MUCH HAS been made this week about “interventions” by Tony Abbott in Turnbull government affairs, including criticism the former PM is bitter, wants to be a wrecker, and that he is damaging the Liberal Party; Abbott doesn’t have to damage the Liberal Party: under its current leader, it is doing that itself. Abbott and perennial sidekick Peta Credlin may be angry and bitter — rear-view mirror hypocrites, even. But like it or not, they are also right.
As I have said time and again, I really don’t like writing articles that are critical of my own party; even so, this column is predicated on candid comment — not churning out sycophantic Liberal Party propaganda — and when the party itself looks well placed to finish the job started at last year’s election, and gift government to Labor in 18 months to two years’ time, there is nothing “loyal” or “on message” about keeping quiet.
Especially when I’m horrified at the thought of what a Shorten government can and would do to Australia. Especially when I desperately want my party to clean up its act and succeed.
I’m in a position that, depending on your outlook, could be seen as either an opportunity or highly compromised; on the one hand, and whilst unaligned within the Liberal Party, my natural inclination is toward the conservative side of the party: not the “far Right,” where people are obsessed with prosecuting anyone connected with abortions, or vilifying even law-abiding moderate Muslims in a campaign to run the whole lot of them out of Australia in order to remove extreme elements who should never have been allowed to enter in the first place, but the mainstream conservative Right — a position reflected over years of successful government and typified by the likes of John Howard, Peter Reith, Alexander Downer, to some extent Peter Costello, and (with an eye to his performance as a minister) Tony Abbott.
But on the other, there are increasing numbers of Turnbull people — moderate Liberals — entering my orbit; they passionately argue that leaving the present Prime Minister in his role is critical, and that he and the people surrounding him — be they ministers, senior advisors, or staff — are “good people,” or “top quality people,” and once again, certainly on a personal basis and with a couple of exceptions, that is also correct.
The problem derives from the fact that not only did Malcolm Turnbull — not really a creature of the Liberal Party at all, weighed against both the complexion of the rank and file membership and the philosophical and policy settings of its 12 successful years in office under Howard — plot and scheme to knife the predecessor who both returned the party to office in a landslide and frittered away the authority of that mandate through misdirected priorities, loyalties, and a policy program aimed squarely at hurting its own constituency, but he has in the 18 months since that event presided over his own government that has been mediocre, timid, and incapable of advocating a cogent comprehensive policy blueprint or exhibiting the bottle to implement one (or virtually anything else).
There is an article appearing today in The Spectator Australia that reads like a carefully detailed itinerary of everything that is wrong with the federal government under Turnbull; it is a surgical — and virtually unrebuttable — itemisation of “75 weeks” of what to the outsider gives every appearance of an almost deliberate strategy to throw away the authority of government (and government itself) through inaction, torpor, mediocrity, directionless, and plain old-fashioned gutlessness.
It echoes the utterances of Abbott himself during the week — which provoked a shitstorm of enraged media activity from the Turnbull loyalists, as well as from conservatives like Matthias Cormann — in which he proclaimed that the Turnbull government risked “drifting to defeat” and observed that attacking Bill Shorten was one thing, but that defeat would inevitably come unless we got “our own policies right:” precisely the sentiment articulated in this column a week ago.
And we now have former Abbott Chief of Staff Peta Credlin (who was demoted from the same role by Turnbull as opposition leader) — continuing to use her media platforms at Sky News and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph to try to rehabilitate her own image before a public audience — arguing that the Liberal Party is “in deep trouble” and that Abbott’s interventions amount to nothing more than “trying to help.”
Are Abbott’s renewed outbursts against his successor a case of sniping, undermining and exacting a measure of vengeance? Probably.
Are Abbott’s policy prescriptions — abandoning the Renewable Energy Target, abolishing S18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, and a raft of other measures he failed to tackle as Prime Minister — hypocritical when judged against his own performance as leader? Quite possibly.
And is Credlin — seething over Turnbull’s ascension, and driven by a need for retribution at the same time she tries to hoodwink the men and women on the street into believing she was the greatest thing the Coalition under Abbott had going for it — motivated more by vanity and sour grapes than truly accepting her mistakes? Almost certainly.
Yet it is one of those uncomfortable realities that even if you subscribe to all three of those contentions, Abbott and Credlin are also — incredibly — absolutely correct.
When discussing the performance of the Turnbull government (or, particularly, what is wrong with it) it does seem we cover the same ground in almost the same terms; there is a good reason for that — the problems are glaringly obvious, as they were under Abbott himself, albeit for different reasons — and it is a source of tremendous frustration to watch Turnbull and his minions apparently determined to piss away the opportunity to build a lasting, competent administration that might eventually boast some kind of record of achievement.
Columns like mine — and others like them, up to and including some of the mass-circulation regulars in metropolitan dailies — are too easily dismissed as being published by crackpots advancing personal agendas that are “off message” with the official party line: they can be as “off message” as they want to be in my view, for the Liberal Party’s message during this incarnation in government (and it’s a criticism readers know I often levelled at Abbott and Credlin, too) is the wrong message altogether.
If Australian people want commitments to high renewable energy targets, carbon taxes (of whatever description), fealty with climate change alarmism that can’t conclusively prove whether the “change” is cyclical or man-made, international conventions to cut emissions, unquestioning tolerance of Muslim immigration (with a head-up-the-arse denial of the creeping effects of militant Islam), a refusal to abolish 18c, a refusal to make meaningful attempts at achieving widespread economic reform, smaller government or lower overall taxes, they can and will vote for the ALP or the
Communist Party Greens.
This we know as fact: the ALP under Bill Shorten campaigned unapologetically on all of those things, and more, and the overall vote for the Left rose by a couple of percentage points at last year’s election as a result.
But what we also know as fact is that a considerable majority of the Australian public do not actually want these things at all; the overwhelming movement away from the Liberal Party at last year’s election was to the assortment of fringe parties springing up to its Right, not to Labor or the Greens: the so-called “million lost votes” that went directly to One Nation, the ALA, the Liberal Democrats, Family First and others, which might next time partially flow to Cory Bernardi’s hard Right outfit, and which transferred almost as a bloc to Labor on preferences — not from any willingness or inclination to endorse Shorten, but from a total refusal to endorse Turnbull in any way, shape or form, and to attempt to ensure he lost the election as “punishment” for his overthrow of Abbott.
This distinction sits at the very heart of what is wrong with the government in its current configuration, and is why Turnbull is spectacularly and singularly unsuited to leading it: his initial burst of public support in reputable opinion polls was only ever going to translate into votes and seats if he went to an election immediately, before the hardened lefties who spent the Abbott years cheering him on woke up to themselves, remembered they’d prefer to vote for Labor or the Greens than a caricature-like imitation hailing from Point Piper and armed with tens of millions of dollars — and jumped off the Turnbull cart as enthusiastically as they had leapt upon it as a way of “sticking it” to Abbott.
Whenever I say to any of the Turnbull adherents in my midst that I have a high personal opinion of Malcolm, I’m met with deep scepticism and doubt: if I truly believed that, the story goes, I’d be enthusiastically rooting for his success.
Which I periodically do of course, the rare times he kicks a goal, or lands a blow against the repellant Shorten: regular readers know I give credit where it is due. In Turnbull’s case, it is warranted all too infrequently.
But just as I like some Labor figures personally (Joel Fitzgibbon and Mark McGowan spring quickly to mind), I’d never vote for them in a pink fit: the principle is identical.
And if Turnbull really is the greatest Liberal leader of all time, but has simply failed to hit his straps and carry the country with him, what does that say about the hand-picked cabal of people guiding, advising and strategising for him?
That’s not a question any of them want to answer. At such a juncture, it all becomes the fault of Abbott, Credlin, and the press.
Of course it is.
And of people like me who refuse to blindly toe the line, or get “on message,” or refuse to parrot the propaganda of a ship that is sailing on a one-way ticket to nowhere.
Of course it is.
Whether Turnbull’s group likes it or not, or admits it or not, the vast bulk of the electorate (to say nothing of a probable majority of the Liberal rank and file) despise Turnbull, and it doesn’t matter what those who have worked with him, or those of us who have otherwise had dealings with him and like him, think otherwise: Malcolm is a widely disliked figure who most people do not want as their Prime Minister.
This is no endorsement of Shorten (who, with more than a single IQ point, would ever give one of those?) and it does not automatically follow that such a position is a call for Abbott to be restored as Prime Minister.
Indeed, I have never advocated an Abbott return either publicly or in private, and it would take more than a few accurate comments in the press on his (or Credlin’s) behalf to convince me otherwise.
But the Coalition right now is beset, in no particular order, with a leader who will never win another election; a “policy” program (for want of any better description) that is very thin, very narrow, and hardly a comprehensive template for governance; is saddled with a Turnbull/Labor/Greens formulation on social issues and climate change that is complete anathema to voters who would ordinarily incline to vote Liberal; exhibits no idea, inclination or ability to contemplate broad-brush, sweeping reforms that are desperately overdue (for example, a company tax cut — whilst necessary to stimulate employment — is not “tax reform,” and is just another band-aid to look like it stands for anything at all).
It is lumbered with people responsible for mass communications, political strategy and parliamentary tactics who are clearly completely and utterly clueless: for if they weren’t, and especially with the likes of Shorten to contend with as an opponent, the government would be 10-15 points ahead of the ALP in the polls and generating a deep reservoir of public goodwill for itself.
Even this week’s decision by the Fair Work Commission — an ALP-created entity stacked with Labor appointees — to modestly cut Sunday penalty rates has been squandered as an opportunity to ram home the benefits to the Coalition’s core small business constituency, and to hang Shorten out to dry for opposing them as a union puppet who would prefer to see jobs destroyed rather than created.
To Credlin, I say that whilst my trenchant opposition to her as Chief of Staff may have softened, a better approach might be to gather those like-minded, able folk who are desperate for the Liberal Party to succeed (be they inside or outside the Canberra bubble) to forge and set out comprehensive plans for government, a comprehensive strategy to implement them, and a realistic strategy to get rid of Turnbull and replace him with someone who might be up to delivering on it: to this extent, my door is open.
To the Turnbullites, my suggestion would be to forget about trying to drive conservatives out of the party — for what that is doing is already destroying it — and to rule a line under 18 wasted months by moving to incorporate the same solutions in office as those any putative replacement might be inclined to enact if they are able to dislodge Malcolm and again, my door is open.
There are plenty of good, astute people in and around the Liberal Party who simply want it to succeed; they want it fixed, they want it to function, and (distinctions about conservatives or moderates aside) they don’t really care who does it, so long as the job is done. Those people are largely shut out of the party’s inner sanctums — often for petty, adolescent, and/or ancient reasons that defy common sense and sanity today.
But to ignore the reality of the predicament Turnbull and his mates have spent 18 months steering the Coalition into is every bit as destructive as their increasingly strident denunciations of the man he replaced — the merits or otherwise of that action aside — and one thing that can be stated with brutal, and deadly, candour is that if left merrily to their own devices, Turnbull and his crowd will engineer the mother of all election defeats that will hit the Liberal Party like an atom bomb when next it ventures out to face the people.
It will make 2007 look like a blip. It will make 1983 look mild.
And the most damning aspect of that is that most of the carnage will have been inflicted not through an embrace of Shorten and Labor, but by fucked-off Coalition voters determined to punish Turnbull heavily by the only means available to them: the ballot box.
The motives of Abbott and Credlin this week may be dubious, questionable, their arguments hypocritical, and their actions selfish in the extreme.
Like it or not, for once both of them are absolutely right.
It remains to be seen how those positioned to do something about the problems they have identified respond: whether this takes the form of the Right manoeuvring to replace Turnbull, or the Turnbull crowd finally waking up to itself and realising it has almost pissed the entire game away.
But the clock is ticking, and with almost a third of what was always going to be a truncated parliamentary term gone, the time for any of them to do something concrete to fix the problem has almost passed: if, that is, Turnbull hasn’t already pushed the Coalition beyond the point of no return in the estimation of the voting public and, most importantly, the Liberal-inclined voters without whom the government is finished.
Time will tell. It always does.
The only certainty is that if nothing changes, defeat at the next election is guaranteed. On that count at least, Abbott is dead right.