John Howard, the Liberal elder statesman one might expect to be a source of guidance for the party he once led, has been guarded in his comments. This is understandable but also unfortunate, as he has the record and authority to spell out the one thing that should by now be crystal clear and needs to be stated loud and clear: Malcolm Turnbull cannot remain as party leader.
Not only has he presided over an election disaster for the Coalition, turning a comfortable majority into a possible loss of government, he has made political train wreck he orchestrated infinitely worse by infecting the nation and its prospects with a Senate that is even more unworkable than the one he inherited and which he so ham-fistedly attempted to clean out.
One doesn’t need to be a confirmed pessimist to suspect the country will be virtually ungovernable, in any meaningful sense, for at least the next six years, by which time we will surely have seen a budget emergency.
Had Tony Abbott delivered Saturday night’s result and then carried on as if it is business as usual, the calls for his head would be deafening. Then again, as a man who understands the meaning of the words “integrity” and “honour”, we can be sure he would have removed himself before someone else had to do it.
We DelCons, by which I mean those of us outraged at the defenestration of a first-term PM and worried by the leftward drift of his usurper, might not have voted against the government in the numbers feared by certain commentators. I didn’t for reasons that I have explained here. If the Liberals are dumb enough to persist with a mountebank who failed as Opposition Leader, failed as Prime Minister and indulged and encouraged the ABC’s worst tendencies when he was the minister in charge of the national broadcaster, all bets should be off. As far as the Liberal “base” is concerned, Turnbull’s survival — if that proves to be case — will be finished as an effective political force. It is a mystery why so many media commentators, The Australian’s Paul Kelly in particular, are still canvassing the proposition that Turnbull can survive, even if the Coalition somehow manages to scrape home.
But what of the party itself? The wets who backed Turnbull from the start, viz prior to the Abbott assassination, will no doubt be in denial and stick with him. Thankfully, their numbers have been reduced somewhat with the forced departure of the duplicitous duo, Hendy and Roy. Regrettably, Sinodinos is likely to survive.
Those who supported Abbott in the party room vote that toppled him will push strongly for Turnbull to go if, that is, they have any sense. Ideally they will want him to resign of his own accord, but there’s no sign of that at present, such is the arrogance of the man.
But what of the Abbott turncoats? Will they be sufficiently enraged by the mismanaged election campaign to reverse their earlier decisions, or will they stick with Turnbull at any price by way of justifying their own gutlessness. Paul Kelly reports that Bishop, Morrison and Dutton (if he survives) are all pledged to Turnbull. If that is true, we know the answer to that question.
Many backbenchers who have worked their guts out to be re-elected — and are deeply aware of the mistakes in the campaign — have no interest whatsoever in converting a serious setback into a full catastrophe.
The point of forming government is not to form government but to govern. Turnbull’s legacy in the new Senate ensures that a Coalition government won’t be able to do that in any meaningful sense. Rather, it limp along as a lame duck that can achieve nothing worthwhile, particularly on the economic front, and subject to constant sniping from a re-energized Labor, which would almost certainly win the following election. The country would have nothing to show for three wasted years, if it lasted that long, of impotent Coalition governance. That would be the ‘full catastrophe’ indeed.
I can’t agree with Kelly’s logic in supporting the continuation of Turnbull’s leadership, but he may well be right that it will be the outcome. Self-interest in the Party room and a collective inability to admit the monumental mistake of last September, may well prevail. But given how Turnbull has alienated the wider conservative base, he cannot survive in the long term. Let’s assume wiser counsel prevails and Turnbull does the near-unthinkable and resigns or is pushed. To whom do the Liberals then turn?
The obvious choice is Tony Abbott but, despite my preference for this option, it must be admitted that it has its drawbacks. As prime minister, Abbott did not cover himself in glory and doubtless will remain deeply unpopular with many voters. Whatever happens, Abbott should be brought back into Cabinet. My preference would be to see him in Defence.
But who is the alternative?
Scott Morrison, a solid performer as Immigration Minister and not so long ago touted as a future leader, has tarnished his credentials as Turnbull’s Treasurer. But perhaps he could be rehabilitated. It’s hard to know how much of his underwhelming performance as Treasurer was all his own work and how much can be laid at Turnbull’s door. He might do for the general public, but I doubt he could swing the party room. Much the same goes for Julie Bishop.
Let me make a bold suggestion. In the event that the Coalition gets back and is able to govern in its own right, it will have to deal with a very fractious Senate. Abbott’s inability to get Senate crossbenchers on-side regarding no-brainers such as the ABCC and sensible reforms to university funding, was one of his key failings. The ability to deal with the Senate will be one of the major considerations in selecting a new Coalition PM. It seems Mathias Cormann was apparently well regarded by the Senate cross-benchers and he has the inestimable advantage of not having any prime ministerial blood on his hands. He has also performed well in his media engagements and appears to have no background skeletons, other than a propensity to enjoy a good cigar, which would no doubt be resurrected in a heartbeat by our friends at Fairfax and the ABC.
If the party room can’t bring itself to re-instate Abbott as PM, Cormann, as unlikely a choice as he may seem, might just be the one who can bring all sides together.
If it comes to a hung parliament, the Coalition should run a mile and let Labor seize the day, even at the risk of facilitating a re-run of the asylum-seeker fiasco. Surely the insanity of going into minority government, relying on the whims of the latest crop of crossbench ferals, would be a bridge too far, even for a party so resolutely stupid as to have backed Turnbull.
If it comes to choosing an Opposition Leader, Abbott is the clear choice, providing he is willing to accept the job. And why wouldn’t he, despite Peta Credlin dismissing the idea? Presumably, he decided to remain in Parliament in order to serve. I doubt his long-term vision sees him remaining on the backbench.
Whoever the Liberals choose, the more important task is to stake out a policy position that balances the concerns of traditional Liberal voters, both conservative and small ‘L’, while differentiating themselves from the Labor/Green touchy-feelies.
One good way to start would be to stop being half-pregnant about global warming. There must be a significant number of Liberal and National members who recognize CAGW for the costly scam that it is. Let me borrow from St Gough’s immortal line: It’s time they stood up and spoke out. It’s time Tony Abbott once more said ‘climate change is crap’. It’s time they used the mass of evidence readily available to call out the sinecured alarmists and pseudo-scientific charlatans, the renewable industry’s rent-seekers and the mindless ideologues and parrots infesting the mainstream media.
The Coalition has stood firm and prevailed against all the screams and invective from the Left on asylum seekers. It could, and should, do the same on global warming.
More than that, if the Coalition cannot parlay into a convincing argument for reform of Section 18C the Human Right’s Commission’s disgraceful treatment of QUT students for some innocuous Facebook posts after being barred on the basis of their skin colour from an Indigenous computer lab, they’re not really trying.
Cutting out the cancer of the Safe Schools Coalition and its twin, Building Respectful Relationships, rather than just tinkering around the edges of these excrescences, might also help. Differentiating themselves from Labor by proposing a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, rather than a parliamentary vote, just doesn’t cut it.
It might not yet be a ‘full catastrophe’ for the Coalition government but it certainly is for the country — especially if Turnbull is allowed to linger at the top.