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”
Catherine 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