The slow toppling of Turnbull

Monday, 12 January 2009 

We now have a couple of straws in the wind that suggest the Liberals have embarked on the slow and tortuous task of undermining and destroying Turnbull’s leadership.

The latest is a seemingly curious report in The Australian that Howard is encouraging Barnaby Joyce to move down to the House of Reps and eventually try for the Nationals leadership. Mumble is right that this doesn’t make much sense. Joyce has been playing up the independent line for the Nationals fairly well, but bringing that into the heart of the federal coalition is a different matter.

The Nationals’ problem in the coalition is that they are finding it hard to assert their interests. Going independent may seem to alleviate it, but eventually highlights even more starkly that the party’s rationale has pretty well gone. This was the dilemma behind Truss’s flip-flop over Grylls’s toying with not supporting the WA Liberals. It would seem the division of labour with Joyce mouthing off in the Senate while Truss remains the faithful bloodhound at the heart of the coalition seems about right for now.

Yet proposing Joyce be moved to re-establish the coalition’s mythical connection with the ‘Howard battlers’ has the clear implication that it doesn’t have it now – and that a personnel change is necessary for it to do so. There is a subtle dig at the Turnbull leadership in this which is being expressed in the Liberals’ usual Masonic code. The giveaway is Howard’s name being associated with the Joyce story. It would be a fair bet to say that Howard is less worried about the Nationals’ leadership that the Liberals’, which the old guard lost control of when Turnbull stepped in.

It is similar to recent criticisms of Bishop’s performance as Treasury spokesman, something that would not be a problem if the current leadership were winning the economic argument. Coming on top of last month’s Senate revolt and Minchin’s sly role in it, it would suggest the old guard is not giving Turnbull much chance of settling in.

It is generally accepted that the Liberals are less comfortable in opposition than Labor (although four leadership changes in the little over five years up to Rudd’s ascendancy doesn’t look that comfortable). But there is a difference to the Liberals start in opposition to that of Labor’s after 1996.

A change of government means a change in the political environment and inevitably parties have to take time to adjust to it – if they can. The end of the major parties’ historical roles have forced a profound adjustment over the last two decades. For Labor this really began in earnest near the end of the Hawke government (in fact it was the cause of his fall). By the time Labor lost government in 1996 it had already spent several years grappling with the problem and had seen Keating’s attempt to create a new Labor project tried and fail. When Labor entered opposition, it still had no solution, but neither was there much sense that it was possible to go back to the past. There was only one direction, and each attempt, Crean, Latham and Rudd, represented a more thorough break with the past and with increasing success.

It is different for the Liberals. Although they were struggling with the vacuum in Howard’s first term, it was suspended by the War on Terror and only really returned, with a vengeance, in the final months of the Howard government, leading to the implosion of the leadership and the twelfth hour u-turns on climate change, the preamble and IR. As was clear from The Howard Years, that grappling with the hole at the heart of the Liberals’ project has been air-brushed out of the minds of the party. Howard is just remembered as the conviction politician whose reforming zeal was too much for this simple people, dooming him to enlightening others on the world’s speaking circuit and receiving their petty awards.

The Liberals’ ability to sustain this delusion that nothing has really changed, means Turnbull will struggle to get any party support for reform. This will make it hard for Turnbull to take advantage of any problems the government suffers from the downturn and translate his personal standing into an improved polling for the party, leaving his position in the party weak. This is likely in turn to increase pressure for him to accommodate to the old guard’s redundant agenda, which will probably not do his personal standing much good either. When he doesn’t have even that, he will probably be off.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 12 January 2009.

Filed under Political figures

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5 responses to “The slow toppling of Turnbull”

  1. Ric on 12th January 2009 12:02 pm

    Why am I not surprised that Howard is interfering in politics still?

    PJK and RJLH at least had other things to keep them busy before they both smelled Howard was so off, that they could reenter the fray. Even Malcolm left it a good 10-15 years before became a daily feature.

    Anyway, he is carrying the totem for the old guard libs. Off to get his worthless reward from GWB, himself discredited. But it keeps the old guard feeling good.

  2. fred on 12th January 2009 12:48 pm

    The new presidnt of the SA Nationals was critical of Coalition policies and performances when he was a candidate in a rural electorate at the last federal election.
    Now, in the imminent by-election for the SA seat of Frome, the Nationals have NOT given their second preference to the Liberal candidate but instead to an Independent.
    Could be significant.

  3. Alan on 13th January 2009 2:31 pm

    The Howard move was typical of his desire to ensure the Libs keep the faith with his legaqcy. Which is what by the way?
    It has been clear for a year that there are enough people within the Libs to prevent Tunrbull presenting the policies he knows he needs to get back into Government. Old work choice warriors climate change denialists, they are all still there.
    Turnbull should be able to run the party and get a bit of the Lib deadwood pensioned off and get a few hand picked people elected.
    But he is a prisoner of the far right and will remain so. Howard played these splitting games for ten years in opposition. If he can’t get what he wants he ensures no-one else can either. All it got the Libs was 13 years out of office. Time to tell the old has been to go fishing and to stop taking his calls.

  4. DM on 14th January 2009 1:35 am

    Typical Howard: ever the political maestro! As for Turnbull, he’s either gonna have to convert or go. Herein is also exposed the fallacy that Howard is no conviction politician but an empty-headed pragmatist. John Howard is nothing if not a free-market libertarian and social conservative, this strand of right-of-centre politics is otherwise known as Neoliberalism or Neoconservatism. The reason why Turnbull is lately bending over backwards to appear more socially conservative than he actually is is because Howard’s convictions of free market economics and social uniformity still hold sway in the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party, once a broad church, is today well and truly the narrow house of Neoconservatism.

  5. The Liberals start to normalise :The Piping Shrike on 17th February 2011 7:05 am

    […] that this is not the first time there has been criticisms of Julie Bishop’s performance. Early in Turnbull’s tenure, she was the targets of complaints as well. Yet when the deputy leadership became open at the time […]

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