Sorry, Mr Howard, You’re Not Helping

howard turnbullOh, the irony!  John Howard, Australia’s greatest-ever prime minister according to many (including me), is making common cause with the Liberal Party’s wets in urging a doomed government to unite behind a damnable leader.  One of the conventions expected to be observed by ex-leaders is that their post-office interventions in party political matters should be safe, legal and rare. In other words, deft, impactful and pointed towards higher purposes than merely preserving the electoral welfare of the Liberal Party. Sadly, in enjoining the party to “unity” behind its current leader, Howard has transgressed all of the above.

The cry of the wets, even if they don’t realise as much,  is “Shorten! Shorten! Shorten!” You see, we already have a labor government, it just goes by a different name.  Moreover, it is not even a good labor government.  If we were to elect a genuine Labor government, it just might be that it is no more disastrous than the one we already have. Cast rudely into the wilderness, Turnbull would be gone in short order and with him, perhaps, many of the wets who ousted his predecessor. After that, perhaps, a  process of policy development underwritten by a philosophy and principles which the party of Menzies, and the country, so sorely need.

Ronald Reagan told the story of the little boy who wakes on Christmas morning and, much to his delight, finds his bedroom piled high with horse manure. “There must be a pony in here somewhere,” he exclaims, digging into the ordure in quest of his heart’s desire. Am I manifesting an unrealistic optimism in believing the purported conservative party might yet find principle in the night soil of Turnbull’s throne room? Perhaps, but what other hope is there?

But back to Howard, whose comments in effect make common cause with his ideological opponents and are, by my reckoning, extraordinarily disappointing. In particular, Howard’s claim that party members would be aghast at another change of leaders is risible.

In some ways, of course, his intervention is not surprising — JWH would say “keep Turnbull”, given he was the one who persuaded the man to retract his immediate resignation, persuaded him not to take his magnificence and go home in a huff, upon being defeated for the leadership by Tony Abbott. The other irony is that all this hoo-ha is occurring upon the creation of a Coalition ginger group, the Monash Forum, whose membership overlaps heavily with Turnbull’s opponents within the party.  It is an irony residing in the fact that it was in just such circumstances nearly forty years ago – a weak, wet leader faced with internal policy critics – that the previous Liberal Party ginger group, the legendary dries, emerged under the “leadership” of Andrew Peacock, aka Souffle One.

Not all of those proto-dries were pro-Howard and anti-Peacock.  Not at all.  One of their leaders, Peter Shack, was a Peacock numbers man. And the late Jim Carlton was no Howard man (though the overt cooling of his relationship with Howard did not come until later, it must be said). In any case, the dries were more interested in getting good ideas adopted as policy, not simply changing leaders.  So it is with the today’s anti-renewables dries.  The aim is to get the Liberal Party both re-energised in a policy sense and, more important, to implement policy that is good for Australia and would have a chance of encouraging party volunteers to come out and help on polling day. The Liberals’ current leader is constitutionally incapable of effecting any policy shift or inspiring such volunteerism in supporters prepared to set aside the lawn mower and devote a Saturday for handing out how-to-votes.

Malcolm the First’s one-time policy adviser, David Kemp, wrote a game-changing piece in the context of the mid 1970s Liberal Party’s then-shaky political position under Billy Snedden, “A Leader and a Philosophy”.  Kemp’s essay linked the two, of course, and although we subsequently found (again, ironically) that poor old Malcolm Fraser lacked both leadership and a philosophy, it was clear at the time of Kemp’s writing that the party required, above all, direction, purpose and meaning.

Turnbull’s thirtieth bad Newspoll reprises in front-page headlines the Snedden-Peacock problem. Turnbull is unable to give, well, anything much, but certainly not direction, party purpose or meaning.  None out of three! This is quite astonishing, probably unprecedented, when one considers all this is happening to a party in government.  The advantages of incumbency are not merely lost, they have been actively forsaken.

Disunity is not the number one problem.  As the train hurtles towards the cliff, the very policy deficits that so define this government are front and centre in every single, right-thinking analysis of the Liberal Party’s current and serious woes.  It is not simply a longing for, say, an Abbott recall that drives these analyses but a clear-eyed understanding that it is the ongoing paucity of philosophically grounded, Club Sensible thinking shaping policy and action that ultimately ails the Liberals. For longstanding party supporters, as well as conservatives generally, the current and deliberate embrace of myopia — the refusal to see the cliff’s edge approaching —  borders on the incomprehensible.

It is one thing for the wets who installed Turnbull and whose favoured obsessions he has either championed, enacted or both, to shout “unity”. For Howard to join the chorus is quite another. That Howard doesn’t recall – or chooses not to – his own experiences of the mid 1980s, when an earlier, policy-focused ginger group gave the ballast of purpose to his own policy-driven leadership ambitions, is quite amazing.  That he should serve the interests of Malcolm Turnbull over the longer term interests of the party and the dearly held longings of its base suggests JWH should consider the virtues of circumspection.

At a Quadrant dinner in honour of John Howard many moons ago, John Stone famously proceeded to tear the Howard government to shreds before getting to the positive bits, going on to argue that Howard was Australia’s greatest-ever prime minister.  Yes, even the greatest make mistakes.  Howard’s middle-namesake was, famously, capable of some beauts. In this instance, Howard’s plea for unity provides the wrong answer to the wrong question.

Backing the continued tenure of Turnbull and his elevated cronies was a tin-eared intervention that would mire the nation Howard so loves in an even longer period of policy and leadership dystrophy.

  • Jody

    You should be very careful what you wish for.

    • Keith Kennelly

      Yeah, don’t dare wish for anything Jody hates.

      Like real growth, not being reliant on too much immigration, cheaper electricity dependent on coal and anything conservative.

  • jugraquad

    JWH for a brief period had a majority (including independents) and could have enacted reforms which would have negated the standoff and obstructionist Senate. The outcome has been the inability to enact policies of a Conservative. Instead we have 12 senators from each state which makes the election outcomes more easy for minority groups be elected and to dictate to the government. Under the current system we can look forward to unstable right wing government for the next 20 years as no senate will endorse changes.
    Yes this is only one of many Johns blunders but perhaps the daddy of them all was his refusal to give up the PM job. Had he gracefully retired 12 months before the election he lost including his own seat this would be so much better today. Reply

  • Rob Brighton

    All manure and no pony. How apt.

  • Warty

    I couldn’t agree more with Mr Collits. Peta Credlin was utterly scathing with regards to Turnbull’s embarrassing self serving behaviour when Brendan Nelson was made leader by the party room, aggressively prodding him in the chest and demanding that he return to the party room and hand in his resignation so that he, Malcolm, could take up the mantel. Later he and his acolytes were determined to undermine Tony Abbott’s leadership even before his 25 seat win over Labor . . . and there’s more, much more.
    That John Howard should support such a man is unconscionable, but there was clear evidence of this when he put in an appearance in the lead up to the Bennelong bi-election (Alexander was and is a Turnbull sycophant).
    Then there is his silly statement about it not being the Liberal Party’s business nationalising coal fired power stations, when governments of both persuasions tax payer-funded the building of the bloody things before state governments of all persuasions privatised them along with the ‘poles and wires’. Companies like AGL are foisting and energy crisis upon us, while Liberal governments merrily fiddle away, but Howard believes it is unscrupulous to call AGL’s bluff by building several HELE power stations and so drive down the price.
    When Turnbull trashed our conservative values in that infamous London speech, Howard was having a mid afternoon nap, and nobody thought to give him a transcript. I mean, why else would he support a ‘progressive’?
    So bring on a Shorten government, and two terms of it, so that we can put a broom through the odiferous bedroom. The economy may take a decade to recover, but a far greater catastrophe, that of the terminal suffocation of conservatism in this country, may then be averted.

    • mburke@pcug.org.au

      Warty for PM!

      • Warty

        I thank you DT. I already wear a dual chamber pace maker, so I think that party room would definitely finish me off.

  • ChrisPer

    Mr Howard led one of the worst politically correct witch-hunts on behalf of the chattering class, passing legislation and demonising the innocent in the media and in ongoing punishment by regulatory excess.
    The media’s fawning congratulations over the Howard gun laws which smashed a million innocents’ public reputations, made it very hard for them to destroy the momentum of his Government for a long time.

  • Keith Kennelly

    Howard is a member of The Managerial Class, like Turnbull, but at least he hasn’t danced the Malcolm’s dances to the left, yet.

  • brian.doak@bigpond.com

    Paul Collits says hopefully ‘Turnbull [and many of the wets] would be gone in short order’! In NSW how could the wets in the Party be replaced by dries when the Party organisation is said to be controlled by the master wet and lobbyist Michael Photios? He and his proxies should be held responsible for, among many other wets, the political incumbency of lefty-lawyer Julien Leeser, member for Berowra, and for former Party apparatchik, the Member for North Sydney and same sex marriage advocate, Trent Zimmerman.

    Michael Photios is said to claim personal credit for aiding the installation of a NSW Premier, the out-of-touch Mike Baird, and an Australian Prime Minister, the dud Malcolm Turnbull.

    • Jody

      I expect several turns in Opposition might teach them far more than you could.

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