As all who have had their computers invaded and seized by an invasive presence comprehend all too well, an unwanted program that pretends to be useful, inserts itself into your system, takes over and eventually destroys its host is known to geeks as Malware. In the case of the Liberal Party, that word really needs to be dignified with a capital letter.
In 2004, something inside John Howard’s computer must have registered an erroneous click, as he downloaded Malcolm Turnbull into the conservative party’s operating system. By 2008, the virus had taken over and, soon after, the Coalition’s electoral prospects began to self-destruct. This all happened despite then-PM, Kevin ’07, being the king of political incompetence, banging on about “programmatic specificity” to much public amusement, and also posturing about “the great moral issue of our time”, this last being global temperatures which had barely budged when he uttered his enviro-pieties and have not since moved by any margin capable of measurement by honest science.
In December, 2009, a Liberal Party system scan must have worked, as the rogue program was isolated, its system-control thwarted and the Liberals went back to being a conservative party — a party in which loyalty and trust counted for something.
But getting rid of an unwanted program is never easy. Deep within the hard disk, the trojan horse program continued quietly to hum and to run, rewriting previously sound files while leaking un-sound bytes left, right and centre, but mostly to the left. When Tony Abbott became PM in 2013, he must surely have reviewed the unwanted program’s woeful history, yet somehow decided that it would be more trouble than it was worth to expunge such reliably unreliable software. So he left the virus in place. Bad mistake.
As most undoubtedly know, in September, 2015, the rogue program once again took control of the Liberal Party. In a series of pop-ups celebrating the fulfillment of its destiny, it kept flashing messages and promises of better communication, stability and, and to Liberal Party members, assurances of electoral popularity. Four months later, with the program now overriding all others, it seems possible — indeed, likely — that the Liberals’ operating system is on track to self-destruct all over again. Why do I say this, given the polls’ testimony that the Coalition would most likely win were an election to be held tomorrow? Here’s why.
Unless Turnbull waits until later in the year to making the trip to Yarralumla, he can call only a half-Senate election. That would risk yet another Senate stalemate, which was part of Abbott’s undoing — further worsened, need it be said, by the Turnbull virus’ back-door channels to the ABC and other favoured recipients of its leaks and smears.
On the other hand, if Turnbull waits, Treasurer Morrison must deliver a budget in the interim. That document will not be pretty if it is written in the ink of fiscal responsibility. If it isn’t, if it showers largesse and electoral bribes on the populace, then existing problems will only grow worse. Even if no major cutbacks are made in expenditure, continuing falls in government revenue will see thoughts of Paul Keating’s Banana Republic given a fresh outing.
Further, if Turnbull waits, Bill Shorten may well be replaced by someone less prone to looking uncomfortably anxious while whining and hectoring. Pie shop owners will heave sighs of relief, but Liberals will feel no such lightening of the spirit. Whoever the next Labor leader may be — “paging Ms Plibersek, history calling for Ms Plibersek” — she is likely to enjoy a heady political honeymoon. Recall the general uselessness of Julia Gillard and then contrast that with the media accolades prompted solely by her gender. Ms Plibersek may not have much to offer in terms of ideas, competence or comportment, but she is is also female and of the left and can thus expect to be held up as an inspiration to all. Alternately, Anthony Albanese might replace Shorten. While he lacks the media-friendly advantage of XX chromosomes, he is also of the left and can likewise anticipate an extended and sympathetic honeymoon.
Turnbull’s lease on what he has long deemed his birthright, The Lodge, faces another threat, this one in the Liberals’ very own disk drive. Who knows whether disaffected Big-C Conservatives will act up? Are they willing to scuttle their own government in the cause of principle — to get back at Turnbull and his co-conspirators, in other words, for scuttling principle in the name of retaining government? The whispers are there already, the discord and muttering just below fully audible.
Be certain of one thing: the Opposition will exploit every crack or hint of division within the ranks of those Turnbull professes to lead. As the election approaches, it will not matter (it never has), how Labor gets over the line just as long as it actually gets there. Expect electoral bribery on a massive scale.
In the meantime, if the Chinese and European economies falter further, and if the US remains divided in the lead up to its Presidential election, all the indicators could be that Australia is in for a batten-down-the-hatches period. Optimists’ fond hopes notwithstanding, the mining boom and its bounty will remain for the foreseeable future but faint echoes of a receding past.
A what-the-hell conservative may also decide that seeing Labor saddled with the economic mess — rather than, as usually happens, their own side blamed for the very difficult decisions that governments are required to make during hard times. Such is the level of frustration with the Turnbull virus’ hijacking of the hard drive that it is not uncommon in certain circles to hear the thought given voice that Liberals might benefit from a period in the wilderness, a gap year or three to examine consciences, dust off principles, re-enshrine values that were once at the core of the party’s heart and soul. Oh, and to finally clean out the defective hard drive.
None of this may happen. The Australian media may continue to believe that Turnbull can walk on water. The Liberal backbench may continue to veer left, finding an adherence to all the trendiest policies both attractive and, more to the point, expedient. Labor and Greens voters might even vote Liberal, though this seems the most improbable prospect of them all. The Australian voter, in his and her wisdom, may reward Malcolm with majorities in both Houses. But who really knows what might happen, which of Fate’s hinges may creak and open vistas of hitherto unforeseen circumstances, up to and including a conflict with China.
Should the Turnbull virus remain in charge of the Liberal Party’s operating system, it might be that I will have to launch the Coral Society and list myself as its charter member. No, that’s not a misprint. I’ll be naming it in honour of Coral Magnolia Lansbury, Malcolm’s mum. When she had had enough of her country and, presumably, her son, she up and left for New Zealand.