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September 26th 2015 print

James Allan

Liberal Unity? Now? That’s a Good One

The party over which Malcolm Turnbull now presides is not merely divided, it is riven with factions variously delighted, resigned or livid at the coup that ousted an elected PM in his first term. The imperious command that the disaffected should simply shut up just isn't going to fly

militesThis will be short and to the point.  Within the larger right-of-centre family of voters there is something of a vociferous argument going on right now about how to treat the new Turnbull government.   There are various splits in play.  Some are out-and-out happy that Mr. Abbott is gone.  They tend to be either libertarians (who feel the Abbott government ignored getting taxes down and reneged on the free speech front and don’t really care, to be blunt, about the boats or anything else much) or those who are strong centrists,  and hence still can watch the ABC’s current affairs shows.  These people like, or at least do not detest, Turnbull.

Then there are the various agnostics.  They were open-minded and remain open-minded.

After that you have those who liked the Abbott government, but wish it had looked more like what had been promised by the now-ousted Prime Minister when in opposition.  These people were critical of Abbott, but they preferred him – they still prefer him – to Turnbull.

Lastly, there were those who saw little wrong with the Abbott government. When a party is getting 46 or 47 percent support in the polls, that says there are still plenty who think the government is getting the vast preponderance of things right.

And then came the coup: the Libs mimic Labor and defenestrate a sitting prime minister.  Most of the right-of-centre family is angry about this, but a significant minority is not. A fair few delight in the dethroning of Abbott.

So here’s my point.  We are now hearing all sorts of pleas for the family to re-unite.  The call is for us all to pull together and beat Bill Shorten.  I am far from convinced that this is persuasive course of action, in a long-term sense.  It wholly depends on how far to the left one thinks the Member for Wentworth will be able to drag the Liberal Party. What we do know is that he will try. This calculation also depends on how much worse a Shorten government would be than a Turnbull one.  Readers can make these calculations for themselves.  No one has a pipeline to God and know for sure how these things will play out.

But stop for one second and consider an ancillary issue:  What should we make of these pleas for unity?  Well, it depends on who is making them.  There are various camps here too.

First off, there are those with clean hands. So if an untainted Abbott supporter, let’s say some MP with no blood on his hands (and I do NOT include Mr. Morrison in this category) or a commentator who was fair to Mr. Abbott (say Gary Johns), now says that on balance we should rally round the Turnbull regicides – well, that has credibility.  Listeners can agree or disagree.  But there will be no stench of hypocrisy in the air.

But when the 55 Liberal MPs who knifed Mr. Abbott (and I DO include Morrison here) beg for unity, forget it.

Same goes for when a commentator such as Niki Sava demands loyalty to Turnbull. Give me a break!  This woman spent over half a year putting the knife into Mr. Abbott in virtually every column she wrote.  What hypocrisy now to ask for what she herself never gave!  And now we learn that she had what many might see as a potential conflict of interest as far as her husband was concerned. Personally, I think her lack of shame is up there with Bill Clinton somewhere.

And then there is the editorial writers of The Australian. Their argument is that Turnbull is better than Shorten and that should be enough to quell dissenters from wreaking havoc. Granted, that’s a respectable argument, as I noted above.  Yet I am not convinced, and won’t be until I see Turnbull start doing things that aren’t left-leaning (and a lot of them).  But it’s respectable, despite the heavy dollop we also see here of “do as I say, not as I do”.  After all, it was The Australian back in 2007 that came out for Rudd over Howard, over the best economic team since World War II.  Where was the straight up “support the team because it’s better than Labor” calculation then?  And who really thinks, hand on heart, that Shorten is worse, or more unhinged, than Rudd?  Didn’t think so. No takers for that one.

So stop with all the bleating and preaching about how everyone in the family has to be good little team players.  We don’t and many won’t.  This “family” prizes individuality.  We don’t give a fig for centralised diktats about how we must respond to events.

Worse, when we can smell hypocrisy and ‘do as I say, not as I do’ thinking, it simply makes many determined to do the opposite.  If those who have now wiped the blood from their knives really want the unity they worked so assiduously to destroy when promoting the inevitability of Turmbull, there is only one course of action. Shut up already.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline

Comments [12]

  1. Jody says:

    I don’t know why you single our Morrison, who voted for Abbott, when the Deputy Julie Bishop gets off Scott free. What does this tell you about a woman who has now been a deputy to more leaders than I have fingers on my right hand. Could it be because she is a female; ergo, off limits for criticism. I smell a rat.

  2. Steve Spencer says:

    A lifelong conservative voter, I will not be voting for Turnbull. I shall do this in the (I hope) long-term interests of the Liberal party, because I believe a defeat at the next election would be, to paraphrase Keating, the loss the Liberals had to have. My hope will be that Liberal MPs will think twice or even thrice before tossing out a leader between elections. I know that if enough people think this way, Shorten will be elected, but the short-term pain will be worth it. Besides, I have no doubt that Shorten will be knifed by his own during his first term, too.

  3. Bill Martin says:

    As James Allan writes, we’ll have to see what the new regime will do as distinct from what they say. So far, all we had was highfalutin rhetoric liberally sprinkled with empty slogans, which does not inspire much hope or confidence. As for the nauseating stench of the abominable coup, that will take at least a generation to dissipated, after all those implicated have passed from the political stage. In the meantime we will have to refrain from taking deep breaths.

  4. Keith Kennelly says:

    This article is spot on.

    I wonder how many if th oise who regard the coup as a betrayal live in marginal electorates?
    Or how many of the luvvies who think Turnbull a magnificent PM but who won’t vote for him are in those same electorates.

    Canning result is a portent.

  5. Bran Dee says:

    The Peta Credlin, oops, Tony Abbott government was at its best only mediocre and with persistent opposition from the unchallenged ABC may well have lost the next election.
    At that next election disgruntle conservative voters could put some real conservatives into the senate.
    Malcolm Turnbull may self distruct after winning the next election but at least he can read a balance sheet and will not be relying on the seminary philosophy of ‘the Lord will provide’.

    • Steve Spencer says:

      But the ‘challenge’ that was meant to be made against the ABC was in fact meant to be made by Turnbull, who conspicuously failed to do so. as for Abbott’s apparent failure to head a truly ‘conservative’ Government, it is now clear that he was hindered by a significant number of MPs who valued their own positions way above any conservative principles, and this (sadly, for I never realised) included Pyne, the Bishops and Morrison.

  6. Simon says:

    The conservative commentators seem to be clinging to the confirmation from Turnbull that he won’t be weakening our border security and that he will stick with the current policy on climate change. I suspect he is only doing this to keep the party together in the short term.

    I hope I am wrong on this, particularly on border protection. If the boats start coming again, and there rumours that they are about to, then he must remain resolute.

    If he doesn’t, he will lose me and the conservatives.

  7. Alistair says:

    Politics is about pragmatic decision making – however dirty it becomes, but this applies to Liberal supporters as well as Liberal Parliamentarians. The politicians have made their decision but that doesnt bind the voters. However, there is absoluetly no point in cutting off noses to spite faces. The Turnbull Liberals can have my preference, at the end of the list of those have better policies that I prefer. On the Senate paper for example one does not need to follow the “party line”, but vote below the line explicitly for particular candidates in the order of their policy rather than where they are on the ballot paper. For example I would not want to disadvantage a Cori Bernardi just because I dont approve of a Turnbull. In reality, Abbott was no great loss to the pursuit of my personal policy agenda with his backdown of 18C, his backdown on an investigation into BOM, his pursuit of a Constitutional referendum on aborigines, his ultimately suicidal failure to confront the ABC, … One battle in the Culture War is lost, but the War goes on.