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Replay of the Howard and Peacock duel

23 April 2018 No Comment

It’s become conventional wisdom that the Abbott-Turnbull contest is the Liberals’ version of Rudd versus Gillard and a key question is whether the Liberals might complete the parallel by restoring Tony Abbott or installing another conservative to save the furniture at the next election.

But there is a more instructive parallel that turned out to have a different ending. Today’s Abbott-Turnbull rivalry has at least as much in common with that between John Howard and Andrew Peacock a generation back. It’s not just ego versus ego, as Rudd versus Gillard was. It’s policy versus personality, substance versus style, political character versus chameleon, and — above all — it’s conservative versus progressive.

At the moment, the Abbott-Turnbull schism is even worse for the Liberals and for the Coalition than the earlier one because it’s happening in government rather than opposition. But the Howard-Peacock stoush ended up clarifying what the Liberals stood for and paved the way for a decade of strong Coalition government once John Howard had shown more political longevity than Andrew Peacock and once the Liberals had resolved that the only way for them to win was from the centre-right.

If Malcolm Turnbull is rolled by the partyroom, it will be because his colleagues have concluded that only a much stronger and clearer policy position has any hope of delivering victory at next year’s election. If Turnbull survives only to be smashed by the voters, the remaining Liberals are certain to resolve never again to face the people as a pallid version of the Labor Party.

History never exactly repeats itself. Howard often described the Liberal Party as the political custodian, in this country, of both the conservatism of Edmund Burke and the liberalism of John Stuart Mill. Howard and Peacock represented these different strands of the Liberal Party’s “broad church”. Like Howard, Abbott is very much in the “Burkean conservative” mould. It’s why he remains a hero to the party’s conservative base. Turnbull, by contrast, is a political outsider and loner who was more keen on joining the Labor Party until he worked out that it was the Liberals, with their individualistic culture, that were more vulnerable to a corporate-style power play.

Neither Howard nor the ever-genial Peacock ever believed there should be no place whatsoever for a rival inside the party. Both knew that whatever the numbers inside the parliamentary party, former leaders had to be treated with respect. Howard served on Peacock’s frontbench and Peacock served on Howard’s. Abbott chose to have Turnbull on his frontbench both in opposition and in government. Turnbull is the only recent leader to have banished his predecessor from cabinet, even though he’s prime minister only because of an election Abbott won.

The mistake of commentators who recently leapt on Josh Frydenberg’s candid concession of bad blood between Turnbull and Abbott was to pin the toxicity on the wrong man. It’s Turnbull and his supporters who have relentlessly depicted Abbott as a poor PM to justify their coup and as a wrecker to explain their man’s palpable failure in the job. Sure, since early last year, Abbott has been publicly critical of some government decisions — as backbenchers have a right to be. But as a cabinet minister, Turnbull routinely failed to unambiguously back government decisions and invariably came out well from stories based on cabinet leaks.

No less an authority on winning elections than Howard himself maintains that Labor is beatable. And he’s possibly right, but not by a Labor-lite government that treats the country’s leading conservative as a pariah. As Bob Hawke used to repeat in a crushing demonstration of the Liberals’ then-unfitness for office: “If you can’t govern yourselves, you can’t govern the country.”

This is the refrain that will be heard increasingly from Labor if Turnbull staggers on as PM, especially if the budget flops and the government can’t get its so-called national energy guarantee through COAG or, more likely, the Coalition partyroom.

The election almost certain to be held in the second quarter of next year was always going to be very difficult to win. A disappointing government will seek a third term defending a one-seat majority. The Liberals, with membership demoralised and donors on strike, will face a cashed-up Labor Party, an election-tested union machine, a rampaging GetUp! and the Greens.

The only argument for the government with any resonance is that Labor would be worse. That’s probably right, but the government could possibly prosecute victory via a ruthlessly focused campaign, some strong policy differences with Labor and healing the rift on the right by finding a place inside the government for the Liberals’ best campaigner.

The Abbott-Turnbull schism could be resolved by Turnbull relenting and offering Abbott a prominent cabinet spot such as defence. But how could Abbott join a government that has increased taxes and spending and that shares Labor’s climate change obsessions — all the things that Abbott promised wouldn’t happen when he won in 2013? And how could Turnbull plausibly change the government’s course without looking even more confused and directionless than he does now?

My sense is that rising panic and more bad polls will force Turnbull out this side of an election. Like John Hewson and Alexander Downer before him, Peter Dutton might temporarily achieve the Liberal leadership. A Dutton prime ministership is unlikely to be enough to win the election but it could give the party some direction and restore its self-respect by prosecuting an honourable defeat.

Dutton would also rehabilitate Abbott back into the cabinet as a kind of mentor because he is by far the most substantial figure on the conservative side of politics.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Australian, April 23, 2018, p 12.

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