Six months ago 54 Liberal Party members and senators stamped the mark of Cain upon their foreheads, deposing as Prime Minister the man who led them back from the political wilderness to which Malcolm Turnbull had consigned them, and then to a smashing 2013 electoral victory. Yet, as noted in my Australian Financial Review article last Tuesday, ‘the new government appears becalmed. It is adrift in a sea of overblown rhetoric unsupported by any achievements worth mentioning’. After six months of dithering, Turnbull has led his government back to endorsing almost every policy laid down by his predecessor months prior to the conspiracy against him.
In one sense, all that dirty political water is now under the bridge. With a federal election imminent, the question is: how should those who, like myself, are ‘maintaining their rage’ against those conspirators approach that event?
Tony Abbott recently voiced the conventional attitude: ‘I believe that there is a vital obligation upon us as Liberals to win the coming election campaign. Whatever might be my concerns about the Turnbull government, they pale in comparison with the prospect of a Shorten Labor government’. One would expect as much from Abbott; but while I disagree with him reluctantly, I must, to a degree, do so.
On 5 December last I said in these pages I would never accept urgings to ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’ because, ‘if treachery and betrayal on this scale are not punished, they will beget more such treachery and betrayal, as Labor Party experience amply demonstrates’.
The magnitude of that political crime last September cannot be overstated. John Howard, of whose prime ministership I wrote in highly favourable terms eight years ago, has demeaned himself by defending the Turnbull conspiracy on the grounds that ‘politics is a numbers game’. Really, John? No questions of principle arise? In that case, your Liberal Party’s ‘broad church’ should be deconsecrated.
Last September’s crime was two-fold. First, by deposing a first-term Prime Minister, it introduced into the Liberal Party the same debased ‘revolving door’ naked numbers philosophy to which the Labor Party had twice descended, assassinating Kevin Rudd in 2010 and then the assassin herself, Julia Gillard, in 2013.
The Turnbull take-over mirrored Labor’s behaviour in a second respect. All three dramatis personae in these successive dramas (including also Rudd’s own 2006 execution of then Labor leader Kim Beazley) were people who sought the prime ministership simply because they felt entitled to it. They sought power, in short, not from any principled belief in serving their country in the highest political office in the land, but for the power it would give them personally.
Any wonder that, having gained power, Rudd should then have sought a focus group to advise him on what he should believe in? Or that Gillard (who actually did believe in the centrality to our national life of a trade union movement increasingly corrupted to the point of criminality) should have left Australia in a shambles even outdoing that of the late Gough Whitlam?
In choosing Turnbull to displace a Prime Minister who, for all his mistakes, was and remains a decent and genuinely patriotic man, those 54 members and senators chose a man in that same Rudd/Gillard mould. For one thing is clear: Turnbull, having seized power, has no idea what to do with it, other than to appear smiling beatifically before the television cameras, or grinning into those aptly-named ‘selfies’.
I return, therefore, to my question: in the coming election, what is to be done?
One distinguished contributor to this journal, Professor James Allan – who, like myself, remains entirely unreconciled to the Turnbull putsch – has committed to the nuclear option. If, by voting against this government, he and others bring in a Labor one, then that outcome, though regrettable, will teach the Liberal Party a lesson it will never forget.
My own view is similar; but there may be an alternative which, depending on how the electoral cards fall, would administer much the same medicine while not (quite) electing Labor.
The Coalition parties in the House of Representatives today comprise 75 Liberals and 15 Nationals, and enjoy an absolute majority of 30. Assume the Nationals and four assorted others hold their seats, and that Fairfax reverts to the Liberals; losing 17 Liberal seats would then cost them their majority. Suppose, however, that they lost only 15 seats; post-election the Coalition would be reduced to 76 members, facing a 70-member Labor Party and four others – a bare majority.
Imagine that Liberal party room on its first meeting. Would those lucky ones still there flock to re-elect Turnbull as their leader? And in the joint party room, where Nationals would now comprise a higher proportion (with arithmetical consequences for filling Cabinet and outer ministry positions), might there not be some recriminations over the Liberals having placed the Coalition’s destiny in such jeopardy?
In 1967 John McEwen would not wear Billy McMahon as Liberal leader. Would Barnaby Joyce, now in the role of king-maker, continue to wear Turnbull? Would he perhaps prefer the leadership company of his old Riverview buddy? That many of those marginal seat ‘bedwetters’ who gave Turnbull his numbers were among those Liberal losers would lend added piquancy to it all.
A fantasy, you think? Maybe; but my purpose is only to point out that, while sharing Professor Allan’s views, I can envisage a scenario that, while falling short of his nuclear option, still delivers much the same benefits without that option’s heavy costs.
For myself, when I vote in my safe Liberal North Sydney electorate, I shall naturally place the Liberal last, not with any hope of defeating him but to express my contempt for his party’s behaviour.
In the Senate, I will easily be able to find six (or twelve) choices below the line while ignoring not merely the Liberals but also Labor and the Greens. I look forward to it.
John Stone is a former Secretary to the Treasury (1979-84) and former National Party Senate leader (1987-90)
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