Home » Columns

Thanks for nothing, Malcolm

30 August 2018 424 views One Comment

Here’s my lead article in Spectator Australia.

Thanks for nothing, Malcolm.


One thing we can be sure of is that the Liberal prime minister who once tried to join the Labor Party won’t be attending too many Liberal party gatherings in his retirement.

Before he moved too far to the left, even Malcolm Fraser had accepted life membership and had a retirement tilt at the Liberal party presidency. John Howard is still a rock star at party fundraisers, campaigns for key candidates, and chaired a committee recommending reform of the NSW party. Backbencher Tony Abbott dutifully turns up at Liberal state councils and criss-crosses the country to help colleagues and provoke debate. But for Mr Turnbull, there won’t be any on-going role because the party never took to him; and he never saw the party as anything other than a flag of convenience to get him into parliament.

It’s noteworthy that Mr Turnbull’s valedictory remarks thanked his staff and some colleagues but there wasn’t a single word of appreciation for the Liberal party volunteers that every MP needs on polling days. Despite the over-the-top eulogies that the new leadership team gave him, and his own ‘I-was-victim-of-a-stab-in-the-back’ narrative, Turnbull is more likely to be remembered as a lesser John Gorton than as a centre-right Gough Whitlam. The conservative side of politics prefers its heroes to be right-of-centre, like Howard and Robert Menzies; not left-of-centre, like Fraser (as he became) and Gorton, let alone Labor-lite.

The politician who successively stalked Peter King, his predecessor as member for Wentworth, to enter parliament; Brendan Nelson, to become party leader; and Abbott, to seize the prime ministership; and who contrived to sabotage Peter Dutton’s leadership chances by setting the Solicitor-General onto him, is likely to be remembered for back-stabbing on an epic scale than for policy achievements. Still, along the way, there were a few: his personal income tax cuts and his company tax cuts were important second-order reforms; he maintained Abbott’s successful border protection policies; and he orchestrated Abbott’s proposed same-sex marriage plebiscite that facilitated change in a way that made it easier for more tradition-minded Australians to accept.

As each prime ministership fades from headlines into history, it’s harder and harder to say what distinguished it. From this distance, Menzies’ tenure seems more notable for its length than its policy achievements, although he largely built Canberra, expanded the universities and, on the other side of the ledger, got us into the Vietnam War. Fraser ended the bohemian reformism of the Whitlam interlude, but scaled back those changes rather than initiating much that endures. Like Hawke, Howard was a large-scale economic reformer with the GST, workplace de-regulation, and work-for-the-dole. Abbott abolished Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s carbon and mining taxes, finalised decade-long FTA negotiations, and stopped the boats. In contrast, what may well be recalled from the Turnbull era is a culture of off-the-record character assassination, and of him merely being PM. It’s more likely to be remembered for what shouldn’t have happened: ‘Game of Thrones’-style backstabbing that’s given the Liberal Party an up-close lesson in what to avoid at all costs.

This week Abbott declared that ‘the era of the political assassin is over’. This may have been gilding the lily somewhat as Scott Morrison is said to have encouraged Mr Turnbull to stage the pre-emptive spill that lit the fuse under his leadership. And Dutton was a reluctant challenger who, like Abbott in 2009 in opposition, actually wanted to change policy. Still, the mood in the parliamentary Liberal Party and in its branches seems lighter. At least some members who loathed Turnbull to the point of wanting a Labor government in order to ‘drain the swamp’ seem keen, once more, to sweat blood for their local MP.

It seems likely that the Liberal party will change its leadership rules. Plainly, voters think that the PMs they install should only be removed by them, not by party room coups – although they’re likely to give Morrison some latitude given that he wasn’t obviously holding the knife. The victim died by the sword he had lived by.

But, of itself, changing the rules won’t improve the character of current MPs. The toxic egos and all-consuming urge to plot for promotion is more common today in the era of life-long-political staffers-turned MPs than it was in the Hawke-Howard era when more MPs on both sides of the fence had real life experience on the shop floor or in business. It would be paradoxical if the ultimate Turnbull legacy was to mandate to Liberal leaders a loyalty that he never showed to anyone.

By cutting and running from parliament, another Turnbull legacy may be the loss of Wentworth to a green-leaning independent. A clear way of averting this catastrophe is for the Libs to select a very strong candidate like Australia’s former ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma. But after Dutton’s defeat it’s now extremely likely that the Coalition will lose a swag of seats in Queensland, possibly even Dutton’s own. This alone would deliver Bill Shorten the prime ministership on a platter.

Thanks for nothing Malcolm!

The Spectator Australia, 1 September 2018, p i.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald AM is the author of 40 books, including the political/ sexual satires ‘So Far, So Good: An Entertainment’ (Hybrid) and ‘Going Out Backwards : A Grafton Everest Adventure’ – also published by Hybrid and shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing.

One Comment »

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    While on the topic of Sydney, as avid readers know the Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine is one of MWD’s faves. So it was great to see Ms Devine fire-up on Sky News’ Kenny on Sunday last weekend when she accused the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater of verballing her. Your man Cater suggested that “Devine Miranda” (as she is known to have called herself) had opposed Malcolm Turnbull’s removal as prime minister in August 2018 but supported Tony Abbott’s removal as prime minister in September 2015. Not so declared a feisty Devine.

    This exchange reminded Hendo of what Miranda Devine had written about the Liberal Party leadership over recent times. On 31 December 2017 the Daily Telegraph carried a piece by Miranda Devine titled “Turnbull lives, he’s not a dead parrot”. It commenced:

    As the year ends, at least the Turnbull government can safely echo Mark Twain in saying the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. And, boy, have there been a lot.

    Ms Devine proceeded to call out those who predicted that Malcolm Turnbull would not be prime minister by the end of 2017. Her little list included Ross Fitzgerald, Ross Cameron, Andrew Bolt, David Flint, John Stone, Alan Jones, James Allan, Peta Credlin, Rex Jory, Graham Richardson, Gary Hardgrave, Paul Murray, Neil Mitchell, Bernard Keane and Kevin Rudd.

    The column concluded as follows:

    Well, it’s the end of the year, and Turnbull is still standing, with two by-election wins under his belt. Who knows, if unemployment stays low, the stock market keeps booming and the economy continues to recover in 2018, the Turnbull government might even have a chance of winning the next election against Bill Shorten’s Labor. Happy New Year to all, even the Chicken Littles!

    It was once (allegedly) said of Leon Trotsky that he was so far ahead of his time that – decades after his death – many of his prophecies had yet to be fulfilled.

    It turned out that the likes of Professor Ross (“Professor Grafton Everest is my mentor”) Fitzgerald did not have his prophecy fulfilled by the end of December 2017. But it did come to pass by the end of August 2018.

    Now, alas, it seems that Miranda Devine has channelled the prophets she once condemned by branding them as Delusional Conservatives – or Delcons. For this is what she said about the Delcons on Kenny on Sunday last weekend:

    Miranda Devine: And you know what these crazies have done? They have now got a more left-wing cabinet than was under Turnbull. And they have guaranteed that Bill Shorten is going to be prime minister – and probably for three terms. I would say the only time the Liberals will be rescued will be by prime minister [Joshua] Frydenberg in ten years’ time.

    So there you have it. Ms Devine reckons that Bill Shorten will probably be prime minister for close to a decade. And this from someone who quotes Mark Twain’s warning about those who falsely report that the living are in RIP mode. Can You Bear It?

    Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog, Issue 421, August 31 2018.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.