23 August 2009

Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader

I had high hopes for Malcolm Turnbull as a circuit-breaker for the Liberal Party, the only leader capable of getting the party over and past John Howard. I still think his spinelessness over Grech shows that he's no leader. That's been confirmed by a number of recent articles that illustrate the gap between his political capabilities and the hopes that others have for him.

First, there's the issue of policy. It's true that an issue like foreign policy rarely resonates with voters, much less swings votes; yet credibility in foreign policy is key to being regarded as a serious alternative government by the broadsheet media. The idea that a party can have a contradictory or badly thoughout out foreign policy, while pretending to business that they have a sensible and serious trade policy is a trap for all Federal Oppositions. Howard learned this when his dog-whistling on Asian immigration saw corporate Australia distance themselves from him to protect their trading capacity. Labor learned this when dithering by Beazley and Crean, and outright stupidity by Latham, shot their credibility with the US (and hence trade, etc.).

Sean Carney said as much in The Age about foreign policy, and Julie Bishop's poor prosecution of it in particular. The problem here is that Turnbull's office has not taken charge of policy, set the broad outlines and let the team get on with it (not only the shadow, but any Opposition frontbencher who has a microphone stuck under their nose, so that they are putting out a message that is not only consistent but coherent). Turnbull's chief of staff spent a decade in Downer's office: doing what? The Liberals have no excuse for making such a dog's breakfast of this area. Chris Kenny, you're a numbskull.

Second, there's teamwork. Here's Christian Kerr going after Julie Bishop, and fair enough; but where were the supposed master tacticians of the Opposition? Where was Pyne as leader of Opposition Business? Where was the pretender, Abbott (Andrew Peacock with a broken nose)? Where were Hockey and Tony Costello Smith? Even Sophie Mirabella or Bronwyn Bishop in their pomp would have fastened their teeth around Tanner's ankles.

Tanner is an old-school leftie who has had the old-school leftie economics beaten out of him. The whole secrecy thing of government planning must go against all his instincts, covering up for the coppers I ask you! His slip as described by Kerr was clearly an accident, one that a coherent Opposition should have turned into an ashes-and-sackcloth moment for the boy from Brunswick. It would have given the Opposition fresh encouragement, and enabled them to rally against Tuckey and his wasters, the only Liberal in Parliament who has spent more time in Opposition than government.

Third, there's people. Turnbull's roots in the Liberal Party are fairly thin and predicated on his ability to shake down donations into Liberal coffers. He has no ability, and probably no willingness, to engage in internecine warfare to get rid of people who stand between him and the Prime Ministership: this is a mistake made by all political newbies, Hewson thought he was above it all too.

I've commented previously on the appalling duds in the Liberal Parliamentary party, and Turnbull should have enough momentum to attract the sort of person who could not only replace them but make more of a contribution to community and country than said duds. Turnbull would just look mean if he replaced one numpty with another. That's why this article is misplaced.

True, Turnbull needs to cultivate pro-environment Liberals like Whitlam did post-communist Labor people. True, Turnbull is clever and arrogant like Whitlam was. True, our friend Dyrenfurth set up a thicket of Nazi metaphors and took two paragraphs to get over it (two pointless paragraphs - that article could have started "Some Liberals are ..." without any loss). The fact is that anti-ETS Liberals have placed themselves on the wrong side of history, and that the carbon lobby won't be nearly as generous with the funding and support as they might wish. Turnbull can win any number of debates with them on that issue - what he can't do is put real political pressure on them. He can't make the case that it's his way or the highway out of Canberra.

You can't make a statement like this ...
It is increasingly clear that Turnbull will never become prime minister.

... and then suggest ways that he might become Prime Minister.

There are too many Liberal MPs with no future at all who'd fancy their chances of sticking around long after Turnbull has gone, too many who are quite capable of holding their own and bloodying Turnbull's nose if he moved onto their turf. They might be policy idiots, but they're not politically dumb: Turnbull would need Hausmann-style firepower to reshape the Liberal Party in his own image, and he just doesn't have it.
Turnbull is, in fact, capable of setting the Liberals on the path to recovery by driving a root and branch reform of the party, perhaps neutering the hardline right-wing elements who are increasingly making the party electorally unattractive.

No, Nick, it's not a fact and he doesn't. It was the far right who got him up at his preselection in 2003. If Turnbull wanted to stamp his authority on the NSW Liberal Party he'd have David Clark's severed head on a pikestaff outside his office in Bondi Junction by now. He'd be helping Barry O'Farrell shop for ministers (taking the better ones for himself and leaving Barry with the discards, of course), and would be doing something similar in other states. In Victoria, all those Costello nuf-nufs like Mitch Fifield and Tony Costello Smith should be under the gun from pro-Turnbull challengers. The WA MPs who walked out should have been lynched by Turnbull fanatics. Eric Abetz should have been sent back to Hobart in a box on the back of a ute and replaced by someone who's Mad For Mal. Just not happening I'm afraid.

John Howard did this: he had cultivated people like Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott for decades, and when Howard called they stepped up for him. That's why the Liberal Party is still, despite everything, the John Howard Party; you show me a non-Howard Liberal and I'll show you someone who's kidding themselves. There is simply not a critical mass of Turnbull Liberals, and I doubt there will ever be. The hand that mocked them is there, the heart that fed is not.

As a political scientist, Peter van Onselen is focused on process and it is touching how readily he believes those who background him, especially where such views provide some support for his own.
Preselections are what usher talent into the parliament, and that talent decides on each and every policy position the conservative side will take in the decades ahead.

No, Peter, it doesn't. Decisions are often not put to the party room (what you call "talent") until after it has been decided. On the rare occasions that the Liberal Party debates, let alone overturns, policy positions by the leadership - this is done retroactively, and usually outside the party room (e.g. mandatory detention).
After all, history tells us the Coalition is at its most fractious while in opposition.

After all, opposition parties are always fractious. Labor was pretty damn fractious in opposition, and when it goes into opposition again it will be fractious again. Some of us are looking forward to the NSW ALP going into opposition and the multitude of told-ya-so raining down like rocks in an avalanche.
This week the NSW Liberal Party state executive voted to give itself the power to overturn local preselections and install an alternative candidate instead, but only in exceptional circumstances. Who or what determines what meets the test of "exceptional circumstances"? Why, the state executive of course. Not too many checks and balances there.

This move has come about because the Right of the Liberal Party in NSW has split ... the newly aligned soft Right and moderate Centre of the Liberal Party, known as the New Group, are concerned about the preselection havoc the hard Right could exercise in some electorates ahead of the next state election.

Not "could exercise" Peter, has exercised and will continue to exercise unless those particular boils are lanced for the overall health of the body politic. There were checks and there were balances, but all that happened was that Labor checkmated the Liberals.

You may think I've done van Onselen a disservice with that ellipsis in the quote above:
I wrote about this months ago and in the subsequent weeks was informed by some of the main players that I was wrong. Now the media is widely reporting the split and even the main players aren't denying it when questioned by journalists.

Look out Glenn Milne, Pete da playa is after you!
But NSW is just one state with one set of examples.

No, NSW is the nation's largest state, with more seats in the House of Representatives than other states, more marginals to win, and the state with the best prospect of a majority state government.
In Western Australia the recently deposed federal member for Tangney, Dennis Jensen, lost his preselection to a relative unknown, Glen Piggott ... Each time a local electoral conference throws up a candidate with limited credentials, senior Liberals wonder what they can do to address the talent slide.

Jensen is best known for being a climate change moron - could Piggott really be any worse? If I was a political scientist (particularly if I was championing local grassroots membership) I'd question the assumption that state/federal head office represent quality candidates while local branches are self-interested fiefdoms. Not saying he's wrong - just questioning the assumption.
Yet it is in the Victorian division that the party is becoming more grassroots oriented in its preselection approach, giving all party members an equal input at the preselection level. The hope is that this will encourage membership and ensure the small fiefdoms that traditionally develop in the Liberal Party will no longer be able to control preselection contests.

How realistic is that hope, Peter? Discuss, using examples. What you'll end up with is situations like this (you'll need to be a Crikey subscriber), where everyone's against duds in principle but nobody can bear to confront them in particular, like our man Murray T. At least factions could be relied upon to shake him up to the point where a "third man" comes through.
Another irony about Victoria reforming its approach to give members a greater say in preselections is that the state director is former Howard right-hand man and chief of staff Tony Nutt. As Howard's enforcer he was focused on ensuring the central wing of the party got what it wanted to maximise electoral prospects; that was his job.

But now that he is state director in Victoria he is overseeing a revival of the party's grassroots membership. He wants the party's decline in membership to be arrested and even reversed. It shows that Nutt knows what needs to be done and when.

Rubbish. What it shows is that Nutt is the cat and that Victorian Liberals are so many mice, who will preselect a slew of duds for state parliament and be utterly bereft federally without Costello. By the start of 2011 Nutt will then centralise power and nominate candidates who'll do what he tells them. That's how it works, Peter, and more importantly that's how people like Nutt work. He's playing the long game. The very idea that Tony Nutt is a born-again new-age democrat is laughable.
Which brings us back to the Nationals. They have been in decline for many years as their membership has faded away and their parliamentary representation has been eroded. Something had to be done and in NSW state leader Andrew Stoner took the bold step of endorsing a primaries system for one key seat at the next election.

Ah yes, the old syllogism:

  1. We must do something.

  2. This is something.

  3. Let's do this.

Who'll vote in these primaries? Will a primary-vote winner owe anything to the party organisation whose primary he/she has won? If I were a political scientist I'd investigate questions like these, but if I was a playa I'd just recite the press release and leave it there.

Malcolm Turnbull has no ability to remake the Liberal Party in his image, he has no ability to set an agenda for it and no ability to make people fulfil his agenda or get out of politics. He won't be Prime Minister. Yes, I'm sorry too, but there you go.


  1. derrida derider24/8/09 3:54 pm

    Howard has left the Libs in a dreadful state. A lot of the deadwood were his personal sycophants. In pursuit of his silly culture wars he actively encouraged the lunar Right, whose rise will make the party unelectable under any leader.

    And the idiots are still grateful to him!

  2. And a lot weren't, dd: Tuckey, Schultz or either Bishop were not Howard people per se. As I point out in my next post perhaps the Nats are doing the Liberals a favour by raiding the treasury of silly ideas and heading for the hills.