harsh words from Labor and the unions. It promised a tax review that (it turns out) it sat on, despite the plan holding great merit (we’ll come to that).
And when its back was against the wall, courtesy of a hostile Senate and the total inability to respond tactically or strategically to the torrent of abuse and bile rained down upon it by a vapid opposition “led” by an insidious opportunist and by the unions, the ABC, the Fairfax press, Left-leaning, publicly funded QANGOs and the welfare lobby, its only defence was to fall back on stupid slogans and declarations of great achievement when in fact, the Abbott government’s CV was very thin for unequivocal wins.
Yes, there were achievements: the free trade agreements signed by Trade Minister Andrew Robb, the (promised) abolition of Labor’s hated carbon tax, and the cessation of endless boatloads of trafficked asylum seekers top such a list.
But to accuse the Abbott government of anything other than mediocrity is a fallacy, and to declare it unambiguously doctrinaire is simply wrong. In the end, Abbott’s outfit was risk averse, selectively frightened of producing losers, terrified of an opposition bereft of ideas and credibility, and obsessed with the self-preservation of the Prime Minister, a handful of trusty ministerial cohorts, and a small number of loyal backroom spivs whose merit and value to the government were arguably zero.
I start my remarks today thus because if there’s one thing the Liberal Party is not fighting over, it’s ideas; and whilst everyone knows that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — with his yearning to lurch savagely to the left on social and environmental issues — is hardly what you would call a conservative, the ultimate crime of the Abbott government was its sellout, through ineptitude and incompetence, of the millions of Australians who voted for it looking for a return to conservative governance. That opportunity has been lost, and it will be many years before another presents itself.
Like (I suspect) millions of Australians — including a large contingent of fellow Liberal Party members, to say nothing of huge numbers of disgusted Coalition voters — I have been reading Peter Hartcher’s five-part “story” of the Abbott government, Shirtfronted, in the Fairfax press this week, and it a regrettable truth that as insidious as the so-called revelations Hartcher has been publishing might be, the fact they are true is an indictment on the party and on those who’ve been entrusted with its stewardship at both the parliamentary and executive levels.
It is also a damning reflection on both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
I’m not going to pick apart every salacious detail Hartcher has printed, and — still only three days into a five-page expose — there obviously remains scope for a great deal of additional embarrassing material to find its way into the willing pages of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald before the week is out.
But for Australians wearied by the war of attrition fought out by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard during Labor’s two recent terms in office — and whose disgust at the spectacle undoubtedly contributed to the size of the Coalition win over the ALP in September 2013 — what has played out on the conservative side of politics since that time is depressingly familiar.
And it is no stretch to say that Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are, in the end, no better than Gillard and Rudd.
There has been a significant response to my article at the weekend that suggested Tony Abbott should leave Parliament; Abbott’s defenders and those (like me) who stand staunchly behind the principles and ideals of mainstream conservative governance have expressed shock, dismay and anger that I would suggest such a thing; those blithely camped in the facile Turnbull’s quarter can’t believe that such a pronouncement would emanate from this column.
Yet the mere fact of Hartcher’s aeration of the Liberal Party’s dirty linen simply underlines my reasoning; everyone’s hands are dirty in terms of what has gone on over the Liberal leadership, it seems, and despite the great disillusionment with the party that readers know I worked my way through last year and early this — and in spite of the carefully detailed critiques I was obliged, by objective appraisal, to level at Abbott and his cohorts — the deep commitment to the Liberal Party I have always had, coupled with a factionally independent stance I have maintained since first joining the party in 1990, means loyalty to the party won out in my mind, even if its direction (for now) left everything to be desired.
In penning the article advocating Abbott’s resignation from Parliament, I was guided by a simple conclusion: that if the party is to avoid tearing itself to pieces in full view of the public, someone has to depart.
That someone — given Turnbull, whatever you think of him, his methods in seizing power and/or his trendy, left-leaning social ideas, is now Prime Minister — is Abbott.
And whilst I might not politically support Turnbull, irrespective of the high personal regard I have for him, the fact is that he is leader of the party and thus Prime Minister — and those of us left behind must either close ranks in support of his government, or leave, and that goes especially for Abbott.
I don’t need to restate my historic support for Tony Abbott: readers are well aware of the fact.
But Abbott knows as well as anyone that every syllable he utters — and especially whilst he remains in Parliament — will be received, interpreted, distorted and relayed through the prism of leadership unrest by a hungry press pack desperate for headlines and determined to foment unrest in Liberal ranks.
When those utterances centre on justification, placing a rose-coloured tint on the misadventures of what (for whatever reason) was a poor government, or persisting with the odious and reality-defying defence of figures like former Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, or directly contradicting government policy on (for example) how to respond to the ISIS terrorist problem, they border on wanton attempts at sabotage.
Even if — on ISIS at least — Abbott is right.
(And in case anyone thinks I’m singling Abbott out for a kicking, I should note that after he became leader in 2009 and it was Turnbull who was up to questionable mischief, I sent the latter a private letter excoriating him for what he was doing. Now it’s Abbott’s turn, and given this column exists today where it did not in 2009, my remarks about Abbott are publicly made).
I don’t think anyone has been covered in glory where questions of the Liberal leadership and the party’s performance in office are concerned, and Hartcher’s series this week will strip further remaining gloss from those involved parties who remain in elected office, and quite a few others (read: Credlin) who serve (or served) the party behind the scenes.
Serial deputy leader Julie Bishop, for one, is looking a little less than beyond reproach for the second time since Abbott was dumped this week, with revelations she attended a meeting in February in which she was a “silent partner” to a teleconference participated in by Turnbull that discussed strategy for the latter to reclaim the leadership.
Coming as it does in the wake of claims following Abbott’s dumping that she failed to warn her leader of the imminent challenge, Bishop — a Liberal moderate who, despite the anathema of some of her views to party conservatives, was once workshopped as part of an alternative “third ticket” that might see her replace Abbott herself on a ticket with a deputy drawn from the Right — looks to have been not quite straight with the truth, whatever reality to the contrary might sit behind the perception press coverage of these events has fed.
Like Rudd and Gillard, Abbott had a Treasurer who simply wasn’t up to the job; arguably a better fit than Wayne Swan on merit (a low hurdle to clear, admittedly) Joe Hockey compounded his unsuitability by repeatedly and insistently invoking the spectre of former Treasurer Peter Costello — who, with the possible exception of Paul Keating, was the best Treasurer this country has had in 50 years.
The revelation by Hartcher that Hockey, in fact, had devised a tax reform blueprint in conjunction with Treasury — lifting GST to 15%, limiting its reach only to those items to which it currently applies, streamlining income tax scales to a 0%, 20% and 40% range, whilst cutting company tax to 20% and providing both money to the states for services and suitable compensatory adjustments to pensioners and welfare recipients — only highlights what a disaster the Abbott government was.
Hockey is to be condemned for his failure to prevail, or to even initiate public discussion on this very interesting blueprint; Abbott (and the cabal of advisers around him) are to be condemned for preventing Hockey from doing so. For a government elected with a reform mandate and the electoral imprimatur to fix the budget, this telling anecdote is an indictment.
But in the wider sense, what is being played out in the Fairfax press now merely proves what anyone with an eye on Canberra has long known: and that is, despite whatever might have been said to the contrary, Malcolm Turnbull never abandoned his ambitions to become Prime Minister.
Can anyone credibly suggest that the contest between Abbott and Turnbull — which has now run for more than six years — is any different to Rudd and Gillard?
Whether directly, by proxy, or through operatives taking it upon themselves to act on the combatants’ behalf — presumably to confer plausible deniability on the interests they represented — the undermining, backstabbing, leaking and manipulation that has been going on ever since is comparable to some of the worst revelations about the dreadful Labor duo: only the specifics of the circumstances, and not their general conduct, are different.
Abbott and Turnbull might not be narcissistic megalomaniacs like Kevin Rudd, or nihilistic liars like Gillard. Yet Turnbull’s ego and inflated sense of his own importance is well known. Abbott didn’t need to be a megalomaniac, for he had Credlin. Comparing the four Prime Ministers, on one level — to use the vernacular — might be regarded as a classic case of “same shit, different bucket.”
And for those who believe — however seriously — that the ascension of Turnbull has cured the Coalition’s political ills, some pause for thought would be well advised.
For starters, the Liberals’ new-found poll dominance should have induced Turnbull to call a December election for both Houses of Parliament; the fact he didn’t represents a grave error of strategic judgement.
How much that stands to cost the government is unclear, but the longer it takes to call an election next year, the harder it will grow to achieve the thumping victory that might have been secured now. And if Labor changes leaders, the removal of the toxic, pitiful Shorten will add yet another potentially dangerous dynamic.
One of Turnbull’s chief lieutenants — Special Minister of State Mal Brough — faces growing scrutiny (and attention from the constabulary) over what role he played in destroying the career of LNP turncoat and former Speaker Peter Slipper: Brough may be innocent of wrongdoing, but if events prove otherwise, when the inevitable detonation comes it will damage Turnbull (and the government) enormously.
Despite the reality that — for now — the policy settings of the Abbott era remain in place, this will change in the new year as the government evolves and an election nears; to this end, worrying signs are emerging that Turnbull is inching perilously close to re-indulging the climate change madness that (rightly) spelt the end of his tenure as Liberal leader in 2009.
Irrespective of your views on climate change, the one inescapable truth thrown up over the past decade is that the politics of carbon pricing and climate change are electorally lethal; Shorten is determined to learn that the hard way, with his dual carbon tax proposals, 100% RET and economy-smashing 45-50% emissions reduction targets.
Signs Turnbull still hankers after such lunacy have the potential to destroy his leadership and/or his government, although his refusal to sign a treaty in Paris this week on eliminating the use of fossil fuels, whilst possibly a sop to the Liberal Right, warrants a little more time to be spent observing his behaviour before judgement is cast.
The economy — let’s be blunt — is hardly in rude shape. A recession is a distinct possibility. As ever, should a recession occur, it will largely be the result of external influences over this country. But the political odium and rancour associated with being the first government to preside over one in 25 years will hurt the Coalition should it come to pass, and the only way to offset some of this is to rediscover the Howard-era zeal for economic reform: something this government has been remarkably gun-shy about to date.
Social policies dear to Turnbull’s heart, like gay marriage and the pursuit of republican government, enrage the Liberal Right, which is now forced to back a leader who is explicit in his enthusiastic and unqualified support for both: again, the potential for an explosion within the government is real, and considerable.
And should the proverbial effluent hit the fan, and these and other foreseeable atom bombs explode in Turnbull’s face, what solution would be sought by his opponents on the Liberal Right?
You’d never guess.
But Abbott, by stubbornly allowing Credlin and her hand-picked acolytes the latitude to run the government and to make the utter consequent botch of it they did, is no longer a feasible leadership candidate; the Liberal Right, as we have discussed before, does not currently boast a suitable contender should Turnbull fall under a bus.
And even Scott Morrison, who has featured heavily in Hartcher’s reporting, comes with question marks over his loyalty and conduct ahead of the leadership change. In any event, Morrison isn’t from the Liberal Right at all.
I know many readers (and many Australians) desperately want to vote against the Liberals because of the treatment doled out to Abbott, and I am not entirely unsympathetic; by the same token, however, I’m capable of thinking impartially enough to recognise that Abbott is largely responsible (directly and indirectly) for his own fate, and helping elect a Labor government (which is, ultimately, what voting against the Liberals does, if you do it properly and decline to preference them) is nothing more than cutting off your nose to spite your face if you’re a disgruntled Liberal.
One better option — in the Senate at least, and provided you don’t live in SA or Tasmania where the option doesn’t exist — would be to vote for the National Party’s candidates instead of the Liberals;’ even if it means numbering every square on that stupid metre-long ballot paper, at least the votes would stay in the government, but transfer numbers to the Nationals in a clear rebuke of the Liberals over the leadership change.
But when all is said and done, politics is politics — and in a climate where real debate and the willingness to advocate policies that produce losers (even if they are good for the country) has been subsumed by vacuous populism, adviser-driven aversion to risk and an obsession with media appearances — what has been going on since the fall of the Howard government will continue apace.
In those eight years, Labor and the Liberals have both had three leadership changes; in that time, the Prime Ministership has changed hands four times, but only once (in 2013) at an election.
Yet the Liberal Party, and especially under Abbott, has trenchantly insisted it is different to Labor in this regard: that it is somehow better behaved, more civilised, imbued with superior principles, more mature, and inherently reluctant to wield the knife against its own.
The reality, as Hartcher this week is laying out for all to see, is nothing of the kind.
And frankly, if politicians — including the sanctimonious Turnbull — genuinely want to elevate their public standing and retrieve the deservedly dim view with which the electorate regards them, the sooner they grow up, the better.