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
“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.