Friday, 9 April 2010
If Turnbull’s leadership was an ‘experiment’, what’s Abbott’s? On the surface it would seem that the Liberals’ choice of Turnbull was a natural course of events. Consistently polling as the Liberals’ most popular candidate, the question seemed more why they didn’t choose him sooner after the 2007 election loss.
The reason, of course, is that the Liberals weren’t just thinking about their viability with the electorate, but their own as a distinct political party. Turnbull’s problem, as far as the Liberals were concerned, is that he didn’t seem particularly interested in the question, but merely winning an election. It was Turnbull’s inability to give the Liberals a distinct reason for being that led to his best mate, Tony Abbott, backing out of the first leadership contest to block Turnbull and allow Nelson a clear run.
When balancing the demands of the old guard, and the need to be electorally viable became too much for Nelson, Turnbull, probably thinking the problem was Nelson, rather than the party he was leading, thought he could do better. As it happened despite his personal popularity, Turnbull got caught in the same trap.
Much has been made of Turnbull’s mistake of relying on Godwin Grech to attack Rudd. But leaving aside why someone who had been such a reliable mole for Howard and Nelson, should suddenly turn rogue for Turnbull, the real question was why Turnbull felt the need to take the risk. But the dilemma of balancing the conflicting needs of the party meant that Turnbull’s popularity was already coming under polling pressure as the demands of placating his party turned him into ‘Doctor No’. Grech was meant to give Turnbull a way to break through the impasse from an old guard that was preventing him from reaching the Lodge.
In reality, Turnbull was never going to be sustainable as Liberal leader, whether Grech had happened or not. Within a few months of him taking the leadership it was clear that Turnbull’s inability to answer the question, or even care about, what the Liberal party stands for, meant that the party was starting to undermine him. Grech, and later the ETS, merely became the excuses for the old guard reasserting control over the leadership that they lost when Nelson’s leadership spill went wrong.
If electing the most popular candidate as a party leader seems natural enough, electing the party’s least popular leadership candidate as a leader shows more clearly what is really going on in the Liberal party. Abbott, of course, was not supposed to be there. Hockey, as the next most electorally viable candidate was meant to take over and Abbott had stepped aside for Hockey to be the latest stooge so the whole game could go on again. Unfortunately, Turnbull, in his last political act, polarised the debate, making Hockey’s position as a compromise candidate impossible and so allowing Turnbull to almost hang on in a leadership contest that was otherwise heading for a rout.
Turnbull’s support for the ETS was not a ‘principled’ stand, as everyone now claims. It was the normal popular move by someone who wants to win an election. That the Liberal party, Australia’s most successful political machine of the 20th century, should now turn to someone who is least likely to return it to office, shows that we are in new waters. This has been concealed by a media desperate to think the game is back on, ignoring the poor popularity of both Abbott and the issue on which he won the leadership on, as well as by a government that was starting to stumble even before Turnbull’s leadership imploded.
No doubt after the next election reveals the true state of affairs, the wrangling in the Liberal party will be on again. Maybe what we’ll see is the Liberals switching from following the US right’s angry revivalism to the UK’s mellower one. Turnbull, with his connections to Cameron’s ‘green’ conservatism, might have been able to play a part in helping the right wing of the political class reform itself and stagger on. Yet clearly after even a brief stint as a member of Australian political class, playing such a role didn’t appeal. For the last year, Turnbull’s obliviousness to the problems of the party he was leading, had raised the question whether he was really a politician at all. Given his lack of enthusiasm for taking on the exciting burden of helping to sustain the old two party system, the answer would seem to be no.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 9 April 2010.Filed under Political figures