We’ve yet to hear why Julie Bishop is uniquely culpable for the role she may have played in the recent Liberal leadership spill—why, as Eric Abetz claims, that, “One would imagine if there were such a meeting there might have been an obligation as a loyal deputy to report that to the leader of the time.” Sure, there are those who, against the tide of constitutional law, oppose the concept of a midterm spill altogether, but why is it uniquely scandalous that the Deputy Leader was privy to the movement before it occurred? Why should Deputy Leader be such a weak and indecisive position? Since when, as Bishop’s critics imply, is she a mere flunky of the Leader, stripped of her right to act in the best interests of the party and the country?
The Deputy Leader ought to be just that: a leader. If Bishop had been elected Prime Ministerial Whip, well that would be another matter, but insofar as the Deputy Leader is a leader in her own right, Bishop has both the prerogative and the obligation to play a major part in steering the party. That’s just common sense. So the implication that Bishop had some unique duty to tattle on Turnbull’s supporters—indeed, that she felt unable to attend the meeting in person—means that she was aware she couldn’t exercise her position of leadership fully. If she felt that putting up Turnbull was the best thing for the country, she ought to have gone along to the meeting. Had she done so, she would have been well within the law. That she didn’t betrays a perverse and pervasive misunderstanding of leadership roles in the Liberal Party.
This misunderstanding is what Christian Kerr calls the Liberal Führerprinzip, and Tony Abbott the Captain’s Call. It’s the near-dictatorial authority exercised by the Party Leader, often compounded with a startling cult of personality—and it’s sunk more than one leadership in its time. On par with Abbott’s Knightmare scandal, of course, was Turnbull’s push for an ETS during his first stint as big cheese. On one hand, we can blame both men for their rubbish, single-minded decision-making; on the other, we should wonder how the culture of centralized authority wouldn’t lead to such self-destructive bungles.
Put it another way. Chris Kenny recently penned an impressive op-ed for The Australian  recounting the Spectator’s contributors’ lunch—a charming affair he likened to “an Irish wake, with alcohol lubricating black humour.” Kenny also points out, quite rightly, that the lunch was a hotbed of Turnbull-blasting Abbott loyalists. He says of our Dear Leader, “[Rowan] Dean was obviously smarting, if not seething, about the Turnbull transfiguration and agitated by the way other media, including this newspaper, seemed to have taken it in their stride.” As for the rest of us: “Several speakers mocked Malcolm Turnbull as they mourned Abbott… Prominent at the gathering were leading News Corp Australia commentators Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, as well as Sky News host Paul Murray—friends all—who have been frontline Turnbull sceptics.”
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But Kenny reckons “it is time to call last drinks on the wake—what’s done is done—and the future of the Abbott project is now in Turnbull’s hands.” Having attended the lunch, and having taken what I think was the only swipe at Abbott (there are no sacred cows at the Speccie)—I’m not sure we were exactly representative of the tone of Abbott loyalists. By and large we’re conservative journalists, not honest hacks, and most of the contributors simply think Abbott is better for Australian conservatism.
Having not a few friends in the Liberal Party, I can tell you the bulk of real Abbott loyalists weren’t in good (if black) humor over the spill. They were hysterical. Many of the junior ones, who looked up to Abbott from their sunny sandboxes as a sort of budgie-smuggling Ronald Reagan, wept bitter tears when the result of the vote was announced in Turnbull’s favor. I can quote a friend Catherine Priestley, who wrote in the Spectator of a “heartbroken party base” trying to pull itself together and “never forget that politics will cost us a lot.” Why on earth would anyone feel that sort of attachment to Tony Abbott? Yes, he led the party out of opposition. Yes, he was a leading light of Australian conservatism. But he’s still a politician. That’s not to say I don’t like him. I do. But the black armbands, the weeping and gnashing of teeth… for a politician? It strikes one as unhealthy.
Yet that’s the leadership cult the Liberals have meticulously cultivated, and it’s precisely why Julie Bishop was expected to act as the strong arm of the Lodge. In a more sober political climate, I’d like to think we’d all agree that every Member of Parliament has the obligation to act in the best interests of the Australian people, not the best interests of the current Leader’s political career. We may disagree on what exactly the best interests are, but surely that ought to be the universal M.O.
So we should hope that Turnbull makes good on his promise to install “a thoroughly consultative, a traditional, thoroughly traditional cabinet government,” because the Führerprinzip really ought’ve been tossed in history’s rubbish bin long ago. Whatever Turnbull’s motivations—and maybe he just doesn’t have the personality for a personality cult—it’s the best thing for the Liberal Party, and so the best thing for roughly half of this country’s governments. It will put an end to the authoritarian top-down decision making that keeps devastating leaders. Just as importantly, when the odd, necessary reshuffle does occur, it will prevent pockets of guerilla revanchists from sabotaging their own party. And it will save ordinary Liberals a lot of grief. So if some swaggering Napoleon comes along and earns the suicidal devotion of Liberals across the country, let’s eat our hearts out. But it’s a good rule of thumb to really make them earn it.