Oh, 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.