Other than his remaining opinion-page courtiers, Malcolm Turnbull has few champions left to argue for the agile and innovative prime minister who is neither and a lot worse besides. Tot up the negatives for Bishop, Dutton and the other possibilities and only one serious prospect remains
Sang Fred Astaire in years gone by, ‘Things have come to a pretty pass, our romance is growing flat’. Malcolm Turnbull, in a rare self-aware moment, might recognise that sentiment as reflecting his relationship with the people and party he purports to ‘lead’. Things have come to a pretty pass when the only reason to vote Coalition would be to prevent Bill Shorten taking up residence in The Lodge. That is the pitiful rationale evinced regularly by government members, particularly when attempting to shut down and sideline Tony Abbott.
The other body of support for not defenestrating Turnbull comes from the commentariat, especially an Abbott-phobic trio of News Corp pundits, — Peter van Onselen, Niki Savva and Paul Kelly — who take the view that dumping one more leader would be yet another game of musical chairs guaranteed to see electoral defeat. Here’s Kelly in The Australian:
The idea another leadership bloodbath and the replacement of Malcolm Turnbull will see the government recover and run full term belongs in dream world.
The problem is that ‘policy’ figures in such analyses only to the extent it influences ‘politics’. It’s all about winning the next election and principle be damned. But what if winning that next election isn’t the over-riding priority for conservatives? By this I mean genuine, committed conservatives. True, the very idea of Shorten assuming the prime ministership is a horrible prospect, but is a Labor government the worst fate that could befall Australia? I think not.
If you accept the Coalition’s goose is cooked, that Labor is inevitable, and Turnbull remains only because there is no credible replacement, the sooner we take our medicine the better. In the wilderness and compelled to examine where they went wrong, Liberals might re-discover that principles matter. More than that, such a review and re-armament could draw back to the fold former supporters who have turned their backs in disgust, the sort of voters Liberal pollster Mark Textor dismissed as not worth worrying about because, by his then-reckoning, they had nowhere else to go. As the weekend’s Queensland election demonstrates, that’s not the case or anything like it.
A narrow victory by a philosophically bankrupt Coalition would see the further delivering of Labor-lite policies. Labor would then, of course, up the ante by promising to spend even more. Matching labor in flinging cash at non-performing holy cows — just look how little good Gonski has done for Australia’s standing in education — would encourage and perpetuate the Liberals’ ongoing slide to the left, again stemming from the view that voters really like the free stuff Labor hands out and the Coalition had better follow suit. The only point of distinction would be that Liberals present themselves as wasting taxpayer money more responsibly.
To my mind there are three major issues facing Australia: (a) the urgent need to rein in spending and eliminate the deficit, (b) the urgent need to bring power generation and electricity prices back to the real world and (c) the urgent need to reverse the Left’s colonisation of our institutions. Appalling as those dismayed by social engineers on the bench, green spruikers dictating correct thoughts at the ABC and universities espousing everything that is left, inane and fashionable find the notion of Shorten PM, there is no chance the tide will be rolled back by the current government and its flailing leader. A Labor victory would mean that conservatives, in opposition, could concentrate on rebuilding around these imperatives.
The general feeling is that Turnbull has to go because he can’t win the next election. My reason for wanting Turnbull dumped is simply to make him, and others, understand that if you move against an elected PM you had better make damn sure you deliver and fast. And if he were to get the shove, who then? Prime Minister Bishop, anyone? No, didn’t think so. Peter Dutton? Perhaps, but if the weekend’s election results were to be repeated in his Brisbane electorate he might not be in the parliament at all.
It has been suggested the best hope for conservatives might lie with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives getting into a balance-of-power situation, possibly with the help of Tony Abbott and any disaffected members with the courage to remind themselves that once they stood for something and the Liberal Party is no longer it. There is merit in that scenario but if the Liberal Party wants to save itself, not just scrape back into power, Abbott is the only option at this stage.
There are arguments against the return of Abbott PM, some of them valid, but the most asinine, the one most widely espoused, is that Abbott didn’t do in government what he is proposing to do now: reform the Senate, kill the green energy monster etc. If his current policy prescriptions are correct, and I, for one, believe they are, then all that matters is that someone capable of implementing them be given the opportunity to do so. There is daylight between Abbott and the rest of the field in terms of profile, track record, commitment, determination and sheer parliamentary pugnacity. What Abbott did or didn’t do in the past is irrelevant. Do we think he is totally incapable of learning from his mistakes? Hardly likely; he has admitted them himself.
As noted, the commentariat is almost universally arrayed against Abbott. Van Onselen has been obsessed – more than any other commentator, I think – with the ‘thirty bad Newspolls’ factor. He alludes to it often. Back when that event was not quite so imminent, he saw it only as a potential stumbling block that Turnbull would have to somehow negotiate when, make that if, the dreaded moment actually arrived. His tune has changed. Here he is on September 25:
While it was Malcolm Turnbull who set up a terrible KPI for himself when taking over from Tony Abbott — declaring that 30 consecutive Newspoll’s justified a challenge — changing leaders now because that yardstick is fast approaching would be folly.
That’s because Turnbull is comfortably the preferred PM (42% to 31%), and as the incumbent he leads Bill Shorten on the net satisfaction rating (minus 17 to minus 20).
Now that Turnbull is on the ropes, his manifest deficiencies of nous and character clear for all the see, a new spin is required, and in Thursday’s Australian that is what van Onselen’s readers were given:
Yes, Abbott has support amongst reactionary commentators who talk to a narrow band of the Liberal “base” (otherwise known as a moribund clique) but that is all. He’d be savaged more widely were a return to the prime ministership to happen.
Even an Abbott comeback next year – when Turnbull may face more realistic leadership pressures from others – isn’t going to happen. What would the argument be: Turnbull has hit the 30 consecutive Newspoll benchmark he used to prise Abbott out of the prime ministership, so as a party we have to return to the man who hit the 30 mark first? It’s ridiculous beyond words.
‘Ridiculous beyond words’ — an appraisal that sounds like the fruit of some pretty rigorous reasoning. The only problem is that the scenario wouldn’t pan out the way PVO outlines. No, the common wisdom would be that Turnbull failed his own test and must now go. So who would best replace him? Abbott is certainly a contender. That he would be savaged (by the likes of van Onselen and Savva, not to mention the Fairfax posse and ABCers) would be business as usual for a man who was vilified for a quiet wink when a seventy-something phone-sex granny called him on an ABC talkback show and announced herself as such.
Who, other than Abbott, would be prepared, and best equipped, to resume the role of Opposition leader? For most former prime ministers once again leading the opposition would be a degrading and retrograde step – their hearts wouldn’t be in it.
My guess is that, even allowing for the inevitable media vendetta, Abbott would relish a second crack.