Guest Notes

Australian notes

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

Irony of ironies: Abbott to save Turnbull?

Putting Malcolm Turnbull in the Lodge has not worked out as the conspirators had imagined. How ironical it is that Tony Abbott may come to be Turnbull’s saviour from electoral defeat. Even then, the double dissolution could prove pointless with the government not only facing a hostile senate but also lacking a joint sitting majority. Of course even now Turnbull could do as he is wont, take the issue off the table and abandon the double dissolution. But that would only confirm what the electorate suspects: compared with Abbott, he is weak and indecisive, without any idea of how to deal with the nation’s serious problems. The result is that he has so raised the electoral chances of the totally unreformed and unworthy opposition that they are champing at the bit, eager to grant him supply based on the fiction that this has always been Labor policy.

Turnbull’s standing in the community would be far worse today but for the fact that the commentariat had invested so much in unseating Abbott. They can hardly now admit that they had backed the wrong horse.

Their first tactic is to minimise any adverse reporting about the amateurish confusion that is now normal practice in the Turnbull government. One example will suffice, the state income tax and GST fiasco which ensured that any serious reform of the federation would be off the agenda for a decade. Given that the states had expert advice that reform consistent with international best practice would benefit the economy by $150 billion annually, this loss surely merited a major exposure and analysis by a serious media.

But neither this nor several other similar failings were reported with anything like the volume, ridicule or concern that were allocated to the reporting of those significant national events: the eating of a raw onion, winking at a radio host, wearing a lifesaver’s swimming costume while on voluntary duty, or awarding Prince Philip an honour equivalent to that given by over forty republics and monarchies without their media even blinking an eyelid.

The second tactic of the commentariat is to keep up their anti-Abbott campaign. Led by a self-confessed liar, their attack centres on their artificial interpretation of Abbott’s entirely honourable assurance there would be would be ‘no wrecking, no undermining, no sniping.’

And there has been none. Anything Abbott has done or said has been fair, truthful and fully attributable to him. None of this could be construed as ‘wrecking, undermining or sniping’. Of course the commentariat knows exactly what these words mean: all require the perpetrator to be underhand. Abbott has acted openly and with perfect propriety.

The fact is the commentariat will never be satisfied until Abbott takes a vow of monastic silence and leaves Parliament. In the meantime, a spectre looms over the election, revealed by that great barometer of rank and file opinion, commercial talkback radio, and corroborated by the letters pages of the Murdoch newspapers. This is that a significant number of conservative voters have decided they will never vote for a Turnbull-led government. It is more important, these conservatives say, that the party be cured of an alien infestation by the hard left and Tammany Hall style lobbyists than that the Liberals continue in office. They are not persuaded by the argument that a Shorten government would be worse, that government debt would rise to and over 40 per cent of GDP, that the borders would be undone and that national defence be run down. Some even argue that Turnbull, endowed with a mandate, would default to the hard left.

The commentariat dismisses such conservatives as ‘delusional’, while the Liberal eminence Mark Textor declares urbi et orbi, that conservative protest votes are of no account because Turnbull will attract substitute voters.

The only firm evidence we have of the probable size of the conservative revolt is in the 2015 North Sydney by-election. There was a large swing in the primary vote of 12.8 per cent against the government, falling to 5.7 per cent on the two party preferred vote. Although the Turnbull euphoria still flourished, there was no evidence of the operation of the Textor proposition that he would attract votes compensating for the conservative defection. Labor and the Greens may well like to see one of their own kind leading the Liberals, but perish the thought that they would ever vote Liberal.

According to the ABC’s Antony Green, a uniform swing of 4.0 per cent would give Labor government. So the North Sydney by-election will give the government little comfort .

Clearly the Liberals desperately need something to bring back the conservative voters they lost by knifing the leader. Yet Turnbull insists on provoking the conservatives by not, for example, inviting Abbott to be Minister for Defence and by the hard left and lobbyist control of preselections, most recently for the NSW Senate and the seat of Mackellar. (Incidentally, the well-known conservative and former talkback commentator, Jim Ball, has already announced his candidature for that seat.)

It is indeed ironical that probably the only thing that can save the Turnbull government is Tony Abbott’s nobility and decency. Only he can persuade a significant number of true conservatives to come back. He recently delivered a stirring address on this to a crowd of over 400 at Sydney’s Le Montage, where his conference president John Caputo had invited me to move the vote of thanks. In his address, he graciously and generously called for a return of the government led by the very man who knifed him, as being in the best interests of the nation.

The commentariat, of course, scoffs at even the possibility of Abbott’s return, revealing their innermost fears. It was once considered normal for defeated leaders to return to office, and more recent history is full of examples of the return of the defeated including such eminent leaders as Churchill, Menzies, De Gaulle, Howard and Reagan. Only someone with no understanding of history nor appreciation of the exceptional qualities of Tony Abbott would be so dismissive of the possibility of his return.

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