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June 24th 2016 print

David Flint

The Withering of Malcolm Turnbull

The Liberal Party's greatest minds were certain Tony Abbott's nemesis would lead a cantering Coalition to the easiest of victories. Today, with the loss of seats inevitable and a fractious Senate all but certain, he is a far lonelier  presence. So much for "leadership and trust"

abbott turnbull IICatherine McGregor’s paean for Malcolm Turnbull in the Daily  Telegraph (June 23) contains a gratuitous attack on  Quadrant as a “shrivelling organ” whose  contributors are “faux intellectuals”. Just how many Australian journals enjoy the international reputations of its current editor, John O’Sullivan, and editor-in-chief Keith Windschuttle?  How many Australian journals could produce such a distinguished list of contributors? Perhaps Ms McGregor will apologise, as she did for her attack on former commanding officer David Morrison (“a weak, conventional choice”), who pipped her hope of claiming the august title of 2016′s Australian of The Year.

On that occasion there was absolutely no need to apologise. Morrison’s appointment was entirely predictable, conventional and consistent with other such appointments in recent years. After all, Morrison is a republican with a fashionable left-wing agenda and, just lately, a driving passion to eliminate the use of “guys” in lesser mortals’ conversations.

This time, as she appears easily impressed, Ms McGregor was overwhelmed by Turnbull’s observation on Q&A that the two essential elements which invariably decide all Australian federal elections are “leadership and trust”. If that is so, Turnbull will win this election only because he will be seen in terms made famous at the 1998 republican constitutional convention, the “least worse” choice.

This election is between two spendthrift political assassins, neither offering any leadership to the nation. Instead they seek to outbid one another in an auction premised on unlimited supplies of borrowed money. They are following the practice of too many politicians in seeking to corrupt the populace by offering funds extracted from the productive minority of the nation’s net taxpayers, supplemented by vast sums borrowed from overseas.

The interest paid on these borrowings is so large that, according to Senator Chris Back, it would build a major new hospital every month or a primary school every eight hours. Both  Turnbull and Bill Shorten seek to calm fears about our mounting debt with fairytales about a surplus to be magically achieved at some vaguely specified point in the future. Expect this fabled day to arrive only when today’s profligates are no longer in parliament and enjoying their politicians’ lavish superannuation — to be funded, no doubt, by yet further borrowing.

Turnbull can hardly campaign on either leadership or trust, and not only because of the way he plotted the knifing of Tony Abbott. This putsch he justified on the basis that his brilliant economic narrative would persuade the nation to support him overwhelmingly and make next weekend’s election a Coalition landslide. This triumph, Turnbull and his mutineers confidently asserted, would dwarf Abbott’s achievements in 2013.

That Turnbull will not deliver, or so the polls insist, has everything to do with having demonstrated that he is not only a poor political communicator, contrary to his advance billing, but also weak and indecisive on matters of substance. In addition, he has been surprisingly naive politically. In all this he has revealed himself to be a distinctly inferior leader to the man he overthrew.

As even he might now concede, he should gone to a double dissolution election very soon after the Abbott knifing. The polls might have held and he could  have secured the passage of the blocked bills that have triggered this election. Part of that support in the polls was not genuine, of course, as the Turnbull backers should have known. While vast numbers of left-wing types, Greens and Labor supporters to the fore, supported the change of leaders, this was only because they preferred a left-wing leader of the Liberal party to Tony Abbott. What it didn’t mean is that they preferred the Coalition. They weren’t potential Liberal voters and never will be. This was demonstrated in the North Sydney by-election where the Liberal Party chose to build the campaign around the latest PM’s purportedly magnetic appeal. As John Stone noted in his dissection of the result in the May edition of Quadrant – another insightful analysis that must have escaped Ms McGregor’s attention — the swing against the Turnbull Liberals ran to around 13%. So much for the logic that voters would be drawn like moths to the flame of the Prime Minister’s radiance.

He didn’t learn from that, although the Labor Party took note and concluded it would make substantial gains on July 2. If Turnbull scrapes home next weekend, as the polls seem to be suggesting, he will still have lost, having both thrown away much of the Abbott landslide’s gains and alienated the party’s conservative base, the very people pollster Mark Textor dismissed in the days after the coup as being of no consequence. If Turnbull’s depleted ranks prove incapable of securing  passage of the bills which triggered the double dissolution, his supporters will begin to wonder whether the election was worse than pointless. He will lose prestige and his authority will be undermined, a weakness that will become more pronounced if a substantial number of those who backed him in the party room lose their seats. Abbott redux, perhaps?

That Turnbull is anything but well placed to campaign on trust is further demonstrated by his extraordinary attack on superannuation which the eminent Melbourne silk, Jack Hammond, says is a breach of trust affecting millions. Apparently inspired by Labor’s politics of envy, the Turnbull government did precisely what Treasurer Morrison  promised not to do: touch superannuation. In so doing, Turnbull & Co undermined confidence in the superannuation system and in a government’s former promise that superannuation would not be tampered with under any circumstances.

Liberal pollster Mark Textor justified his infamous dismissal of the conservative base by rationalising that such voters would have to like Turnbull or lump him, as they have nowhere else to go and, with Turnbull at the helm, the defection of former loyalists would be more than compensated by the recruitment of fresh supporters from the centre and centre-left. Evidently he was reading the public mood with as little attention as Ms McGregor brings to editions of Quadrant. Fact is, all the polling indicates there has been no such shift of votes and voters.

It is said that the superannuation issue will only affect blue-ribbon Liberal seats, where the buffer is said to be sufficiently large to survive defections of the disaffected. But as Jack Hammond argues, the issue affects millions. What the government does not seem to appreciate is that it alarms more than lifelong Liberal voters, it also colours the thinking of aspirational voters. By Textor’s reckoning, this latter demographic should be flocking to the Turnbull banner. That they aren’t is further proof of how one man’s arrogant ambition, combined with a tin ear for the concerns of the broader Australia,  has worked against the prospects of the very party he claimed to be saving from Abbott and ruin.

Some conservatives are so angry they believe it would be better if the government were defeated. Their argument is that Turnbull is the most left-wing leader the Liberal party has ever known. His very presence atop the party is forcing and encouraging Labor to go further to the left. If he returns to office with a mandate, he will believe he has been blessed with the authority to permnaqnetly transform the Liberal Party into a “progressive” force. Other conservatives, possibly the majority, will put on rubber gloves, peg their noses, overcome an emetic nausea and vote for a Turnbull government in the House. But this will be attenuated by first preferences going to smaller conservative parties and independents, especially in the Senate. Only time will tell, but it is conceivable that such a revolt amongst upper-house voters would deny Turnbull the numbers he needs to carry the day at a joint sitting.

What is clear is that on the criteria of leadership and trust Malcolm Turnbull does not pass the pub test. Still, he will not be entirely alone if things go badly on election night. He’ll still have Ms McGregor.

David Flint presents ‘Safe Worlds -Conversations with Conservatives’ on Safe Worlds TV and You Tube. This includes an interview with Jack Hammond QC on superannuation and the election

Comments [20]

  1. Jody says:

    Absolutely priceless that McGregor would refer to anything at all as a “shrivelling organ”. Pot meet kettle.

  2. sabena says:

    Given that North Sydney went to preferences last time,it is strange we haven’t heard anything about it in the election so far,particularly as the independent Stephen Ruff is standing again.Zimmerman can only hope that the others don’t all preference against him,otherwise he may struggle to hold on.

  3. en passant says:

    Memo to Defence bureaucrats: Why is a serving military officer commenting on political matters and still retaining their rank and job?

  4. Patrick McCauley says:

    “Why is a serving military officer commenting on political matters and still retaining their rank and job?” Precisely.

  5. Jody says:

    Especially when Andrew Hastie wasn’t allowed to pose in army greens with his family for the election campaign. No, seriously, we need to keep the pressure up on this staggering hypocrisy, call it out and DEMAND an explanation.

  6. Ian MacDougall says:

    Turnbull will win this election only because he will be seen in terms made famous at the 1998 republican constitutional convention, the “least worse” choice.

    Actually, the quote comes from Churchill, and relates to representative government as a whole. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

  7. Warty says:

    With regards to Catherine McGregor, who quite obviously won’t be reading Quadrant ever again, a good rule of thumb is to regard everyone in the room as being more intelligent than oneself (that is until they open their mouths). For those who consider themselves to be the most intelligent in the room, a revelation to the contrary hits very hard indeed, unless you wriggle and worm like Bill Shorten on the 7.30 Report.

  8. Jody says:

    Oh, you little beauty – Britain is leaving the EU. The ordinary people have had enough of immigration!! This is a warning to Australia because people here are fed up to the back teeth with the regressive Left and all forms of politically correct claptrap.

    And it turns out that the reason why the Tories won the last election, despite opinion polls, was precisely because Cameron offered them a Referendum. Well, Australia – look and learn!!!

    Bring on the same sex marriage plebiscite – NOW!!

  9. en passant says:

    Jody,
    Despite the hype, the polls say 64% of ordinary voters reject same-sex marriage. This is why the politicians want to just do it without asking the bigoted, stupid, loser voters.

    • Jody says:

      Then they won’t learn the lessons of the UK. Too bad for them; better to hide under the ‘it will be cruel; hatred towards gays will prevail’ excuse. And ScoMo called it, saying those who oppose have been vilified as homophobic, intolerant etc. Name and more names. Listen up; the Left has no narrative, it can only EMOTE.

    • Jack Brown says:

      Lobbyists for so-called same sex marriage argue against a plebiscite on the grounds that the result is already known so politicians should just get on with it rather than waiting and causing more stress to those discriminated againts.

      I get the feeling though that they know that the majority would be against but even if not, they do not want to feel patronized by the majority condescending to allow them to have it. Rather they would like to see so-called majority forced to accept so-called same sex marriage against their will.

      The other nominal argument put by gay lobby activists against a plebiscite deflects attention away from this power struggle and tends to focus on how a plebiscite will bring out the haters. That is true except that we already know who the haters are: the left and gay lobby groups who will denounce opponents who dare attempt to who challenge the now orthodox view that so-called same sex marriage is marriage, a view adopted and promoted by most organs of media, of government and big business.

      I feel that Turnbull and Brandis were very strategic in discarding the eminently sensible approach of arranging the plebiscite to be held on polling day. If that had gone through then everyone would vote and something like the percentage mentioned may well have been observed. However by arranging for the plebiscite to be held as a stand alone vote it will now not be a secret vote and I suspect that many people will be thinking twice about running the gauntlet of haters who will be intimidating people on the day, say by aggressive questioning about voting intentions.

      It could well end up like Ireland.

  10. Jack Brown says:

    Turnbull and Shorten are like a pair of con artists on the Titanic the evening of April 14, 1912 offering to upgrade steerage passengers to 2nd class by pick-pocketing the other passengers to pay for the upgrade with each claiming to be offer the best cabin.

  11. Rob Ellison says:

    “Government spending as a share of Singapore’s GDP is just 20 per cent, its top marginal tax rate is 20 per cent, and there is a constitutional requirement that annual budgets be balanced. ­According to International Monetary Fund data, the share of total government spending as a proportion of Singapore’s GDP fell after the global financial crisis. In contrast, Australia’s total government spending as a share of GDP is about 3 per cent higher than before the financial crisis at 37 per cent, nearly double Singapore’s.”

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/there-is-much-for-australia-to-admire-about-neighbour-singapore/news-story/42d64b3b70e25df8a601cb9318ec8972

    Corporate tax rate is 17% – compared to our 20%. Even Qantas sends all the profits there. They make nearly as much as us and economic growth since 1975 has averaged 6.2% – so our lead is not going to last long. They have the best health and education systems in the world. They spend about twice as much per capita on health than we do.

    As far as I can see we waste some $200 billion dollars a year on bloated bureaucracies that exist solely to make life difficult for ordinary people while supplying 13th rate health and education outcomes and pissing away our environment. And you’re going to chuck a wobbly and cheer on labor? But hell – the important thing is that homos can’t get married.