14 July 2013

Turnbull holds forth on holding back

Some people might say my life is in a rut,
But I'm quite happy with what I got
People might say that I should strive for more,
But I'm so happy I can't see the point ...

- The Jam Going underground
This might seem like Malcolm Turnbull is playing the sorts of mindgames with Abbott that Kevin Rudd played with Julia Gillard, undermining her leadership and positioning the former leader to challenge the incumbent. Turnbull makes the odd jab now and then and retreats into teamwork; Rudd did the reverse, with his occasional exhibitions of teamwork a contrast to his white-anting. Rudd put his party on notice that it will have to change; Turnbull doesn't need to.
... What you see is what you get
You've made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust ...
Malcolm Turnbull led the Liberal Party in 2008-09 when it was still basically John Howard's party. Howard had substantially remade the party organisation in 1995-96, drawing on a lifetime's experience within the organisation but also having learned the hard way how it can get in the leader's way if left to its own devices. By 2008 the Party had accepted the reality of the 2007 defeat and warily trusted Turnbull to show what a post-Howard future might look like.

Turnbull failed in that task, having alarmed old Howard-era stagers within the organisational and the parliamentary wings of the party to the point where Eric Abetz could pull the Grech trick on him and negate any sort of Turnbull legacy. By 2009 the Howard-era stagers could assert that the best option for the Liberal Party was to resurrect the Howard government as far as possible, an assertion impossible to rebut effectively, which explains the move to Abbott.

If Turnbull becomes leader before the election, he faces the hapless Julie Bishop as deputy and a front bench full of time-servers and time-wasters (I mean, no health or education policy? What the ...?), and most candidates pretty much in place. He would inherit a party generally that is geared up to maximise Abbott's strengths (making these up where necessary) and which tries to compensate for his weaknesses. Turnbull's strengths and weaknesses are different to those of Abbott. People whom Turnbull trusts to get the job done are different to the people Abbott trusts to get the job done, partly but not wholly because of different perceptions about the nature of the job to be done.

Turnbull can't be certain that he would beat Rudd, even if he had his ideal party structure and personnel in place. It is highly unlikely that Abbott people would vacate the field so comprehensively and with the party's interests uppermost as happened within Labor, as Gillard and her supporters did once Rudd had been re-elected. Abbott's people, the Liberal Right, are insurgents by nature; they used to sniping at moderates and calling for action, but when they have full scope to act as they wish they can't handle actual policy development.

All that changes after an election loss. Turnbull can remake the party in his own image, in terms of personnel and structure. Brian Loughnane and Peta Credlin would be the first out the door, and if they aren't safe who would be? Turnbull can learn how intransigence can work both for an against you as an opposition, something Abbott has not yet learned (and if he has, it's too late; there is no policy to fill the vacuum left by no, no, no). He can let Rudd burn himself out. He can build the policies that differentiate the Coalition from Labor in appealing ways. None of that is possible if he jumps too soon.

The general consensus on Turnbull in 2009 is that he wasn't a team player (the Liberal Right don't accept anyone as a team player unless they are part of their team). By being a loyal member of Team Abbott 2010-13, by denying the kingly crown, he negates that slur. He can talk about collegiate decision-making under Abbott because he has earned the right through exhibiting loyalty.

Standing by a half-witted compromise of a NBN policy might be an appalling betrayal to some outside the Liberal Party, but internally (where ICT people are few and powerless) it racks up brownie points. By cutting Abbott off from a possible election win, he reinforces that negative image - and if he fails against Rudd, he's finished. Better all round for Abbott to be finished.

Turnbull would want as much scope for action as possible as leader, more than he had in 2008-09; he would want to own that "top table" rather than merely sit at it (Turnbull's "top table" image is born of the private school/university college dining hall, and the boardroom; he needs better imagery if he's going to be more demotic. He needs an authentic version of Rudd's hokey Queenslandisms). If he thrusts himself forward before the election he is only borrowing the party of the Howard legacy, including the glowering Minchin.

After an election loss Minchin and his acolytes would be exposed and discredited, replaced by a phalanx of disgruntled former staffers who see a frontbench role (government or opposition) as the next step in their careers. Turnbull's challenge is to make himself the focus of their career aspirations, in such a way that isn't blatantly disloyal to Abbott.

The Minchin Right have been active in replacing Liberals with their own, which will make life harder for Turnbull and for any other Liberal who wants to present an image to the public other than that of drooling Tea Party imbeciles. Do you want to lead a party like that, watching your back for three years?

It's a neat idea that Turnbull and Rudd, the most popular choices as leader of their respective parties, will both take over by election time. Labor called time on Gillard because they thought she couldn't turn her unpopularity around. When it comes to Abbott's unpopularity, the Liberal attitude is: what unpopularity? Polls say Abbott is unpopular, but committed Liberals genuinely can't see why. Polls say Abbott is unpopular among women, but committed Liberals think Margie-and-the-girls have fixed all that. Polls say Abbott is arrogant, but committed Liberals say Rudd's arrogant too, and they know that so long as you can muddy the waters you can declare victory and move on.

For the popular Turnbull to replace the unpopular Abbott would require smarter Liberal strategy than they have available. It is important to keep in mind that Liberal strategists are morons:
  • After the 2010 election the Coalition left negotiations with independents to the last minute, and failed to win government. Labor's tortoise beat the Coalition hare and they still haven't worked out why, or how. Now apparently Liberal policies are being left to the last minute, and this is supposed to be politically deft and reassuring for Coalition supporters?
  • The Coalition went to the 2010 election, and negotiations with independents, promising big-ticket items (e.g. paid-parental leave and a $1b hospital for Hobart) that nobody believed. Now they're promising big-ticket items that nobody believes (e.g. paid-parental leave again, carbon abatement by burying it in soil), and this is going to put them on track for victory?
  • The Coalition crashed and burned in 2007 with flawed policies on workplace relations and telecommunications. They fell short of victory in 2010 with weak policies in those areas. Now they are offering weak policies again in those key areas, while hoping for a different result.
  • Look how long it took them to adjust to the eminently foreseeable ascent of Peter Slipper to the Speakership. Their tactics in smearing Slipper were not well thought out and may yet come back to bite them. They still haven't adjusted to the departure of Julia Gillard, and the fact that Rudd's strengths and weaknesses aren't hers. Effective strategists can and do turn on a dime and create the impression of control in the midst of chaos.
In 2007 John Howard warned those who had voted for him up to then that voting against the Coalition would put at risk everything the Howard government achieved. Mark Textor came up with the idea of defining Rudd as "Howard lite". Lite products are popular, creating the impression that you can have the good aspects of a product without the negative aspects. Even tobacco companies branded their products as "lite" until the government told them to stop, a move that their advisers at Crosby Textor neither anticipated nor countered.

With Rudd as "Howard lite" people felt free to vote for Rudd, negating Howard's stern alarums, and did so. This morning Textor and Andrew Bolt agreed that Rudd was now "Tony Abbott lite". Never mind that this doesn't make sense (how could anyone be more vacuous than Tony Abbott?), swinging voters who want to vote Labor out but who have reservations about Abbott should have no reservations in voting for Rudd and Labor.

If you were Malcolm Turnbull, would you want your destiny in the hands of clowns like them?

Textor's "lite" thing would have been a spectacular own-goal had we not seen it before. My first experience of Textor was in the 1999 NSW election, where his intervention turned the Liberals from being slightly behind in the polls to getting slaughtered. It puzzled me that the federal parliamentary press gallery rated him so highly, until you realise they have arse/elbow-differentiation issues too.
... We talk and talk until my head explodes
I turn on the news and my body froze
The braying sheep on my TV screen
Make this boy shout, make this boy scream!
Also not novel is the idea that Abbott is a chocolate soldier who will fail at election time, nor does this old fool deserve the credit for which he greedily pines - and no, simply excluding me from his "hundreds" of commentators will not suffice. Pick one of these, choke on it, then read through hundreds of similar posts on this blog alone. Instead of changing your wombat-headed ways you can castigate your editor who should know better than to let such sloppy wording go forward from his otherwise estimable site.


  1. could never see MT being popular with the majority of voters , the libs broadband policy saw to that, and many would not relate to his wealth. cannot imagine him on shock jok radio either.

    1. He could get around that if he wanted to. He did shockjock radio and did it well when he chose.

  2. Where do you see Hockey fitting into all this?


  3. Thanks Politically homeless. This is a good analysis and I agree with everything you have written. As an intelligent man, Turnbull has already thought this through and I'm sure he's come to a similar conclusion.
    What you suggest (along with an ALP win at the election) would be the most just and sensible outcome. The LNP needs to reframe itself away from the right-wing tea party sector and it can't do that with the current team. I was dismayed to see the more moderate of the LNP resign at the next election. Not good at all.
    I fervently hope this plays out in the way you suggest for the sake of the country.

    1. The Liberal Party hasn't thought through what it meant to lose the 2007 election, and what the country needs in terms of its future. They think they can avoid all that stuff and they're wrong.

    2. I think the Tea Party end of the LNP needs to suffer another election defeat before the rest of the party learns that the broader electorate rejects them (as has happened in the USA).

      The 2010 election was close enough to make them really believe that their tactics worked and they were foiled at the last hurdle.

  4. I'll be curious to see whether Christian Porter - one of the new recruits you mention with a right wing bias - will end up sticking with the tea party or seeing the bigger picture and moving towards Turnbull moderation. He's young and has a long time ahead of him in Federal politics.

  5. Breaking my 2+ year comment silence to say nothing more than: I freaking love that Jam song.

    And also: I know you're not a fan of the saccharine, but eight years on and you're still a treat to read, Andrew. I was devastated when it looked like you were pulling a hiatus earlier in the year, so thanks for keeping it up.

  6. The Labor Party are proving, yet again, that they can turn on a dime when the chips are down. See June 2010 and June 2013. On the other hand, the Liberals just become more flat-footed when the tide turns against them.

    Witness today's effort against the change from the 'Carbon Tax' to a Floating Carbon Price. The Coalition and the Abbott 'Brains Trust' (and I use the term very lightly), thought that they could just morph their Julia Gillard attack lines to the new leader, saying the floating price is still a tax. However, even if it IS still a tax, it's become a mosquito bite of a tax that no one is going to notice, they are still going to get over-compensated for, and they can feel good about paying because it will have become just the sort of low budget way to pay for Climate Change action that polls for years have said people want to be their favoured outcome.

    Not to mention the 'Fact' that the ALP still haven't started to point out the hypocrisy in the Coalition's attacks on them. As in it's the Coalition that have a Great Big New Tax, on Business, ready to roll, and big service cuts to the useful idiots that vote forthem and against their own interests, in prospect, all to pay for the building of dams for Big Gina up North, so she can be the owner of her very own failed Ord Scheme.

    Frankly, Abbott can witter on all he wants about Kevin Rudd's faults, in ad after ad, just like the Labor Party itself did to him for the last 3 years. And the electorate won't give a damn.

    They put up with it for the last 3 years, and his white-anting of Julia Gillard and still wanted him back. Now they have got him and the polls show that they are happy with the outcome.

    Abbott and CredNane or TexBolt, won't be able to change that.
    Especially not with their recycled old attacks, and NO POLICY. Or policy that they are too afraid to tell the electorate about. The electorate can smell that rat a mile away.

  7. Watched that Kimberly woman on Bolt....

    Whats the strategy here with this person??

    It seems all the dubious losers gravitate to this glorious show...her husband is a very nasty blemish to the alp brand

    Mr Bolt offered her support...


    1. Sources for Herald Sun journalists.

  8. An appropriate post, seeing the polls, which were so much all our reporters would talk about for over two years, are now turning seriously against Abbott.

    It is right to deal with it. As you point out, the problem is that the Tea Party Right has nowhere to go, but to support Abbott. And Turnbull, even though he threw out that kite at the weekend, must realize that a spill now would be too divisive. After the election does seem the better option.

    A genuine attempt at reform then might lead to a better outcome sooner than expected. Labor, even with a comfortable win, looks much more tenuous in the long run. No way would they wear Rudd's poll-media driven obsessions of last time, yet Rudd has shown every sign of attempting to sandbag himself in against a possible rebellion.

    Rudd is still maintaining the myth that he is the "elected Prime Minister", which even he must know is a falsehood. The trouble is, a large section of the public actually believes it. So there are problems with a tight leash. Albanese and Shorten are both pragmatic men, but it is hard to see Rudd heeding their advice and warnings. The presence of strong women in Cabinet may help. They have had a taste of the collegiate style and like it.

    I was looking forward to your promised piece on the Press Gallery, but I guess this latest development has superseded it in currency. I hope it is still on your 'to do' list.

  9. Andrew, I really hope you are right about Turnbull not moving before the election.

    If the Libs don't go to the election with Abbott, they'll forget all about his complete unsuitability and that he is electorate poison, and they'll resurrect him in 2-5 years - possibly straight into the PM chair.... If - when - he loses this election, he'll never be LOTO again with two losses under his belt. He may even - joy! - quit politics altogether! (Hey, a gal can dream.) The Libs also might finally realise that, far from nearly winning 2010, he actually lost it for them.

    1. I would think that Abbott would stay because who else would pay him to ride a bike or go surfing or fight fires after how many volunteers do you know that get paid.

    2. That's a bit harsh. I'm a volunteer firefighter and get paid leave to go out firefighting! I think you are really referring to the expenses he has claimed while doing his stunts.

  10. Sure the Liberals have Mark Textor but Labor has Bruce Hawker, the guy that gave them the Queensland election result.
    Talk about a race to the bottom of the barrel.

    1. I didn't know he was involved in the Queensland massacre. He had run an interesting personal campaign around Rudd in the destabilising days - I assume it was his idea to run with the 'popularly elected' PM as if there was something illegitimate about his overthrow.

      He looked to me, perhaps it was the moustache, very much like Captain Peacock from "Are You Being Served".

      About as effective, too.

  11. my hope is that if there is a Liberal loss at this election they will abandon the insanity of American Teabag Republican ultra right wing politics and return to a more moderate party for Australians

  12. Heh Heh Bob Ellis! Modest chap, isn't he?

    I find him unreadable - I like my optimism to be evidence based, not wish driven waffle

  13. Grumpy Old Sod15/7/13 10:51 pm

    It appears to me that Rudd could win this election (if he calls it shortly) and if this happens, then the 'Liberal' party would be forced into a major rethink and possibly reorganisation. Possibly Turnbull would end up as the leader and then be able to include the type of person you mention within his party. The majority of those there now don't even deserve the donkey vote.

    With Turnbull eventually entrenched the Liberal Party may even become somewhat liberal (a shock to me if it happens but here's hoping) by which time the glaring contradictions within the Labor party may have been repaired by Rudd but more likely than not just be papered over. This would have Turnbull winning in either 2016 or most definitely 2019 by which time those contradictions within the Labor party would really demand a root and branch reorganisation (unless already done by Rudd but I can't see that happening at all).

    Hopefully by 2020 or thereabouts owe would have at least two properly run parties (for the people, by the .... etc etc) that have intelligent and committed people within them thus giving us, the intellectually abused citizens of this great country something to really think about.

    Maybe this is just pie in the sky and we are destined to stumble along with basically what we already have. Gawd help us if we do.

  14. Its John Howard part 2

    Thats the Liberal Party under Mr Abbott.

    By the way Mr Tom Elliot of 3aw has read this post Andrew...


  15. Love you The Jam references - most apt, as well as a most astute analysis.
    I find myself in a dilemma - I cannot stand Rudd and I abhor rewarding bad behaviour, but with Abbot as opposition leader it probably is the lesser of two evils. Aaaaaagh!