Writing with her usual anti-Abbott hysteria, The Australian‘s Nikki Savva gloats: “This week underlined again, that there is nothing more ex than an ex.” I call this hysteria because it appears to be a case of hysterical blindness. Or does Savva actually not know that in 1941 Robert Menzies, after two years as Prime Minister, was stabbed in the back by his own party (sound familiar?) which proceeded to self-destruct under a couple of inept and inadequate leaders. Menzies, meanwhile, rebuilt what was, at least until the treacherous Turnbull coup, a strong and viable political party and came back to be the most successful prime minister in Australia’s history.
Winston Churchill (another ex who came back, incidentally, and more than once) wrote that when King Charles I had been defeated by Cromwell and was confined a prisoner at Carisbrook Castle, awaiting a farcical “trial” and judicial murder on the executioner’s block, he was more truly king of England than when he had tried to invoke “The Personal Rule” and govern without Parliament.
It might be said that Tony Abbott, on the back-benches, is more truly leader of Australia’s conservatives than when, as Prime Minister, he was disillusioning and disappointing them by his failure to reform the Race Relations Act and his wetness over paid parental leave. Once again, he is seen as the standard-bearer of conservatism in Australia and by many as the only figure in Australian politics of Prime Minister material.
In the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Turnbull showed his determination to push the Australian polity further to the left, snubbing conservatives and rewarding his backers. Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, who are conservatives and front-bench material (as is Abbott himself) were among those who missed out. In degrading conservatives while promoting his own trendy-left cult of personality, Turnbull is persisting with a strategy which has already proved harmful and, quite likely, disastrous for the Liberal Party.
The thousands of words already written analysing the Liberal’s humiliating electoral performance have barely mentioned what seems to me to be the most obvious factor of all: at least half – probably more – of the Liberal Party is socially as well as politically conservative, and there is no reason why conservatives should have a bar of Malcolm Turnbull. He despises them and they despise and distrust him. He has nothing in common with the values of Menzies, who created the modern Liberal Party and whose values remain a point of reference for many Liberals. His proposed raid on superannuation was the last straw, showing further his contempt for a self-supporting middle-class (the “forgotten people” to whom Menzies appealed so successfully).
I have not seen in his speeches any commitment either to conservative principles or to counteracting the steadily-growing power and reach of the State. Indeed, it might be said that his commitment to a totalitarian-sounding “five year plan”, like much other long-term planning, sits very uneasily with principles of democracy. Even his cause of homosexual marriage is a statist one, seeking to have the State over-ride religious consciences. It panders to a very small but vocal and trendy minority and can be seen as another attack on core middle-class conservative values. Similarly, the euphemistically-named Safe Schools campaign is nothing less than a State-enforced attack on normality in children.
As far as one can detect any strongly-held system of political belief in him, it appears to be a value-free corporatism. There is loyalty neither to conservative political institutions nor to economic freedom, the twin legacies of the modern Liberal Party’s spiritual forefathers – those two good friends Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. Kevin Rudd misquoted the great economic and political liberal Friedrich von Hayek with tedious obsession as a sort of bete noir of socialism and alleged totem of the “heartless” right (thereby proving Rudd’s quite terrifying ignorance and/or mendacity). Yet there is no suggestion Turnbull has ever heard of him, let alone been influenced by him. Yet Howard and Menzies before him both emphasised that the Liberal Party is, or was, the standard-bearer of Australia’s Liberal and conservative traditions.
Turnbull’s joining the Liberal Party at all seems to have been motivated by blatantly cynical ambition, not to any commitment to Liberal, and certainly not to conservative, principles, and the electorate knows it. The fault is with the selection committee who endorsed him, and the Parliamentarians who backed his coup. Both evidently thought the largely conservative Australian electorate would be too stupid to notice his history.
True to what looks like an anti-British obsession, he calls the British settlement of Australia “an invasion”. Former Liberal MP Neil Brown has written: “This strikes at the foundation of the nation and is the basis of the whole left-wing attack on all of our institutions.” By contrast he has praised extravagantly Mao-Tse Tung for having made the Chinese “stand up” (apart, that is, from several tens of millions still lying down after Mao had them murdered). Veteran Liberal war-horse W.C. Wentworth pointed out in Parliament that Mao built a society and an ideology dedicated to the total destruction of freedom. Such sentiments should have ended Turnbull’s political career in a democracy, at least as much as if he had praised Hitler. As a political icon and perhaps role-model, who would you prefer: the multi-mass-murderer and tyrant Mao or the leader of the British “invasion,” Governor Arthur Philip? Take your pick.
The leadership of the Liberal Party has been hijacked by a man who despises its values. Many years ago, quizzed as to his ambition to be Prime Minister, Turnbull was asked which party he would belong to. He replied, “It doesn’t matter.” That seems to sum up his political principles.
His record of leftism, or at least of opposition to conservative principles, goes back about as far as can be traced. He wrote for the far-left, Liberal-hating Nation Review. In the hectic month following the dismissal of Gough Whitlam he wrote in support of Whitlam and predicted his triumphal return. A close friend was Lefty writer Bob Ellis. His close association with left Labor politicians included setting up a cleaning company with former premier Neville Wran, and then establishing a boutique merchant bank with Gough Whitlam’s son and also former Labor MP, Nicholas Whitlam, co-author of the notorious Nest of Traitors.
His role in the Spycatcher affair was also calculated to alienate conservatives. A lawyer does not, of course, have to share his client’s values, and a barrister is actually obliged to take any brief offered him if he can, regardless of his personal feelings. Nonetheless, many Liberals cherish patriotic feelings towards Britain, and Turnbull was opposing the British Government’s attempts, however inept and even pointless, to safeguard its National security apparatus – which might have affected Australia’s security as well. Quite likely there were many in the Liberal Party – the Party of Menzies — who did not like seeing the British Government cast as an adversary
His role in advising the Carmen Lawrence’s government in the days of the WA Inc. scandals, when he apparently advised her not to hold a Royal Commission for fear it could damage Labor, could also be seen simply as a lawyer doing his job, but again it would not have gone unnoticed by some Liberals in WA who were marching and demonstrating to demand such a Royal Commission (and whose findings, when one was eventually held, were damning to the previous Labor Government). For many of the Liberal students and the little old ladies who are such an important element of the lay party’s backbone it would have been the first protest march they had ever taken part in. Liberal state and federal politicians were also demanding such a Royal Commission after the scandals and misfeasance of the Burke years. Turnbull’s role here indentified him further with the left.
Then there were the perhaps more obvious things.
Many conservatives and patriots, such as, but certainly not limited to, the typical RSL member, would have been angry at his championship of an organization to change the Australian flag, under which many of their mates and relatives fought and died, whose chairmanship he only left for the biggest political blunder of all, and the one most guaranteed to alienate social and cultural conservatives: leading the Republic referendum.
The defeat of the referendum in every state and the Northern Territory not only showed his capacity for picking losers in politics, however astute a merchant banker he might be. His graceless and petulant claim that John Howard would be remembered only for breaking Australia’s heart was an insult to the majority of voters who had voted against the republic, and it showed a lack of the simple self-control in adversity that is vital in a political leader. The knifing of Abbott, who is still regarded by many conservatives with admiration, even if qualified, was the icing on the cake. The election showed that a million who had voted for Abbott would not vote for Turnbull.
Having gained the prime ministership, Turnbull did nothing to conciliate the conservatives in the Party and in the community at large who had supported Abbott. Turnbull had a golden opportunity to win back some conservative support by picking up on those failures of Abbott which had angered some conservatives, but did not take it. He has failed to take a strong position on any natural conservative topic – defence, the carbon tax, traditional marriage, the Race Relations Act etc. He failed to even try to heal some of the deep wounds he had inflicted on the Party by offering Abbott a responsible Ministry such as Defence (Defence is a core conservative cause, but I do not recall a single mention of it in the campaign, and hardly a one since).
Australians at the last election were given a choice between two political assassins, one of whom evidently believes in 19th Century socialism and one of whom believes in nothing discernable. Some choice!
And then there was Turnbll’s end-of-Ramadan banquet for the Shady sheik who wants women hung up by the breasts in Hell and not to look at men while on Earth, not to mention the Sheik’s at least equally unsavory associates. He promoted, and gave a sensitive junior ministry to the co-chairman of the Parliamentary Friends of Palestine, the PFP’s raison d’etre being opposition to Israel — a clever move to alienate the Jewish vote just when many Jews had been coming round to support the Liberal Party. He continued to intone the mantra “Islam is a religion of peace,” apparently unaware that for many this sentence is uttered only as a sour and sarcastic joke.
Senators were ordered not to support voluntary student unionism, a core issue for generations of Liberal University students and graduates, and for many of the party’s best and brightest. Add to that a downright incompetent campaign (Turnbull, or his office, sent me an incongruous e-mail praising his father’s example of – wait for it – “loyalty”!).
But whatever the campaigning strengths and weaknesses of the two parties, the bizarre fact was that the Liberal Party went into the fight in 2016 with a leader, and perhaps more than half the party, bound together only by mutual contempt. In the circumstances it was remarkable the Liberals did so well.
I began with Winston Churchill and will end with him, quoting from memory: “If a Prime Minister fails, he should be pole-axed.”