If the persistent abuse meted out to Turnbull by The Australian’s loyal commenters, if not the majority of its opinion columnists, and sundry right-of-centre Facebook groups and their posters is anything to go by, the decision by the Liberal party room will not be received well. For a great number of conservatives, deprived by Turnbull since 2015 of both their preferred Prime Minister and of their core policy priorities, the result will reinforce a larger question than who should lead the Liberals.
That question is, of course, what is the Liberal Party for?
In the old days, that question was traditionally answered, again with no great enthusiasm, “to fix up Labor’s messes”. Hence the rise of Malcolm Fraser, who was, with Tony Abbott, possibly Australia’s greatest Opposition leader. The pre-ideological Liberal Party was generally voted in by the broad electorate to restore sanity, to re-balance the books, to cut spending and government debt, to get rid of the more hare brained of Labor’s experiments, to grow the economic pie. There was, of course, a core of tradition within the party — a leaning towards pragmatic solutions to problems, a preference for tried and trusted policies over the big vision, a belief in sound money and strong defence.
This was mixed with a Tory “right to rule” village squire mentality, a sense that we are the natural party of government. The old Country Party lent a hand, supporting conservative approaches while endlessly pitching for financial support for the bush.
The 1980s changed this comfortable settlement within the conservative parties. For the emergent “dries”, the old party had become too cosy with big business and the ever-growing state. These ginger-group men found an ally in John Howard, who parried for some years with the original soufflé, Andrew Peacock, a strange political creature who was part wet, part dilettante, part narcissist. Howard “stood” for things, and also happened to be mightily connected with voters and the sensible centre, while still retaining a core set of very visible principles. The wets, as such, were merely not the dries, without the clear philosophical mindset and shopping list of policy preferences that their successors (Turnbull’s lot) would fashion in a new century.
Mind you, it took the dumb old Liberal Party nearly a decade to convince itself of the bleeding obvious: that Howard was their future. Howard’s great craft was to build and nurture a “broad church”, finding homes (and jobs) for those who derive their liberalism from JS Mill as well as for the more Burkean of the troops. He did this hile all the while remaining grounded, occasionally bordering on populism but never embracing it.
Fast-forward a political generation. In our time we have witnessed the coming of globalisation and its attendant ideology of globalism, the fall of the communist bloc, the emergence of the green ideology of sustainability, the across-the-political-spectrum support for multiculturalism, the rise of extreme social liberalism and the absolute priority of the individual over not just the State but also over the community and its Burkean “platoons”. (Who would even have thought, as recently as the early 2000s, that there would even be a thing called same-sex “marriage”, let alone that many in the Coalition would actually not just favour it but shout its benefits from the rooftops?)
Many in the Liberal Party, though by no means all, have either meekly accepted this package, or have positively embraced it. This is Mill on steroids, and a period in which an accommodation between tradition and radical individualism is way more difficult.
Enter, stage, left, one Malcolm Turnbull.
We know from Richo that he wanted to be a Labor politician before he settled for being a Liberal one. We can agree with Terry McCrann that he is the worst retail politician to lead the country in decades. We fully comprehend that his policy preferences and philosophical leanings are towards the zeitgeist, and are therefore bound to annoy the daylights out of much of the Liberal base, who detest much of the zeitgeist. We know that he is, like Peacock, a narcissist. We know that many in the Liberal Party remain faithful to his leadership but not remotely thrilled to be continuing to support him; they simply fear looking stupid for changing leaders again. We suspect, above all, that he is (with apologies to the creators of Yes Minister) not a high flyer but a low flyer supported by occasional gusts of wind. He is a dill, supported by Lucy and protected by those for whom the smell of ministerial leather has proven an overwhelming force.
Many of us might think that Turnbull stands for nothing but his own self-aggrandisement. That would be a mistake.
He stands, apparently, and very worryingly, alongside a goodly number of his party colleagues, in supporting a belief system that is viscerally loathed by many across the Liberal Party membership and out in voterland. See, Turnbull does not believe in broad churches when it comes to political parties. He does have an agenda. The agenda, in summary, is to retain the things that his Party’s base finds repugnant – like the ABC; debt; multiculturalism; Labor policies on education and social welfare; and the like – and to advance things that the Party’s base decidedly do not want – like the global warming/renewables scam; world government, or at least global oversight of Australia’s political business; more migration from groups that the “deplorables” fear; probably, at least when it is safe, the republic; and so on.
Turnbull’s international friends are those leaders most despised by your average right-of-centre voter – Merkel, Trudeau, Macron, May, John Key, Obama. His chosen Praetorian guard of miserable C-teamers – Bishop, Birmingham, Frydenberg, Pyne, in particular – are not on the Christmas card lists of anyone I know. They are enablers of bumbling, Three Stooges level incompetence and, at the same time, woke, inner-city leftism.
One question about Turnbull is – dangerous or merely hopeless? The same question came up again and again during the Obama presidency. How can one be so inept and, at the same time, so effective in changing our society and our country? The answer is, one can, indeed, be both Chauncey Gardner and Saul Alinsky simultaneously. A bungler with an agenda.
The question for the Liberal Party and for their Coalition partners, is not just whether Turnbull will last days, weeks or months. The consensus on that is that his future is not rosy. Nor is it, ‘What must we do we win the next election?’ It isn’t even, ‘How do we win back our friends?’. There are probably more than a few who (like me) will never vote Liberal again after the putsch of September 2015.
No, the real question is, what are we here for? If the Liberal Party ever re-connects with its broad church roots, a suitable blend of Burke and Mill, finds men and women of substance and spine that will resist the leftist mindset and push back against the zeitgeist, and serves up to the people pragmatic policies that relate to their real concerns, it might, just might, begin to reclaim at least some of its lost ground and credibility.
Today’s events in Canberra might even come to be considered in future years as the time that things began at last to come into some semblance of focus for the Liberal class of 2016. Not just the beginning of the end for Malcolm Turnbull, who has surely achieved now both of his political objectives – to all but destroy the once great Liberal Party and to implement Labor policy. But, far more importantly, the end of the beginning of the Liberal Party’s nascent efforts at seeking redemption from “we the people”.