It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When Malcolm Turnbull defeated Tony Abbott for the Liberal leadership and thus for the prime ministership, the expectation of the political class was that the waters would close quickly over the victim and the ship of state would sail serenely on to a certain election victory after a modest reshuffle of officers on the poop deck.
This expectation was not confined to Liberal and Coalition MPs in Canberra. Indeed there was probably more doubt and division among them than in political circles outside the party. E-mails and phone calls to Canberra from Liberal activists in the country were overwhelmingly on the side of keeping Abbott. It is plausibly alleged that the party spill vote was rushed because internal party polls in the Canning by-election campaign showed voters delivering a better-than-expected result for the Liberal candidate—a result that would have made Abbott almost impossible to dislodge before the next election. In the event the margin of Turnbull’s victory was narrow—45 per cent of Liberal MPs voted against him. If included in this select electorate, National Party MPs would have voted solidly for Abbott.
If other outsiders had been allowed to vote, however, Turnbull would have enjoyed a landslide in the media, other parties (notably the Greens), corporate Australia, and in the quangoland of the arts, charities and higher education. The media, including conservative media such as the Australian, were hostile to Abbott not only in opinion pieces but also in their selection of news stories and promotion of “leaks” from within the cabinet designed to weaken him. ABC news was all but indistinguishable from its “satire” shows in its contemptuous anti-Abbott slant except perhaps that the news programs were funnier. Commentators sympathetic to Labor and Left-liberal opinion blithely celebrated the appointment of a prime minister who, as they argued in passing, would be more likely to defeat the political parties they favoured. Both quangoland and corporate Australia breathed sighs of relief on hearing that Turnbull had finally greased his way to the top of the pole. (Details on request.)
My apologies for quoting below a piece of comic verse with which Australians have doubtless become over-familiar, but in it Hilaire Belloc presciently describes the oligarchic machinery and sense of rule that underpinned this particular transfer of power in a democratic party and parliament:
Sir! you have disappointed us!
We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is! … My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!
Not only presciently, but doubly so. For though these are very early days, Mr Turnbull has so far disappointed his aged grand-sires in the political class and media establishment by not establishing his new direction on his party and administration firmly and securely enough. There is still discontent in the party ranks, a sense that the new post-Abbott status quo is not yet quite permanent, and a corresponding determination in the new leadership to enforce conformity on MPs that then generates quiet resentments. One half-comic sign of this is the stern demand for party loyalty from Turnbull’s media supporters who until yesterday attacked Abbott relentlessly.
Mr Turnbull’s performance to date is hardly responsible for the sense of wobble and uncertainty about the government. He seems to be a competent executive who plays the public role of prime minister with more easy self-assurance than his predecessor. Nor are major changes in government policy the basis for discontent, for the simple reason that there haven’t been any. All sides tacitly agree that a battle over future policy directions will be postponed until after the election next year. Turnbull will fight the next election on Abbott’s record, including those achievements he is known to dislike such as stopping the boats and repealing the carbon tax.
Is Turnbull’s “signature” issue of innovation subsidies, recently announced, an exception to this judgment? Not really. Subsidising innovation may or may not be good public policy—almost certainly not since the worldwide record of governments in picking industrial winners is very weak—but it can’t be a defining policy initiative because almost everyone supports it except a handful of classical liberal economists. Its main function is to paint a light varnish of modernisation over an otherwise incomplete economic record.
What partly explains the unease is the series of small icebergs—accounts of plotting among ministers to bring down their own prime minister, the defection of one Liberal MP to the Nationals—that the government keeps hitting. The previous media “narrative” was that in some mysterious way Abbott invited these minor troubles. In some cases—the award of the knighthood to Prince Philip—he did so. But the troubles keep coming, and not in single spies but in battalions, though Abbott has gone.
Abolishing mistakes and accidents is not within the power of any prime minister. The Roman explanation for this truth was capax imperii nisi imperasset. Or “He would have been a great prime minister if he hadn’t been prime minister”. It is a truth that has no respect for prior media reputations.
Above all, the natives within the Liberal Party nationwide remain restless. Some resign; others complain; a few threaten rebellion or defection. That likely resistance was factored into the political calculations of those who voted to bring Abbott down. They reckoned that they would gain more votes by electing Turnbull than they would lose in ditching Abbott. Thus far the opinion polls suggest they are correct; the Coalition seems to be on course for a victory next year. But it seems likely to produce a smaller majority than in 2013, and if the politics of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party are any guide, the victory may be followed by bitter and prolonged internal disputes. That’s what you risk when you oust a party leader without a substantial justification in policy or principle.
Underlying this risk are the different attitudes to power taken by politicians and by activists respectively. For politicians power is everything; opposition no more than a waiting room. For activists and (less passionately) for voters what matters is the cause that power serves. From the standpoint of a conservative activist a Liberal government pursuing left-wing policies is the worst of all possible worlds because those policies will meet fewer obstacles and less criticism than they would under a Labor government facing a Liberal opposition.
And oppositions have it in their power, if they are bold and shrewd, to force governments into policies (and retreats) that reflect the interests of the former more than the latter. William Hague’s leadership of the UK Tory party was generally reckoned a failure. But he forced the Blair government to promise a referendum on future European transfers of power that in turn forced the French government to grant a referendum on the proposed Euro-Constitution that in turn was defeated and that today explains why Brexit is a real possibility. So Hague’s conduct of opposition was truly consequential.
Even most activists shrink from this logic in general elections, but they pursue it at most other times. It seems that many voters acted on it in the recent North Sydney by-election where the swing against the Turnbullite Liberal was more than twice the swing in the Canning by-election. So if Mr Turnbull intends to transform his party after an election victory has given him the legitimacy he needs to do so, he will have a fight on his hands.
The final key to the ousting of Abbott and the uncertain grasp on power of Turnbull lies in the fact that Turnbull’s victory was one in which the political and media establishment imposed its will on the Liberal Party. The power of this establishment rests on its ability to persuade other people, from ordinary voters to cabinet ministers, that morality, social interests and above all history are going in a particular direction and that it is doomed folly to resist its tendencies. So the establishment has to be accurate in its predictions.
Once upon a time, an earlier version of this establishment was convinced that history was moving us towards a future of socialist economic planning. That didn’t work out. Today it is equally convinced that it is our bounden duty to follow certain policies on global warming, mass immigration, multiculturalism, international human rights enforcement mechanisms and so on. The first faint signal of a new direction on these lines was the new Turnbull government’s media briefing that it would pursue a more sympathetic policy towards the Australian Muslim community than the Abbott government had done. That was followed not long afterwards by Abbott’s Thatcher lecture in London on terrorism, then by the Paris bombings and the San Bernardino murders. Events themselves seemed to be drawing a line of controversy on how best to combat fanatical Islamism—by an unconditional sympathy towards Muslims or by a request for solidarity with the rest of the nation.
As a result both the government and its media supporters have reacted with extraordinary nervousness whenever the former PM has spoken about immigration, terrorism, multiculturalism, assimilation, or any similar topics. When he recently wrote an ostentatiously moderate article in the Daily Telegraph, calling for a reformation in Islam and quoting Egyptian President Sisi to that effect, he was denounced for the new offence of stoking controversy (that is, discussing important matters of public policy). One might almost say that the new establishment and the government both have Tony Abbotts hiding under their beds, liable to jump out at any moment, shouting “Boo!”
On this occasion, moreover, it may well be that history is running in Abbott’s favour. That, however, is something that Muslims will decide.