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April 07th 2017 print

John O’Sullivan

Can Dumb Luck Save Malcolm Turnbull?

Turnbull has not shone as PM. His own standing in the polls, the justification for ousting Abbott, is dismal. He almost lost an election and struggles to articulate an agenda, let alone a vision of where Australia should be heading.  His best hope may well be Labor's talent for blowing sure things

turnbull blind smaller“Is Britain heading straight for disaster?” asked Bernard Shaw at the start of a BBC radio talk in the 1930s. “That is a question I can easily answer. Britain is not heading straight for anything.” In the same spirit I ask: Is Australia heading straight for a Labor government?

The more obvious signs suggest so. Labor’s landslide in Western Australia was a favourable omen for Bill Shorten. The fact that Labor has been steadily winning state and territory elections and now dominates their parliaments shows that the trend is firmly entrenched across Australia. Two recent state/territory elections were gained in landslides, in one of which the Country Liberal Party failed to win enough seats to qualify officially as the opposition. (They were given the designation anyway.) And Labor’s near-win last year in an election called by Malcolm Turnbull for the express purpose of winning control of both Houses to make Australia governable closes the case. It’s Labor’s to lose.

Labor is pretty effective at losing unexpectedly, however. On most precedents it should have won its second-term election in 2010 handily. In reality the party got what was essentially a dead-heat with the Coalition under Tony Abbott, whom it despised, and went on to lose to him in a landslide in 2013. It’s still draining votes to its ideological allies and partisan opponents, the Greens, who cost it the last two elections. And as the Australian economy recovers from its recent wobble, the Coalition might be expected to pick up its strength and poll numbers.

Yet most professional politicians on both sides don’t think this will happen. Overwhelmingly they give the same explanation: divided parties don’t win elections. And the Liberals are not merely divided; the continuing duel between Malcolm Turnbull and his predecessor Tony Abbott is one of the classic political struggles of all time: Burke v Fox, Disraeli v Gladstone, Joe Chamberlain v Arthur Balfour, Abbott v Turnbull.

These donnybrooks are rarer than you might think. Most great political leaders don’t encounter opponents who are worthy of their steel either across the despatch box or in the party room. Margaret Thatcher had an easy run against Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. Churchill in his great period had his most formidable rivals serving under him in the wartime Cabinet. And Menzies towered above the opposition. But Turnbull and Abbott are evenly matched, have already switched the Liberal leadership between them twice, and are still locked in their death struggle. Both are tough fighters. The rest of us don’t yet know who wins in the final round. It’s a gripping blend of C-Span and Masterpiece Theatre.

At present Turnbull (Motto: Capax imperii nisi imperasset), as the leader of a failing government, is clearly in decline. Contrary to almost all expectations he has not shone as Prime Minister. He lost ground in opinion polls when his main justification for ousting Abbott was declining poll numbers. He almost lost the recent election. He struggles to describe a strong mission for his administration.

That particular difficulty stems from the fact that—as I and others have noted before—he is the socially progressive leader of a socially conservative party. And though divided parties always invite trouble, the worst troubles occur when the division is between the party leader and most of his followers. Arguably, David Cameron is in private life today because he and most Tories were on opposing sides of Brexit; Theresa May, who is taking the side of the Brexit majority, has relatively little trouble in managing the revolts of the anti-Brexit minority even though it contains some very grand Tory grandees such as Michael Heseltine.

Turnbull is not at risk of losing his job, at least not yet. But one effect of his leading a semi-mutinous crew is that he can’t say what he thinks and that therefore he ends up endorsing a muted version of Abbott’s agenda to keep everyone in the same boat. That satisfies no one, least of all himself, and the voters have no real sense of what Turnbull stands for and wants to accomplish even when he takes quite bold actions. So the Turnbull Coalition drifts downward in public and party esteem, with both the crew and journalistic observers wailing: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Abbott gains in this situation by ostentatiously denying he’s a rival and even by absenting himself from the political scene. Last week he launched a book, Making Australia Right: Where To from Here (Connor Court), written or collected by James Allan of the University of Queensland, advocating all the policies and ideas that Abbott did and didn’t do during his period of office. The launch was attended by everyone who was anyone on the intellectual Right. Abbott’s speech was a serious one dealing with the substantive issues raised in the book but also asking why Liberal voters were drifting off towards Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson and how the party could get them back again. These were good questions and they started (or at least catalysed) an internal party debate on Liberalism which has become more heated since.

But Abbott did not stay around for it. He flew off to London where he spoke to several appreciative Tory audiences, gracefully regretted backing Remain in the referendum, argued that an Anglo-Australian free-trade agreement should be the UK’s first business after Brexit, and soothed their anxieties by pointing out that if obstacles cropped up, you didn’t need a free-trade agreement in order to trade with a country: half of Australia’s trade was with countries without benefit of FTAs.

It was a polished performance, designed to bridge differences between different Tory factions. When a speaker at the Bow Group dinner criticised David Cameron over Brexit, Abbott courteously reminded the largely Brexiteer audience that Cameron had won two elections, restored the Tories to power, and brought in the referendum legislation that in the end had allowed his audience to vote themselves out of Europe. This went down well with both halves of a Tory party, Leave and Remain, now reassembling themselves into a united party again.

Abbott is now a well-known figure in the political worlds of Britain, the US, and continental Europe. Like John Howard, he is popular among conservatives as an Australian leader who, instead of wringing his hands helplessly, “stopped the boats” and restored some kind of order to the nation’s borders and sea lanes. He’s not seen as having left politics but as taking a furlough to develop a stronger set of conservative answers to Australia’s problems (and also to those of neighbouring countries and distant friends). He’s a member of a very exclusive club, that of former national leaders, and he’s learning from Henry Kissinger’s maxim (I quote from memory): “You never have the time to build intellectual capital while serving in government. So use your time in opposition to develop it—and if you get the opportunity, draw on it in power.” Those who spoke to him came away with the impression that he wasn’t seeking to fight his way back to power, but that if the top job came his way, he wouldn’t refuse it either. In the meantime he would take the high road and make the case for the Australian blend of liberal conservatism.

That’s the Colombey-les-Deux-Églises strategy for gaining power. It took twelve years to work for de Gaulle. But what may help Abbott is that as Turnbull flounders, all the other potential successors are met with responses ranging from “Not quite seasoned enough” to “Next!” And the constant repetition by Abbott-haters in the media of the refrain “Nobody is interested in Abbott, he’s simply not interesting, he doesn’t count, he’s not a factor, I’m ignoring him from now on, go away, please,” naturally prompts interest in him. What is it that makes him so fascinating?

What may help him more, however, is that there has clearly been a change in the political atmosphere since the 2016 election, even in the brief period that Abbott was out of the country. The South Australian energy blackouts have made the public more sceptical of “renewables” and other politically fashionable solutions to reducing carbon emissions—and more irritated too. The treatment of the Queensland students whose lives were hijacked by Gillian Triggs’s commission for several years merely for protesting against what looks very like an official act of racial discrimination has made others indignant.

“Why do they do this?” people ask. “Because they can,” is the truthful answer—one now being increasingly rejected.

It was the death of Bill Leak, however, that has prompted the most sincere and powerful outrage. Bill, who was a great friend of Quadrant and, for too short a time, a personal friend as well, was a man of great decency, kindness and wit. He exercised his talents for drawing cartoons and caricatures in the service of mocking vice and folly but also in what Arnold Bennett once called “the great cause of cheering us all up”. When Bill was pursued by the same forces that persecuted the Queensland students, enough people knew him and his work to know that the pursuit was unjustified and absurd. His death has now led to a movement, finally, to remove or reform Section 18C and its restrictive impact on free expression.

Change culture and you change politics as a result. Bill changed our culture for the better both alive and dead. We will shortly see how our culture now changes Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott—and their pecking order. It can only be for the better.

Comments [12]

  1. Bran Dee says:

    The future success of the government may not hinge on a struggle between the same oscillating and weak Liberal Party leaders.
    There must be another challenger apart from Tony Abbott who has a significant amount of enemies and who made a litany of errors. A fresh leader has the chance to win friends and establish his own image and the name of Peter Dutton seems to be now heading the list of preferred contenders.

    A wildcard entrant to the contest could be Peta Credlin with a business hairstyle if formerly like Campbell Newman in Queensland she could be given a winnable seat preferably in a bielection.

    • Jimbob says:

      Bran, in my opinion the constant searching for would be “political saviours” is exactly why we have had no stability in government these last 10 years. All human beings, including politicians are a mixed bag of good and bad. Success usually leads to pride which then becomes their undoing. The sheer magnitude of Tony Abbott’s victory in 2013 may have led him to do some seemingly stupid things. They may or may not have been stupid but it’s perception that matters. And sometimes, lesser men and women use the success of better men and women as the opportunity for self aggrandisement. Every time Malcolm Turnbull has led the Liberal party he has been a “disaster”. It seems to be a pattern – the lesser man riding on the coat tails of the better man.

      I am prepared to believe that Tony Abbott is a rare bird. He’s a politician who has learnt from his mistakes. Why do I say this? Knowing that he has innumerable enemies in the party room and the fact that they elect a “leader”, he has not sought out their support as far as we can see. Everything he has said, he has sain in plain daylight and it makes a lot of good common sense. There are no “works of darkness” done in cockroach infested shadows – just a simple spelling out of what he believes is good for the nation. I don’t know the man personally, though those that do seem to think the world of him, I only have “perceptions” like we all do but it seems to me that the ancient wisdom applies here…”…you shall know them by their fruits…”.

      Malcolm Turnbull for all his supposed “cleverness” comes across as an arrogant, unteachable fool. He is dead wrong in believing that any party governs form the “centre”. That only happens in a totalitarian state (maybe he’s not so averse to having one?). In a democracy, power is given at the behest of the “disaffected margins”. It only takes 0.1% above 50% to profoundly change the destiny of a nation. In seeking to govern from the centre, Malcolm Turnbull is ensuring the defeat of the Liberal party. Even if there were Laborites, Greens and Socialist Workers that have a natural affinity with him, that is an insufficient reason to vote for him. That’s indeed what we have seen and will continue to see. To ensure that the Liberal’s have a chance he needs to “bring back the base” but he has as a proverbial “snowflakes chance in hell” chance at doing this. Even more so now that there are viable alternatives like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Australian Conservatives.

      Tony Abbott on the other hand, I believe, can bring back most of the base that has fled and can even work with the representatives of those who will stay away. The parliamentary party can hate him with a vengeance but you would think the need for self preservation would sharpen their wits. They can hate him all they want but without him as the standard bearer that magic 3% – 3.5% (TPP) will stay away and the Libs will become irrelevant. Oh well, they can comfort themselves in the knowledge that there is still some time to go.

  2. Dallas Beaufort says:

    Tony Abbott put everything on the table and the Green left had a heart attack.

  3. Keith Kennelly says:

    So did the bedwetters.

  4. ianl says:

    I’ve recorded my opinion of Waffle previously. He’s not stupid, but he is treacherous, sneaky, contemptuous of the hoi-polloi and malicious when his vanity is punctured. He cannot be trusted although he is keeping to his Paris agreement in the face of irreparable damage to the welfare of the Aus populace – so one wonders when he will follow Rudderless into the UN cradle. We know Rudderless didn’t do too well there but Waffle expects to do much better as he has helped “save the planet”.

    There was some speculation about why Waffle and Skeletor risked the extradition treaty with China in the Senate at the time they did. Plenty of deep-fry conspiracy bubbles but the answer to that timing is simple: a crude, ham-fisted attempt to cash in on a supposed bandwagon effect following Li’s visit. No bandwagon, didn’t work, nobody fooled, Waffle and Skeletor humiliated and consequently reacting with malice … a good example of the point to my first paragraph. We (at least myself) still don’t know *why* the treaty is important to the Govt. I do not expect, ever, to be told the truth.

  5. Bran Dee says:

    Good comments all and Jimbob and ianl make a number of correct incisive points about Malcolm Turnbull.
    However Tony Abbott, Mr Nice Guy, has shown he does not have the toughness and conviction for conservative politics. He trained in a seminary so he is conditioned to give alms, charity, and forgiveness.

    Why could not Abbott and jolly Joe cut spending as did John Howard and Peter Costelloe. Abbott is the parish priest who wants to be loved by all. Stubbornly blind to his socialistic PPL scheme he clung to it for years. He could perhaps have been in office 3 years earlier if he had taken Julie Bishop and other females to negotiate with Windsor and Oakshott where he lost out to the schmoozing Gillard so she could form her minority government. If Windsor said I cannot work with Abbott then for the good of the party Abbott could have stepped aside.
    Abbott proposed Australia Day honors for Gillard and Rudd. He assured the ABC of funding and appointed Malcolm Turnbull to care for it. What a disaster! After Gillard the drovers dog could have brought home the election and Tony Abbott entrusted with the hopes of conservatives had to be stood aside because he could not sell. He was a priest and not an evangelist and it is a sorry thing to say.

  6. [email protected] says:

    Whitlam won his double dissolution election and held a successful Joint Sitting of Parliament.
    Turnbull lost his double dissolution election and was thus unable to hold a joint sitting.
    Turnbull winning is just propaganda.

    • Jimbob says:

      Good Doctor, I’m inclined to agree. The press (even sections of the Murdoch press) are so frightened of Tony Abbott they will say anything to make Malcolm Turnbull look good and tell all sorts of stories.

      I read with interest that the Liberal Party (almost entirely because of MT) has lost an enormous amount of support in the over 50′s demographic. That loss has been translated to an almost identical gain for PHON (Corey Bernardi has yet to launch an election campaign). I’m not sure that Liberal “faceless men and women” realise how important this demographic is. Over 50′s can now expect to live well into their eighties and nineties and are a much larger demographic than the replacement demographic coming through. We were often members of families of 4 or more siblings whereas younger generations are member of families of one or two siblings if any at all!

      Our formative years were spent in school and church which taught the importance of “honour”, “one’s word being one’s bond”, “faithfulness” and various other “old fashioned” values on which civil society was built. Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull have both acted in a way which offended the sensibility of that older demographic. “Treachery” and “disloyalty” may be quite OK with those who are moral relativists, but they are not OK with those who don’t and for the next thirty to forty years will still be voting.

      Political power is a gift of the people and it is manifestly obvious that the “front man or woman” is the proxy for the parties vying for power. Gough, Bob, Kevin 07 were elected almost irrespective of their parties policies. Treachery of the sort practiced by Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull takes away the right of the people to express their approbation or their disappointment through the only real mechanism they have – their vote. As in the case of Julia Gillard, treachery was not rewarded and she lost all the “good will” bought in the electorate by Kevin Rudd and then got creamed in her won right. Similarly Turnbull lost all the “good will” bought by Tony Abbott and put himself in a similar position to Julia Gillard in her first election – barely governing.

      Treachery and disloyalty should not be rewarded. I think that at the next election, even though it is supposedly two years off. Julia Gillard was behind in the polls (Newspoll Archives) for her entire term since the 2010 election. Similarly Turnbull has been behind since the day after the 2016 election and it just may be the “treachery” factor which ensures that he gets “creamed” in the next election. I’m absolutely certain that there are not an insignificant number like me who see more long term danger to national health through rewarding morally challenged behaviour than there is any short term benefit through ephemeral policies (likely to be undone as easily they have been done). While he’s in the chair, others will get my vote.

  7. Jimbob says:

    Oops…see what happens when you use spell check! “….not OK with those who aren’t….moral relativists” and Julia Gillard got creamed in her “own (not won) right”

  8. rodcoles says:

    “Turnbull has not shone as PM.” Understatement of the bloody millenium.