It’s going to be messy, Malcolm Turnbull’s need to square the circle of his ruthlessly plotted ascent to the Liberal leadership with the revulsion now animating so many of his party’s supporters. Be that as it may, there remains a role — a key role — for Tony Abbott
When Malcolm Turnbull gave his first thoughts on being elected Liberal leader, he sounded like a smoothly confident CEO picking up the reins of an established corporation after a hostile takeover. CEOs on these occasions talk about changing the corporate culture or melding the cultures of the two companies in order to give the defeated executives a brief hope of inclusion.
Mr. Turnbull used slightly different language. He promised a new “style” of governing that would be more consultative and consensual. Mutatis mutandis, however, the purpose was the same.
He talked up “style” to avoid discussing changes in policy that would alarm his new backbenchers. He was searching for a justification of the coup that wouldn’t commit him to too much of anything for the moment. He needed to banish the memory of how, as Opposition Leader, he had disregarded consulting colleagues to the point of provoking the resignation of senior colleagues. He had to promise them a say in future policy because he knew that many were suspicious of his general political outlook. Altogether, he was painfully aware both that divided parties don’t win elections and that he had just divided the Liberal Party.
Turnbull won but he did so against 45%t of his parliamentary colleagues and a much larger percentage of Liberal Party members in the country. Telephone and internet messages into Canberra were running at well over the rate of 90% in favour of Abbott and against the parliamentary coup both before and after the vote with such messages as “Are we mad?” and “We’re as bad as Labor.”
In Canberra, electoral self-interest and party discipline will restrain and eventually pacify the disappointed Abbott loyalists on the government benches. To speed this process Turnbull has already pledged not to change certain key policies, notably on how to proceed with gay marriage. The National Party renewed its Coalition deal on day one; interestingly, though, it was able to extract slightly better terms from Turnbull than from his predecessor. And the approaching election will strengthen all the instincts tending towards party unity. Above all, Abbott will not join any cabal bent on revenge from the Right.
Outside Canberra, however, the Liberal rank and file who support a political party from tribal loyalty or ideological sympathy are another kettle of fish. Their discontent will have to be soothed, and their support will have to be won back, by the new prime minister. The more decently Abbott behaves towards the usurper regime, the more he will become a figure of stoic nobility to the party faithful. And the more the party faithful demand signs that Turnbull is a reliable conservative, the more he will be forced into a false position.
Malcolm Turnbull is a highly intelligent and resourceful politician. On certain issues—mainly economic ones but not only those—he is undoubtedly conservative. Mark Steyn, seated next to him at a conference, found that he had a better understanding of the demographic problems facing Europe than any politician Steyn had previously encountered. But he may not be able to exploit this conservatism to any great effect. As Peter Smith pointed out at Quadrant Online, it will be hard, if not impossible, for a Turnbull government to improve on Abbott’s economic record which includes free trade agreements with China, Japan, and South Korea and just recently growing employment despite falling commodity prices. And the boats have already been stopped.
So Turnbull may not have much of a conservative song to sing, even though he knows the tune. And on gay marriage, the monarchy, measures to combat global warming, and a range of socially progressive issues Turnbull takes attitudes sharply at variance with those of most conservatives and the party faithful—and, worse, his expression of these views tends to be condescending (and infuriating.)
At the same time if he keeps silent on them to avoid riling the faithful, he falls into another trap. As happened at his first Question Time as PM, the Labor Party attacks him for letting himself down and not pressing his signature social issues. That presumably weakens his appeal to centrist voters and thus the argument of electoral self-interest that persuaded some Liberals to choose him over Abbott. Add to these restraints, finally, Turnbull’s own nature, which by most accounts is an impatient and impulsive one that will rebel against the constraint of never offending the party faithful—and burst out with something highly undiplomatic.
Turnbull will find a way out of this maze, but it will take time. Meanwhile, things will be happening in another part of the forest. Some years ago, Brian Loughnane, then the Liberal Party’s federal election director, advanced the theory that Australia had both a conservative party, namely the Liberals, and a broader social conservative movement or tendency. When these two entities were in lockstep—in particular when the Liberal leader was also the informal leader of the movement—the party generally won elections. When they diverged, and a social liberal led the party, it usually lost.
Robert Menzies had been such a dual leader; so had John Howard; and so was Tony Abbott. Most other Liberal leaders since 1945 such as John Gorton, John Hewson, and Brendan Nelson never commanded the full confidence of the conservative movement. Whether as a result of that or not, either they never won the highest government office or they held it for only short periods.
A partial exception to Loughnane’s argument was Malcolm Fraser, who won three elections and remained in power for eight years. That seems to contradict the theory, but a closer look suggests a more ambiguous conclusion. Though regarded as a conservative when first elected, Fraser gradually revealed himself to be an economic Keynesian and a social liberal in office, and for whatever reason, he went from landslide victory to landslide defeat in the course of four elections.
So it’s reasonable to conclude that Loughnane’s theory, though not infallible, is a roughly accurate guide to political probabilities. If we consider the recent replacement of Tony Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister in light of this, therefore, what will we conclude? Well, in the first place, there is no doubt that a social liberal has just replaced a social conservative. Neither man would dispute that. And, in the second place, whatever the new Liberal leader does to preserve party unity, the change-over is a serious long-term political defeat for the broader conservative movement. There’s no point in sugar-coating that defeat—and the way that Abbott was ousted makes the taste still more bitter.
My colleague on Quadrant Online, Roger Franklin, draws a straight-forward and tempting conclusion from that. Why not found a new party that represents the broader conservative movement without the compromises required by coalescing with corporate liberals and others in an unsatisfactory alliance that breaks your heart every ten years?
It’s a good question, and the answer is: start today and in forty years we’ll be on the verge of a pure-hearted triumph. Or at least Roger will; I’ll be pushing up the daisies. In the meantime, if the party establishes itself and wins a slowly growing number of votes election after election, it will handicap the main party of the Right, just as the Greens have handicapped the main party of the Left, and lead to a string of progressive victories. Electorally speaking, we would be making the best the enemy of the good.
That’s not a sufficient answer to Roger, however. For the problem he identified still needs a solution. And as it happens, there is a safer and better way to advance the broad conservative interest now hostage to Liberal Party decisions. That is to devote more energy and thought to making the conservative movement directly influential in Australian life and culture. Liberal timidity and Malcolm Turnbull’s ambitions are far less of an obstacle to conservative ideas and values than the stranglehold that the Left has on cultural institutions, from universities to publishing to the theatre to television sitcoms to news and current affairs to legal training. Instead of encouraging able young conservatives to sink into the political class, we should be directing them into film schools, art galleries, law journals, publishing houses, charities, foundations, orchestras, newsrooms, magazine start-ups, and all the occupations that shape and elevate our minds and imaginations. Once there is an active and thriving conservative cultural environment, then both political parties will find that their policy choices have somehow been pushed in a conservative direction (or at least not pushed in a liberal direction) without anyone quite knowing why or how.
For that to happen, however, we need bold cultural leadership by prominent people. Tony Abbott is already a leader of the broader conservative movement. He is a journalist and a writer. He is a man of broad liberal culture. He has serious moral and intellectual interests across the board. He can command a national audience. Without giving up his parliamentary seat, he could shape the cultural environment that would shape Liberal Party policies and ultimately Malcolm Turnbull’s politics. And in the end being “an unacknowledged legislator of the world” might beat being Prime Minister.
John O’Sullivan is the editor of Quadrant.