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23 September 2018 180 views No Comment



The Canberra press gallery can’t work out why their favourite Liberal is no longer prime minister because they have almost no understanding of how the Liberal Party actually works. Political journalists rarely talk to anyone outside the Canberra bubble and their Liberal contacts are nearly always from the party’s progressive wing. That’s why they didn’t see Malcolm Turnbull’s demise coming and have difficulty grasping what actually happened. It was much less the political assassination at the hands of vengeful conservatives depicted by most commentators, than it was political suicide.

Sure, there were a significant number of MPs – at least a dozen in the end – threatening to cross the floor against Turnbull’s energy policy. Their objective, though, was to change the policy that they thought would hike prices and destroy jobs; rather than to change the leader. Given the history, only a Liberal prime minister with a death wish would have persisted in trying to negotiate an emissions reduction policy that required the agreement of the Labor states. After losing his leadership once before on this issue, the main madness on display in the previous sitting fortnight was Turnbull’s determination to make a fatal mistake twice!

Within a week, Turnbull went from declaring that his policy to legislate emissions reduction targets had “overwhelming” party room support, to substituting regulation for hard-to-change legislation, and finally to dropping the legislation altogether because enough of his own MPs were against it to make passage impossible without Labor support. So in the first week of the previous sitting fortnight, he destroyed his own policy; and in the second week, he destroyed his own leadership.

With his authority already shredded through obstinacy, Turnbull then tried to gazump the challenge he feared by declaring the leadership vacant before potential challengers were ready. With just seven votes in it, the leadership came into play and, just three days later, he was gone.

But note the numbers. The final vote of no-confidence in Turnbull was 45-40. The final Scott Morrison versus Peter Dutton vote was also 45-40. In other words, Turnbull had roughly 40 votes and Dutton had roughly 40 votes. It was the handful of Morrison votes that tipped Turnbull out; and then, allied with Turnbull’s votes, made Morrison prime minister. This is something that a bitter Turnbull is likely to ponder in the years to come, especially as Morrison – in repudiating the National Energy Guarantee and acknowledging population pressures – seems to be adopting much of the conservatives’ policy agenda.

What most Liberal MPs had grasped – but what the progressive media and a small Liberal rump still haven’t woken up to – is that a Liberal Party acting like the Labor Party can’t win elections. It was the 29 per cent Liberal vote (coupled with the 16 per cent One Nation vote) in the Longman by-election that finally exposed Turnbull’s lethally poor political judgment. Bizarrely, in the same party room meeting where he put the prime ministership on the line, he’d also claimed that internal polling always showed that the Libs were going to lose – even though he’d said, during the by-election, that it would be a test of his and Bill Shorten’s leadership.

Despite this, Christopher Pyne was on TV last week questioning why his own government had changed the prime minister and left-wing journalists are still claiming that the Liberal Party is tearing itself to pieces. Pyne is the same person who boasted that the progressive faction was in the ‘winners’ circle’ and these are the same scribes who think that the more the Liberal Party resembles Labor and the Greens the better. There are always transaction costs, but they’re a lot lower this time round because the people most aggrieved by Turnbull’s removal were the ones who’d never vote Liberal. This was always Turnbull’s problem. The people he impressed were rarely those he worked with and were invariably people who wanted the Liberal leader to sound like a Labor one.

The Liberal Party changed its leader for one reason and one reason only. Turnbull had committed so many acts of self-harm that MPs were convinced that the government would be more effective under someone else. Even with Morrison at the helm, the next election is still Labor’s to lose but at least it will be more of a contest under someone whose Liberal Party history does not consist of undermining people to take their position.

In fact, far from being aghast at yet another coup in Canberra, the vast majority of Liberals seem relieved to have their party back. Turnbull was notorious for refusing to attend weekend events, for hating Liberal Party conferences, and for disdaining routine fund-raising. He could rarely help giving Liberals the impression that he was just using them to gain the top job. That’s why there was never any real affection for him, even among his fellow ‘progressives’, and if he dumps on the party he once led, he’ll quickly have the pariah status, at least among Liberals, that Malcolm Fraser eventually attained.

Provided Morrison keeps sounding like a middle-of-the-road Liberal, and not someone who could just as easily be in another party, my sense is that the Liberals will soon revert to the comparative internal discipline they had under John Howard in government and under Tony Abbott in opposition. Indeed, they already largely have.

Some have noted the similarity between Morrison’s ‘a fair go for those who have a go’ rhetoric and Shorten’s fairness mantra. The more telling resonance is actually with Abbott, who often said that it’s ‘only because most of us have a go that all of us can get the fair go that every Australian deserves’.

The Spectator Australia, 15 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.

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