Australian Notes

Australian notes

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

Malleable expectations

Gary Johns is a fellow Speccie contributor. He’s also a friend. In fact, next month my wife and I have been invited to dine chez Johns. I mention all that because last week Gary wrote a piece in the Australian which argued that the Liberal Party should not dump Turnbull; it should stick with him; it should go to the next election with Team Turnbull in place. After all, said Johns, Malcolm’s a man of no real principles – ‘malleable’ is the quaint way that Johns termed it – so that constraining or enticing our present PM into holding firm to a few right-of-centre positions is well within the powers of the partyroom.

Gary then claimed that moves to ditch Mr Turnbull, in precisely the same fashion as Mr Turnbull had ditched Mr Abbott, were motivated by nothing more than feelings of revenge; he asserted that any such attempt would be ‘thin and self-serving’. Gary then opted to speak on behalf of tens of millions of Australian voters by proclaiming that the ‘Australian electorate will not tolerate [another] change of PM other than by their own hand’.

I will stop there as you now have the general gist of Gary’s argument for why the Libs ought to retain Herr Turnbull. It’s one part denigration of the possible long-term worth of revenge and Old Testament type mores. It’s another part psephology and Gary indulging in some sort of prognosticating in these days when predictors have been notoriously wrong-footed all over the place (my guess being that all sorts of commentators and pollsters – including more than a few on the Australian itself – warned that the UK and US electorates ‘will not tolerate Brexit/Trump’ only to be proven comprehensively wrong). Oh, and it’s third part an ode to malleable expectations, certainly not great ones, but rather a type of counsel of despair to the effect that ‘this is the best you right-of-centre crowd can hope for, to hang in there with Malcolm in the hope that enough Coalition MPs can keep in check his progressive inclinations’.

And now, at the risk of being given a good talking to at Gary’s house next month, let me tell you why his argument is complete tosh. Bollocks may be a more apt term.


First off then, notice that there is no evidence whatsoever that the party room has thus far kept supposedly Malleable Malcolm on an acceptably right-of-centre course. I need only mention the superannuation tax grab under his PMship. Or his pro-Gonski education spending, which is also incredibly centralist and extra awful for federalists. Or the recent budget. Or the NBN spending. Or paying $90 million to those on Manus. Or the banks levy. Or the gutless grovelling to the puffed-up Victorian judges. Or Turnbull’s and Brandis’s appointments of Ed Santow and Rosalind Croucher to the Human Rights Commission, of Justin Milne and indeed Michelle Guthrie to oversee the ABC, and of numerous non-Righties to judgeships and everything else. And I have not yet even included Finkel in that list, the 42 per cent plan, but God knows it is like a spectre haunting this country.

Put bluntly, if that’s the Coalition keeping Mr Turnbull (aka Malleable Man) in check and sufficiently right-of-centre, then I vote for something else. Plus, if we all took Gary’s advice and by some fluke Malcolm got a big majority does anyone believe he’d be malleable? And by the way, where is the supposedly restraining force of Barnaby Joyce in all of this? As far as I can tell he and the Nats have been wholly useless.

But Gary Johns implicitly assures us that we can ignore the last two years of what in the philosophy of science is known as ‘the facts’ and now expect the conservative elements in the partyroom to keep Old Malleable Mal in check. Not good enough I’m afraid Gary, at least not for me and I suspect not for masses of former Liberal voters.

Next is the assertion that this is all about revenge. But that’s not quite right. Sure, if a cuckoo comes into a nest and pushes out the Menziean Liberal/Conservative egg, replacing it with a Labor-lite progressive egg, those who want now to get the Labor-lite impostor out in turn can be accused of seeking revenge. But it’s a lot more than that, isn’t it? In Canada when the right-of-centre Conservative party drifted ever more to the left it eventually was obliterated in an election, down to 2 (yes 2) seats in a parliament of over 250. But out of that grew Stephen Harper’s Reform Party that ended up engineering a reverse takeover of the moribund Tories (taking back their name) and Harper went on to win three elections as an actual, you know, conservative. Simply put, you can’t keep drifting ever more leftwards under the threat that ‘well, the other team is even more left’. Sometimes it is better to take your medicine, meaning lose, and then clean out the party. In fact, that was my argument at the last election: that it would have been better to see Shorten win by a small margin to get Turnbull out. Are there any readers out there who honestly believe a Shorten government would have enacted much worse legislation than we’ve seen from Team Turnbull since the last election, given that there would have been a re-invigorated Liberal Opposition that actually believed something on the other benches?

So I say the sooner the cuckoo egg is removed, the better. Any theory of punishment, by the way, allows for an element of revenge. That is needed to keep people honest in the future, or rather future Liberal MPs.

And lastly there is Gary’s psephology, his implicit assertion that Turnbull will do better at the polls. This rests on the notion that Australian voters will punish another leadership coup, even if the first one installed a cuckoo. I disagree. In fact, we saw with Labor that re-installing Rudd saved some of the Labor furniture. And Turnbull was a terrible campaigner, not a single authentic bone in his political body.

So let me lay my cards on the table. Abbott would do better at the next election. Dutton would do better. Anyone who was not part of the 54 bedwetting defenestration gang, a gang in which I most definitely include Morrison. Throw a dart at the phone book and take that person.

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