Turnbull dumps the political class

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

Tags: , ,


8 responses to “Turnbull dumps the political class”

  1. Graeme on 9th April 2010 11:40 pm

    Shrike, I love your work, but sometimes it is overworked.

    Abbott is Sen Goldwater? Let’s see. The Libs turned to Howard in 95. Not an electorally popular centrist: but the time was right. (Rudd’s time, of course, is obviously not up.)

    But the notion that politics has left ideology behind is overdone. On the contrary, Abbott will keep kicking goals. Reducing immigration, for example, is a hugely popular idea that marries xenophobia and Malthusian environmentalism (and shows that the business community really isn’t the Libs raison d’etre). But two things are agin him. One, the talent and resources aren’t with him to craft policy out of ideas. Two, he can kick goals (as Latham did) but Rudd’s siren isn’t up.

  2. john Willoughby on 10th April 2010 12:01 am

    he should have seen it was a stretch
    the lodge by virtue of the Gretch
    quasimodo’s plan looked like a beaut
    it was my kingdom for a ute
    when by the monk he was cuckolded
    Lucy made sure Malcolm folded
    another man who thought he towered
    has felt the cold dead hand of Howard
    and some may say what do you mean
    to them I simply say Janine

  3. The Piping Shrike on 10th April 2010 12:17 am

    Graeme, I don’t see Abbott as a repeat of Howard at all. Howard walked in unopposed and only after rescinding his Asian immigration comments and becoming a small target because it was electorally expedient (learnt after Hewson). The Libs were desperate but still wanted to win.

    Abbott was chosen over a more popular alternative, Hockey, and on the back of an unpopular stance (opposing ETS). When they had a reasonably popular candidate, Turnbull, they blocked him the first time and then began undermining him almost straight after he got in.

    Reducing immigration may be popular, but not enough to change votes (because people don’t really think the Libs would be able to do much different). Abbott’s making a deal of it is more for internal consumption in my view.

    I don’t think the Liberals are at all serious about winning this year. I can’t think when that has happened before.

  4. charles on 10th April 2010 6:35 am

    I think the time for your theses re the old guard has passed.

    The Liberal party isn’t serious about winning because the party is unravelling; taking it’s place is a unelectable rabble.

  5. Avalon Dave on 12th April 2010 10:13 am

    The old guard still exists. The problem they have is they still don’t understand why they were thrown out.

    Like Tony Abbott said after the election, “We were such a good government.”

    I’ll grant that they were an effective government. It’s just that many people didn’t like what they actually did.

    And John Howard was never popular. We would have thrown him out a few times except Labor was unelectable.

    The problem the Libs have are many. If they get routed this year, it’s the moderates that lose the seats, not the fools like Wilson Tuckey and Eric Abetz.

    Add to that their dwindling core demographic as the Blue Rinse set die out, and the balance of power is slowly but surely moving away from them forever.

  6. Paul on 12th April 2010 12:22 pm

    And its the old guard who are trying to come to terms with modern society.

    Phil Coorey’s article today (about the “Foundations of Western Civilisation Program”) is instructive: “we want the 1950’s back”


  7. The Piping Shrike on 12th April 2010 4:48 pm

    There was always a degree to which the ‘old guard’ idea was a bit stretched. The idea of putting electoral viability above ‘values’ was always going to be so hard to justify, it would be tough for senior Liberals to be identified one way or the other (such as they were for the Howard/Peacock camps, say). Even Howard, the mascot of the old guard, and big supporter of Abbott and what he is trying to do, still saw the need to lighten Workchoices, push an ETS and talk about prembles to try and hold on before 2007.

    But some sort of organisational expression to this dilemma still seemed a useful way to understand the leadership dynamics since 2007.

    Right now both sides in the coalition, and their press allies are holding their breath to see whether Abbott can marry ‘values’ amd electoral viability. If he doesn’t, it might get messy. Curiously, Minchin, after having accomplished his ‘mission’ for the Libs of putting Abbott in, isn’t hanging around for the result.

  8. Tweets that mention Turnbull dumps the political class :The Piping Shrike -- Topsy.com on 13th April 2010 8:35 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Jackmanson. David Jackmanson said: Shared: Turnbull dumps the political class http://bit.ly/a9SN46 […]

Comments are closed.