Well Malcolm Turnbull is gone, the blow to that monumental ego perhaps somewhat mitigated by the martyr’s canonisation being bestowed beneath the bylines of left-wing pundits who would never vote for him in a month of Sundays. He once famously vowed he wouldn’t “lead a party that’s not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am”. By ‘effective’ he meant, as Humpty Dumpty told Alice, whatever he wanted the word to mean. To Australians dreading their next power bills, the word translates as ‘cold homes and economy-destroying imposts’. It took a while but the party eventually and narrowly took him at his word and forced him to make good on that threat/promise. Full disclosure: I wanted Dutton to be the outcome of this process, for all the reasons outlined at Quadrant Online late last week. But it was not to be. So let me indulge in what is, admittedly, the lament of someone who has come reluctantly to accept that half a loaf is indeed better than none.
The myth now being sown and copiously fertilised by the effusions of Turnbull’s ABC and Fairfax admirers is that he was a colossus torn down by a party that never wanted him in their midst. The more ardent keyboard-ticklers seem almost to be suggesting that the Liberal Party, unworthy of such a leader, had failed him The irony, revealed most tellingly by Graeme Richardson, is that he had to direct his upward gaze via the party of Menzies because Labor wouldn’t have a bar of him. Labor has inflicted gross damage on Australia at various times, but such an appraisal indicates they are not entirely lacking in wits. As for the commentariat’s current line, that is hardly a surprise. It was their paeans that helped to persuade the Liberal party room in 2015 that this leather-jacketed wonder of a man was their natural-born leader. That and their campaign of endless abuse of Tony Abbott, of course.
Let me review events through the prism of Niki Savva’s perceptions. A cultish representative of the pro-Turnbull media claque, in The Weekend Australian she notes:
Malcolm Turnbull’s coup against Tony Abbott in 2015 was an elaborate, surgical strike. It took months to plan and was executed in a matter of hours to remove a prime minister who by his own hand and the actions of his chief of staff had become electoral poison.
Her thesis seems be that because Turnbull’s coup was well planned and executed it was excusable, at least in hindsight. But are Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin really ‘electoral poison’? There’s no denying the pair stoked animosities within the party room. Why else, for example, might Bronwyn Bishop have backed Turnbull’s putsch when Point Piper’s dauphin had explicitly criticised and humilated her during the chartered-helicopter fiasco? Abbott, if you recall, stood by Bishop, which made her a further cudgel with which to strike at his then-leader. But how does ruffling the egoes of Coalition colleagues make you ‘electoral poison’ to the general voting population? Abbott, never popular in terms of personal approval, had pulled off a near miracle in 2010 before romping to a handy majority three years later. Ah, that’s right, it was those 30 negative Newspolls which doomed Abbott and gave Turnbull his licence to nobble. Somehow, though, when his own tally reached 38 negative polls, by Savva’s estimate he yet remained the best man to lead both party and nation.
According to Savva, groping for distinctions, this latest coup is inexcusable because it was messy. She relates ‘threats from the Dutton camp against MPs’, also charging that ‘senators were told they would lose their pre-selections and others were threatened with the revelation of damaging personal information’. What a busy, devious and blackmailing boy Dutton must have made of himself in the space of only 48 hours! Do these tactics seem like something a sane would-be leader with hopes of political longevity might employ? Or do they better match an incumbent prepared shutter parliament in order to avoid Question Time and then shred convention by demanding 43 signatures on a letter intended to initiate a secret ballot? If that isn’t blackmail, what is?
Turnbull’s sly moves to dodge the exterminator made the mess Savva bemoans even messier. Stephen Conroy nailed it when, referring to that first spill the too-smart-by-half incumbent sprang on the party room, the ex-Labor minister quipped how “Turnbull put a gun to his head and blew his brains out”. They’ll be wiping the blood and tissue off the Liberal party room for quite some time to come – and those efforts aren’t likely to be aided by the re-shuffled cabinet Morrison announced late on Sunday afternoon. Abbott remains in the leprosarium, which won’t impress his ‘delcon’ admirers, while Turnbull era Black Handers are mostly retained and rewarded. Pollster Mark Textor confidently predicted that the traditional base didn’t matter because, dislike Turnbull as they might, there was nowhere else for them to go. The new cabinet and prime minister may well draw back some of that lost support — those whose loathing of Turnbull was visceral and primary — but it won’t dissuade others contemplating moving their votes to alternative parties.
It also should be remembered that Dutton did not bring on this crisis. A strong Abbott supporter, he loyally served his most recent leader for almost three years, even he as he watched the negative Newspolls heading toward 40. By all accounts he had been urged by supporters to move against Turnbull since the Longman byelection. Even after the NEG debacle, he is said to have been torn about challenging (I admit I’m not sure how much of this hesitation was occasioned by principle and how much by timing). In the end, in one of his last follies, Turnbull brought it on by trying to flush Dutton’s supporters out with the pre-emptive strike of that first spill. One gathers he grossly underestimated his internal opposition, which emboldened demands for the second spill that finally and mercifully brought him undone for good.
It was the unwillingness of the party to follow Turnbull into oblivion on the basis of that ‘effective action on climate change’ which precipitated the crisis at this time. In putting up the NEG, then recasting it and finally repudiating it, Turnbull tested the willingness of the party to play Thelma to his Louise as he raced toward climate policy’s cliff.
It was the challenge of the party’s climate realists that prompted Turnbull to throw down gauntlet. He believed he would win convincingly, threw dice and lost. Out of all this mess, Dutton, at least, has nothing to be ashamed of.
And Morrison? He would not have been my choice, just as he was rejected by almost half his colleagues at the second spill, but it has to be admitted that he is immeasurably better than the man he replaced. If he is serious about bringing his party together the first thing he must do is repudiate the Paris accords. The composition of his new cabinet, however, suggests this must remain a muted hope, at least for now.
If the Liberal Party is to survive it must demonstrate that it is up for a fight against Labor. In other words, it has to stand for something practical and worthwhile and, in doing so, give voters a clear choice. Paris, the way it inflates power bills and the catastropharian nonsense that goes with it, this is the fundamental issue. If Scott Morrison PM can’t see that carbonmania is hurting Australia and wrecking the party he now leads, voter desertions and electoral carnage are guaranteed.