Sir Walter Raleigh: Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall.
Queen Elizabeth I: If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all.
- attributed (in the spirit of our English heritage & shared values, &c.)
Michelle Grattan has seen every Federal Liberal leadership spill in almost forty years, from Gorton-McMahon to Turnbull-Abbott. She would have seen some doozies of conflicts within that party over issues of real substance. Her latest piece, however, strains credibility.
Tony Abbott has it all his own way, he really does. The Liberal Party's hand-wringing over getting rid of Howard in 2007 is over - Howard is back in every sense other than the physical. The mincing under Brendan Nelson and the catherine-wheel of ideas that was Malcolm Turnbull have stopped.
Malcolm Turnbull ought to be an irrelevance. If he tried to bring on a spill he wouldn't get half a dozen votes. His position now is weaker than that of Peter Costello in 2006. His latest outburst was on an issue that is not a hot issue for the coming election, and not even a Labor wedge against the Liberals: a republic. Turnbull is not firing off half-baked ideas like Abbott did as a frontbencher - Turnbull isn't even a frontbencher.
If Turnbull crossed the floor to support an ETS it would be to his credit as a man of principle, and it would further alienate him from the current Liberal Parliamentary Party (to say nothing of the extraparliamentary organisation). Storm in a teacup, people like Michelle Grattan may run giddy LIB SPLIT SHOCK stories, but that would pass (the very prospect is so irrelevant it would hardly be worth reporting).
Whatever O'Farrell's problems, the idea of Turnbull being parachuted in would be bizarre, a recipe for instability. Even if O'Farrell isn't a dream leader, the Liberals are heading to victory in NSW and should get behind the man they've got.
Indeed it would. The NSW Liberals should be tired of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Besides, NSW would get screwed under a Premier Turnbull by the incumbent Federal government, even worse than it does now.
If he ran again, it would signal unfinished business – that he thought a return to leadership possible. After all, he lost by the narrowest margins. Would the party be willing to contemplate a return to the Turnbull experiment, which nearly killed it? It seems unlikely but both John Howard and Andrew Peacock came back (to say nothing of Robert Menzies).
To say that Turnbull "nearly killed" the Liberal Party is absurd. Mark Latham led the ALP to defeat but it wasn't "nearly killed". John Howard arguably did more damage to the Liberal Party with its loss in 2007 than Latham did to his party three years earlier.
A key to Turnbull's thinking may lie in his recent piece for The Times:
Our culture has always been very open to new ideas. Australia’s dynamism, its readiness to embrace change is very republican and very similar to the culture of the US.
Bored by a timid batsman, the weary Aussie cricket fan who calls out “ ’ave a go, ya mug!” is really summing up what Australia is all about — have a go, give it your best shot and if you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and have another go.
That metaphor is fresh and economically makes its point, which is more than can be said for Grattan's stale imagery about choirs, song sheets, and hymns.
Anyway, enough about Turnbull.
All leaders need to crack heads. If Joe Hockey wanders off topic he needs to be brought into line - Howard did it to him and he's better for it. Hockey should have laughed when Sophie Mirabella was sooled onto him.
Joyce has never been brought into line - nobody has been big enough to shirtfront him, not Anderson or Vaile or what's-his-name currently. If Tony Abbott had any self-knowledge at all he should find it within himself to reach out to Joyce and get him to work as a member of a team bigger than himself. To use one of those lazy boxing analogies beloved by the dimmer lights of the Federal Parliamentary press gallery: if Abbott can't put Joyce on the canvas he'll never make it against the champ at the title fight.
If Abbott thinks he can become Prime Minister without cracking heads, he's kidding himself.
If Tony Abbott's travails are really as bad as Michelle Grattan makes out, he's really up against it. They're not, however - she's seen Liberal leaders in worse predicaments than this. There is no rump of disaffected factional opponents. Moderates are few and largely co-opted, and not much cop anyway (Abbott's standing would be enhanced if Chris Pyne went him, and when was the last moderate policy measure he put forward?). The Liberal Party is united behind the idea that the public still loves all things Howard (except Howard himself) and that the 2007 election was a clerical error. In Nick Minchin he has an enforcer who is powerful, committed and feared.
Abbott has a more united party than any leader in a generation - more so than any party Howard led. He lacks quality personnel, but as Peter Coleman said, the organisation bears some responsibility for that. Grattan's sympathy for Abbott is utterly misplaced, he needs to use what power he has effectively if he is to be entrusted with more. If the job is too tough for him, he shouldn't have run for it.
No Opposition Leader since Kim Beazley has enjoyed so good a run with the media and so much goodwill from his party than Tony Abbott. Michelle Grattan should be foremost among those telling Abbott to toughen up rather than "fear" the coming Parliamentary session (he's going to be a mess by election time, isn't he).
Abbott has no excuses, and Michelle Grattan ought not set up any for him.