This is the moment Australia's conservatives worked so hard for so long to achieve. Why, then, is everything crumbling around them? Could it be that what Donald Horne called "second-rate people" are part of our defences against tyranny?
The press gallery started the year by trumpeting a 1% rise in polls as "a strong start to the year" for the government, and we now see why that was not merely wrong but fundamentally stupid. It simply had no basis in fact. It was wishful thinking masquerading as analysis.
There Can Be Only OneTurnbull and Joyce have been at one another's throats for a week now, and today it came out into the open.
Malcolm Turnbull is the first Prime Minister since Gorton and McMahon whose parents were not married before and throughout his childhood. Keepers of the sacred flame of Leather Jacket Malcolm, closet liberal, overlook and cannot reconcile his absolutely fustilarian attitudes toward marriage and adultery. It may explain why his approach to the same-sex marriage debate convinced both sides he wasn't with either. The amendments to the ministerial code are in line with that aspect of the man: if you ever wanted an authentic response from Turnbull's heart to a public policy issue, that will have to do.
Barnaby Joyce has rallied his party around him (see below) and acts like he's invincible. In 2009, Joyce's lower-key predecessor Warren Truss helped sink Turnbull's first term as Liberal leader when he all but declared he wouldn't work with him. Joyce is trying to reprise that when he called Turnbull "inept", but the stakes in government are higher than they were back then. He has reached the stage where Nobody Tells Him What To Do, what the Greeks called hubris - and you don't need a classical education to know what comes next.
From time to time the Nationals have to stand up to the Liberals to protect their distinct identity, and to assert the interests of rural constituents. This is not one of those times. Any National who dies in a ditch defending Joyce - come to think of it, they seem awfully quiet at time of writing - gets nothing from this government. Even Christensen has retreated into the arms of his white supremacist buddies than defend the man who stuck his neck out for him.
Joyce is the minister in charge of national infrastructure. To do that job you need to operate effectively across government, and with the now-Opposition in order to give jittery financiers the bipartisan support they crave. If Joyce can't do that, they will ramp up their relationship with former minister and current shadow, Anthony Albanese, and wait out the fall of this government. A Coalition government will do absolutely anything to avoid this. Even if Turnbull backs down, the Nationals will need some way of pulling Joyce's head in now that they have forfeited the ability to do so themselves.
How am I supposed to live without you?Barnaby Joyce first rose to prominence as a Senate candidate for the Nationals in the 2004 election, by publicly taking positions contrary to his then-leader John Anderson. Joyce's term in the Senate began the following year. For over a decade, he has been a dominant personality in the Nationals. He has shaped the public image of that party. The fact is that if you want to be a Nationals MP, you are going to have to deal with Joyce.
There are 16 Nationals in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate. Only Luke Hartsuyker and Senator Nigel Scullion entered parliament before Joyce (both in 2001): all the rest of them have entered a parliamentary party which he has shaped. Barry O'Sullivan is only in the Senate because Joyce resigned from it. Matteo Canavan was a member of Joyce's staff. Joyce has promised publicly to get George Christensen into Cabinet. It could have been different - there are Nationals preselection candidates, dedicated members of their party, who were defeated or dissuaded from running because Joyce took against them. Those who are there are largely Barnaby's people. Apart from Hanson, no other federal political party leader has that degree of control over his caucus/party room. If you pardon the expression, Joyce has made his bed and is lying in it.
Nationals MPs know that Joyce has done everything necessary to be kicked out of a leadership role. They are sincere about marriage and families. Natalie Joyce and her daughters are not abstractions, as they are for journalists or bloggers; they are people they've all known well for years. It is telling that no Nationals other than Joyce and those in his retinue, Nash and Canavan, have been affected by section 44 and its questions over citizenship: while that's partly down to membership demography, it also shows the party doesn't have a culture of playing fast and loose over constitutional validity.
The Nationals can't get rid of Joyce because they can't imagine their party or life generally without him. Liberals can and do imagine a future without Turnbull; Shorten isn't the be-all-and-end-all of Labor, either. If you can't even imagine the Nationals without Barnaby Joyce, what are your grand visions for rural Australia worth? You can see how Joyce persuaded the party to use its scarce funds to tide him over during the byelection campaign: imagine Turnbull, Shorten, or di Natale asking the same of their respective parties.
Joyce might go within the next few days or he might not. Media assertions about him "surviving" or "weathering the storm" are stupid, because we have seen this man in his flaws. Joyce does not have nerves of steel and an unconquerable will (dare to quibble with that, press gallery drones who've known him for years). Joyce is a man who has been under extreme pressure for a long time now, and the idea that he will simply carry on as before is a fantasy.
What the Nationals are doing by dithering over his future is putting it into the hands of the unknown public. In other leadership challenges, MPs invoke the public being for this candidate or against that as reasons for voting as they do. Because the press gallery denied New Englanders the necessary input into their decision on 2 December, nobody with the Nationals party room has a real clue about what people think about what has now come to light about Joyce.
What is most likely to happen is that, at some point, the Nationals will be required to take a strong public position on an issue. Joyce will not be able to make that position, because the response will be derision. This is a basic aspect of leadership, and Barnaby Joyce is not up to it. He never was, and all the glowing profiles written about him from the front bars of dusty pubs somewhere are just so much
Keep in mind that recent polling would see at least four Nationals MPs (Michelle Landry, Ken O'Dowd, Kevin Hogan and George Christensen) likely to lose their seats to Labor. O'Dowd might not be Joyce's favourite bloke right now, but their future requires them to work something out or hang separately: Joyce can't dispose of him like he did with previous party opponents. Others may come under threat from local heroes who don't think the incumbents are up to the job (e.g. in 2016 Rob Oakeshott went from a standing start to come within 5% of knocking off Luke Hartsuyker in Cowper). The Nationals have this in mind. Existential pressures such as these emphasise the need to make a decision, but do not necessarily improve the quality of the decision made.
The undead John RuddickOnce again, the NSW Liberals have expressed a wish to broaden their base beyond their existing membership and existing pool of candidates. Once again, John Ruddick pops up and claims The Members want people like him and Abbott to run the party. Once again, the NSW Liberals vote for something more than what they have, as befits an aspirational people. Once again, Ruddick convinces himself - and then some of the more gullible journalists - that an actual vote of party members represents a kind of false consciousness.
Tony Abbott disgraces himself further by lending his name to Ruddick's quixotic cause. He gets his just reward by being shown not to be The True Champion Of The Liberal Base, The King O'er Narrabeen Lake, to all but the most dull-witted observers. If Ruddick were elected to parliament, he'd give Turnbull some minor grief and then defect to the Cory Tories; NSW Liberals know this and consistently vote against him. Trent Zimmerman beat him for NSW Young Liberal President in 1991 and will beat him again if Ruddick runs for preselection in North Sydney. After a few months, journalists will again return to Ruddick as though he were A True Voice Of The Liberal Base, regardless of the accumulated evidence.
The hill to die onIn Victoria and Queensland, the coalition has basically offered their agenda to that of the Murdoch papers. Teach Aussie values rather than fancy-pants foreign languages or computer code; but deride the teachers doing the teaching. Law and order, but no new prisons and run down lawyers and judges.
Their commitment is now total, but their success is far from assured. Matthew Guy should have resigned over the "lobster mobster" thing because he is now diminished, if not absurd. Deb Frecklington in Queensland is willing to lend her name to the daily story in The Courier Mail but in recent years success in Queensland politics has been more assured by turning away from that noisy and insubstantial publication. Could Guy and Frecklington be the last conservative leaders willing to die on the hill set for them by the Murdoch papers?
Peter Dutton's scare campaign against African gangs in Melbourne has done nothing for the conservative vote in Melbourne nor in Queensland. Could this utter lack of impact be a harbinger for his political future? Would it make any self-respecting journalist wonder if the real story was wherever Dutton wasn't? The answer to the latter question is no, of course, so that they can try to drum up interest in a dead contest ahead of, well, any other live but complex issue.
Matters of life and deathConservatives failed at blocking same-sex marriage, though they succeeded in blocking Malcolm Turnbull in claiming any credit for it. Welfare crackdowns like the debit card and robodebts are compensation for aggrieved conservatives. They won't win the euthanasia debate but they will win concessions like more palliative care and psychotropic drugs for the terminally ill. Offshore detention is a way of penalising some, but not all, non-Anglo migrants. Conservatives wan economic growth without economic disruption: this explains why education funding and the broadband network are so limited. They've given up altogether on Indigenous people. They are failing badly in invoking the authority of religion in any area beyond the strictly theological.
Conservatives can't win the big debates about our economic future but they are doubling down on the petty measures to which they find themselves confined. This is called the culture war, and you take up arms at your own peril. It is not designed to be won, it is designed to give nobodies something to do.
The AnglosphereBoth Theresa May and Donald Trump have bitten off more than they can chew. Neither offer much help to conservatives in Australia. The NZ Nationals under Key and English provided solid examples for Australian conservatives, now both are gone. Boris Johnson is yet another British politician who seems well-disposed to Australians but offers nothing whatsoever in policy terms. Julie Bishop has been Shadow Foreign Minister and now Minister for a decade, and she seems utterly discombobulated by events in foreign policy; there is no evidence anyone else in the Coalition parties in thinking about the many moving parts in foreign policy right now. The foreign editor of The Australian, one of the great champions of the Anglosphere, is more at home with shenanigans at Young Liberal branches in northwestern Sydney than he is with actual foreigns, and his counterpart at Fairfax is obviously an algorithm that synthesises American magazines that the company hopes their readers have not read. There are no lessons CrosbyTextor can apply to Australian campaigns from the widely discredited 2017 UK election. No clues are offered, nor any picked up.
At the moment of triumphStrong, stable leadership is easy to talk about, hard to deliver. The moment has arrived for Australian conservatives but they have nothing to show for it. It's as though conservative triumph had no moment beyond the careers of empty vessels like Abbott or Abetz. Conservatives don't do steady any more, and shirk the responsibilities that come with paternalism and/or The White Man's Burden.
The consensus for what should replace them isn't clear, but it never is. We should be at a moment of conservative triumph, and see what that belief system looks like at its finest and most effective. Even for dedicated followers such triumph seems to ring hollow; and what to celebrate, what to cast away, is no clearer than it might be in a moment of conservative defeat.