The old leadership loses control

Tuesday, 16 September 2008 

Turnbull’s 45-41 win may be narrow but with figures like Minchin and Costello on the losing side, it represents a major shift for the Liberal party.

Since the election defeat the old leadership has been struggling to regain control of the party; Abbott’s tactical withdrawal in favour of Nelson as a compromise candidate, reapplying pressure on Nelson to harden his line over the winter and finally, a Costello ruse to come back to the leadership have all been tried to recover ground despite the damage such moves have probably done to the party’s electoral standing.

Nelson has been like a cheap hammer broken in the process of battering Turnbull down and the Costello play was pretty well at an end. Today’s spill was less about catching Turnbull early but Nelson having his last and best chance to use the Howard legacy to keep Turnbull at bay.

That last attempt has now failed and draws a period to a close. Commentators have seen this is as a loss of the right, but this is not that helpful if reports are correct that the ‘mad, young right’ backed Turnbull. It is more to see the losers as the old leadership that arose out of the wrestles in the Liberal party that began in the Hawke years. Behind the Howard-Peacock wrangle was how to respond to Labor doing what the Liberals were supposed to, knobbling and winding down the trade union movement. Howard represented that section of the party that thought the Liberals had no choice but to carry on doing the same. This was after all what the party was about. The irrelevance of Howard’s Workchoices exposed that such a strategy had reached its end.

Yet the Howard legacy has lingered into the post-election Liberal party because the question still remains of what will replace it. There is little sign so far that Turnbull has the answer. The media has warned us to expect fireworks but we haven’t seen many from Turnbull since the election. If anything he tends to be rather windy and waffle on. In fact so uninspiring has he been as shadow Treasurer that he has enabled Swan to look good, which is what few in the media would have predicted nine months ago.

Actually if there was anybody who had attempted something new to deal with the current period, it was Nelson. His adoption of the New Sensitivity (right to his teary farewell) gave the Rudd government its few uncomfortable moments. It may have become increasingly shrill, as the old leadership insisted he go in hard at the same time, but his attacks on petrol, carers bonuses and pensions, while of little long term effect, did at least have the government flailing around for a few days.

Turnbull has had no such moments. His response to all of these initiatives has rather been a dry fiscal rectitude to such tactics, but not married it with the government’s reasonably effective appearance of keeping in touch. His attempt today to ‘relate’ to the common man/woman at his press conference was cack-handed (good lord, rental accommodation!) and only exposed how easily he will be classed by the government as out of touch.

Turnbull could respond to such anti-political attacks from the government by posing against the political establishment himself. On paper, given his successful career outside parliament and his short time in it, he would seem well placed to do so. Rudd has done this to some degree and it was something that Hewson, another former banker, used very effectively against Hawke before Keating exploited Hewson’s failure to understand the economic reform days were over. Yet Turnbull has not shown much sign of doing this and if anything has been rather defensive on being out of political circles since entering parliament.

Indeed Turnbull’s experience has shown that while outside Parliament he has tended to identify with the cultural political elites that Howard and Rudd have had so much fun posing themselves against (it would be interesting to wonder if Turnbull would try again as leader something like the row he picked with Rudd earlier this year over the Henson paintings). Of course, Turnbull’s most notable political position before entering Parliament was on the Republic where his insistence, like Keating, on the President being chosen by Parliament enabled Howard to outmanoeuvre them. On the Republic, Rudd has given Turnbull that deadly bipartisan bear-hug he tries on all of his opponents, but Rudd wouldn’t even ask his own party to draw up a plan for getting a President as Head of State let alone leave it to parliament to choose it.

Today represents the failure of an answer to the critical question about what the Liberal party is for, not the success of a new answer to it. Indeed, when Turnbull does have something to say he tends to sound more like Keating than anyone, which is probably not a long term strategy for the Liberal party, so it suggests we might see more waffle rather than excitement from the new Liberal leader. It might be a bit presumptive at this early stage, but he looks like an easy mark for the government.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 16 September 2008.

Filed under Political figures

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