Forget all the recent talk about labels and who gets to wear the tag of ‘centrist’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or the even more ridiculous task of retrospectively guessing what some historical figure would have called himself a half century in the future. Labels are there to aid in thinking, to make thinking possible in fact, but they are always and everywhere over and under inclusive as well as occasionally being misleading.
So let me give a different take on today’s fraught situation for Team Turnbull. A key difference in politics and in how one sees the world politically centres on human nature. Do you see humans as essentially malleable and plastic and able to be shaped in whatever way is deemed desirable? Or, agreeing with Steven Pinker and others, do you think a lot of things are in effect hard-wired into us humans? Put differently, do you believe that nature and genes play at least as big role as nurture, as I do?
The left side of politics, from Marxists through socialists over to social democrats, are notoriously keen to understand humans as blank slates. Government can then mould and improve them. What I’ll call ‘Righties’ tend to take what I think is a much more evidence-based and non-malleable view of human nature. So Righties want to work with human nature as it is to make the best they can of the world. But utopian schemes are out. They won’t happen. Law will never wither away. It’s not all about some Marxist competition for resources. Human nature is what it is, probably the effect of millions of years of evolutionary pressures.
Now if any of that sounds plausible to you go back and consider the last few years of turmoil in the Liberal Party here in Australia. And do so putting to one side all issues of substance, of whether you find the substantive positions of Turnbull better or worse than those of Abbott. What we see is that a first term prime minister was defenestrated by a faction within his own party. That faction did not pull together and try to prevail against Labor as part of the larger team. It undermined the then PM; it plotted; it destabilised and, if we can believe what Mr Pyne says when gloating to his own people, then it did so for quite a while indeed.
And then a new PM backstabbed his way to the top. He defenestrated not a long-term PM who had had a pretty fair go but a new PM who had delivered a massive majority. This man with blood on his hands now asks for party unity and that everyone pull together. He wants to draw a line in the sand and forget the past.
Here’s my question. As a Righty, someone who takes human nature as he or she finds it and does not believe people are infinitely plastic, how likely is that to happen? More specifically, how likely is it to happen today, years down the track? Here’s a follow-up question. When the journalists and politicians who were part of the coup-supporting faction – the ones urging Malcolm on and helping him – are the ones today urging unity what likelihood is there that the side that was defenestrated will listen to them? Personally, I’d say the chances are zero. Human nature being what it is, Turnbull is today finished because too many Righties – me included – will never now support him. We’re not listening. We want him out. It’s human nature my friends, which we Righties are supposed to take into account – which makes you wonder what sort of morons ever thought defenestrating a first term PM was a good idea.
Could Malcolm have saved the situation after the coup? Well, I think there were two ways in which he could have done so. First off, he could have (and at the time I said he should have) called an immediate election. Dress it up as believing you need a mandate from the voters or something like that. And then win big, really big. Nothing overcomes the desire for reciprocity like winning.
Alternatively, on assuming the top job Malcolm could have been incredibly Machiavellian and stabbed many of his own ‘moderate’ supporters in the back. Keep Abbott in the cabinet. Put more dries than wets in cabinet. Hang many of the plotters who got you the job out to dry. This would go a long way to satisfying the sort of sentiments hard-wired into us humans, ones that are not easily suppressed. So refocus them onto Messrs’ Ryan and Pyne and Brandis, say.
Oh, and notice in this analysis all the talk along the lines of ‘we Libs can’t indulge in another execution of a sitting PM’ is nonsense. Humans are easily able to distinguish between A) ‘don’t stab some new PM in the back’ from B) ‘don’t stab in the back this same guy who himself stabbed a first term PM’. The transaction costs of the two actions are nowhere near the same. Many as poetic justice, as Malcolm reaping what he had sowed, will see the latter situation. Or at least that’s how many long-serving Liberal Party members will see it, again myself included.
At any rate it seems pretty clear to me that Turnbull is finished, however much the Turnbull coup-supporting ABC and Fairfax crowd try desperately to prop him up. If he stays until the next election he’ll lose and he’ll lose because big numbers of former Lib voters won’t support him. Let’s call it human nature. And all the plaintive pleas in the world to rejoin the team, especially those from politicians and journalists who supported the first coup, will not help. If anything they are counter-productive. That’s why so many former Liberal party supporters want to blow the party up and rebuild from the ashes. That’s why they won’t vote Liberal next election.
Last point. Most of the responses humans have evolved to exhibit – like tit for tat reciprocal punishment – have good long-term consequences, including for political parties. Give it time my friends. Give it time.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.