IN 15 torrid months, Malcolm Turnbull has squandered stellar polling numbers, wasted six months on incoherent “tax debates,” let senior conservatives twist in the wind and almost lost an election. Enough is enough: incapable of governing, Turnbull has turned to the issue that cost him his leadership in 2009 — carbon pricing — and his repugnant signature policy, a republic. The Liberal Party must cut its losses, and cast this abysmal leader adrift.
In making Malcolm Bligh Turnbull leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister on 14 September last year, in a daylight ambush against a sitting but deeply unpopular incumbent, even Turnbull’s most ardent acolytes must have known — in their heart of hearts — that there was a reasonable prospect their man would have to be replaced, and sooner rather than later.
With Turnbull now publicly contemplating timeframes to revive his repugnant signature policy — a republic in Australia — that time has arrived.
This column, whilst hospitably disposed toward Turnbull on a purely personal level, has been flatly and resolutely opposed to his return as Liberal Party leader ever since his eviction from the post in December 2009 and, if brutally candid, was never in favour of his ascension to the position in the first place.
We said as much back in February last year, when former PM Tony Abbott was about to survive the “leadership challenge by an empty chair,” and were unequivocal about the fact that Malcolm Turnbull was no solution as Prime Minister.
It is a matter of record that reluctantly, and with deep regret, this column withdrew support for Abbott over his obstinate refusal to jettison his divisive, counter-productive Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, some months afterwards, and it is a matter of history that his refusal to do so was ultimately responsible — in part, at least — for triggering the second, successful move on his position.
But at no time did we regard Turnbull, in any way, as a suitable replacement — anything but — and in fact, many of the risks this column warned were implicit in a Turnbull Prime Ministership have materialised to almost deadly effect.
The flood of new support Turnbull was supposed to bring to the Liberals never arrived; be it for the basic strategic mistake of failing to go to an immediate election, or the disinclination for lefties who genuinely like Turnbull to actually vote for him, the landslide victory many of his adherents believed Turnbull would deliver remains a fantasy.
What did arrive in its stead was a return of the flawed judgement and political tin ear that fatally tarnished his initial stint as leader; from botched reshuffles to the kind of elitist posturing (green tea and craft beer, anyone?) that is such a turn-off to the vast majority of voters outside the chardonnay-swilling latte belts of inner-city urban areas, it became readily apparent that Turnbull hadn’t learned much in six years away from the Liberal leadership.
The failure to call an election for December 2015 is, with the benefit of hindsight, (although we said so at the time) the pivot point for the Turnbull government’s fortunes; facing the charlatan Bill Shorten, whose leadership was to all appearances fatally damaged by the Heydon Royal Commission — and who was set to be dumped by his colleagues if he didn’t take the face-saving path of resignation — Turnbull was spooked out of a December election following the AFP raid on the home of key lieutenant Mal Brough: the episode let Shorten off the hook, and allowed the ALP to take heart.
And as sure as night followed day, the Liberal Party’s “march toward a return to opposition,” which we also warned of last February, duly recommenced.
The wild, bold, hysterical lashing out (typified by “Utegate” during Turnbull’s first stint as leader) was replaced with a form of stupefied inertia and the utter aversion to any kind of risk at all, as Turnbull wasted the first half of this year on an excruciating “reform debate” over tax that was neither a debate, nor led to any meaningful advocacy of genuine reform.
During that process, Turnbull hung his Treasurer (and putative future leadership prospect) Scott Morrison out to dry, with Morrison’s long-term political future perhaps terminally compromised by his association with various half-baked tax proposals that were floated, allowed to be savaged by Labor, and hastily withdrawn; this was not conducive to the exercise of political authority, nor a posture of political strength in difficult parliamentary conditions, and it weakened the government significantly.
The reforms made to Senate electoral process, whilst admittedly an incremental improvement, were piddling, and extracted at great cost to the government in terms of what little goodwill it enjoyed from the Senate crossbench: that most (but not all) of the antagonised crossbenchers were re-elected constitutes an ongoing potential source of trouble.
But the campaign ahead of elections on 2 July was turgid, ineffectual, and a downright fiasco; it enabled the resuscitated Shorten to run rings around the Coalition. Had Shorten not overreached in the final ten days with his brazen “Mediscare” lies, it is likely Labor would have won.
As it stands, victory by a single seat is hardly a triumph of which Turnbull, nor the government generally, can be proud: reduced to three seats and a third of a percentage point more than Abbott achieved in 2010, it is difficult to argue the Coalition retains any kind of clear mandate at all.
There have been botched reshuffles and ministerial scandals — the latter largely the consequence of the former — as Turnbull’s defective judgement and wide vindictive streak toward conservative Liberals has seen the government pay the price for the wrong people being elevated (or retained) on the frontbench; even now, there are political liabilities (George Brandis, take a bow) who continue to enjoy ministerial office purely on account of their fidelity to Turnbull when their political performance dictates otherwise.
And the faulty apparatus Turnbull inherited from Abbott — the inability to sell a message to the public, the ineptitude of Coalition “strategists” and “tacticians,” the inability to fatally wound the imbecilic and unelectable Shorten, even after the union Royal Commission — continues even now to misfire unretarded, with the government incapable of turning even a victory (like getting its union accountability legislation through Parliament) into any kind of momentum-builder with the general public.
But it is the traditional Turnbull agenda — gay marriage, carbon taxes (of whatever variety), and a republic — that is the most insidious aspect of his unsuitability to be Prime Minister, and this agenda has, since the narrow escape on 2 July, now fully filtered back onto the Liberal Party playlist: and this agenda will cost the party dearly unless fundamental and drastic change is now taken.
Gay marriage has been allowed to become a political football in Australia for far too long; as regular readers know, the liberal in me says gay people should do as they like (provided, like the rest of us, it doesn’t hurt anyone else) whilst the conservative in me resists on the basis marriage is at its genesis a religious institution that has never incorporated same-sex unions.
Even so, the only way to resolve such a fraught issue would appear to be to allow the public to decide; I actually think the French have the right idea on this, whereby all couples get the same legal union, and then those who choose to solemnise the act can do so in a religious or civil ceremony. The churches shouldn’t be forced to marry gay couples if they don’t want to. But this whole issue has been squibbed, with the task of getting a plebiscite through the Senate beyond the capability the Turnbull junta. Should same-sex marriage be legalised in a vote of Parliament on Turnbull’s watch, it is likely to inflict enormous damage upon the Liberal Party politically as the direct consequence of a fundamental breach of faith with its core support base.
A couple of weeks ago — like a kid in a lolly shop, unable to contain himself — Turnbull sent another future conservative leadership prospect, Josh Frydenberg, out to fly the kite of “a different kind of carbon pricing” in the form of an “emissions intensity scheme;” at a time when electricity bills continue to rise, and Victorians face average further increases of $100 per household next year thanks to the closure of the Hazelwood power station, this was obsession and lunacy masquerading as “vision.”
When the inevitable public backlash hit social and mainstream media channels like a tidal wave, Turnbull left Frydenberg to twist and dangle in the wind: just like he did to Morrison earlier in the year.
But desperate for an agenda, desperate to respond to naysayers and the critics, desperate to find favour from someone, somewhere — desperate, in fact, to be seen to be doing anything at all — Turnbull unwisely chose to use an address last night to the 25th anniversary function of the Australian Republican Movement to dust off the rancid old cheese of “a vision” for an Australia with an “Australian Head of State.”
Never mind this change was roundly defeated at a referendum 16 years ago; never mind reputable public opinion polling shows support for retaining the monarchy surging, particularly among younger voters; and never mind the fact that there is no substance whatsoever behind the blather and hot air about Australia “growing up” and “taking its place in the world:” nobody suggests New Zealand or Canada are somehow immature forelock tuggers — and neither is Australia.
And of course, never mind the fact that the billions of dollars it would cost to turn Australia into a republic would achieve precisely nothing of any economic, political or social value; it wouldn’t fix problems with Aborigines, the immigrant community, the poor, small businesses being priced out of their markets by rising costs, or the woeful state of the federal budget, which continues to haemorrhage almost a billion dollars per week.
No, in the world of Turnbull, this mad, bad, lefty trifecta — gay marriage, carbon taxes, and a republic — is something he was and is determined to pursue at any cost: even, in the case of a republic, at the risk of destroying the stability of the entire system of government Australia enjoys under its present constitutional arrangements.
No republican has ever provided a persuasive argument about how life would be better for ordinary, hard-working Australians were the Crown to be dispensed with; no republican has ever offered a convincing reason why fixing the real (and growing) socio-economic problems facing this country should be brushed aside to enable the expenditure of billions of dollars chasing a stupid Nirvana that doesn’t even exist.
Australian Head of State? Look no further than the current Governor-General, or to most of the past ten of his predecessors: this entire nonsense is built on a false premise.
But be all of that as it may, this column made it very clear a year ago that it would take a “wait and see” approach to Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister — as much from loyalty to the Liberal Party as from any genuine desire to see him succeed — and even as it quickly became apparent Turnbull simply wasn’t up to the job (as long suspected), we were gracious enough to describe that approach as more “wait” than “see.”
Well, I think we have seen enough.
If Malcolm Turnbull contests another election as Liberal Party leader, the Coalition will be slaughtered; it isn’t enough to rely on the abhorrent nature of the opposition “leader” to get the government across the line again, and after more than a year in the role it is clear Turnbull peaked in his first few weeks in office. In any case, it seems unlikely he can skewer Shorten from this point if he hasn’t already managed to do so.
The transaction costs of any mid-term leadership change must be weighed against the realistic scope for such a change to provide the opportunity for political improvement; in this sense, I believe it is absolutely pointless for the Liberal Party to continue with Malcolm Turnbull unless it is resigned to a lengthy stint in opposition.
I am mindful, of course, that many of the problems that were meant to be solved by the last Liberal leadership change — strategy, tactics, mass communication, policy rigour — remain unresolved, and any further change now simply must be accompanied by a wholesale overhaul of the Liberal back of house once and for all.
But the Turnbull agenda — fuelled by the Turnbull style, which in turn is code for simply alienating conservative voters who constitute the great silent majority in Australia — is a guaranteed recipe for defeat: those voters who want it will vote for Labor and the Greens, and so will a great many usual Coalition voters (even if through preferences) in disgust unless the Liberal Party reconnects with its base.
The Turnbull experiment has been a failure, and its continuance will condemn the government to the electoral doom that seems its likely fate in about 18 months’ time.
Whilst offering no opinion at this time as to whom the replacement should be, it is time for Liberal MPs to act: and to rid the party of the scourge of a Turnbull leadership that has plagued it, in actual form or in the shape of a stalking horse, for almost a decade longer than it should have been permitted to.