Returning this morning after three weeks in the Old Dart and the USA, I was greeted by yet another lousy Newspoll for Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition.
If anything, a two-party split of 55-45 is surprisingly good after the citizenship shenanigans of the last fortnight, and the Prime Minister’s failure to lead from the moment the whole fiasco broke back in July. What worries most is Bill Shorten narrowing the preferred PM gap to just a couple of points: it has been the one polling comfort for Turnbull in spite of everything, and even that’s now looking shaky indeed. ‘Look at me’ selfies with Donald Trump and Xi Jinping won’t change that: rather, they make Turnbull look even less statesmanlike.
In the wake of today’s rotten poll, The Australian’s reporting that Julie Bishop’s being looked at seriously as leadership material as Turnbull continues to stumble.
But if Bishop’s the answer, what’s the blinking question? Her being the Liberal Vicar of Bray, moving effortlessly and oleaginously to support the regime du jour, doesn’t create trust in the party room. Nor does her record of policy achievement inspire confidence that a PM Bishop can seize the policy agenda by the scruff of the neck and pout Shorten and Labor back in their electoral box.
If there must be a leadership change – and the case for sticking with Turnbull and at least show a semblance of integrity is still strong – Bishop isn’t the one. She should concentrate on being foreign minister and contributing around the Cabinet table.
Instead, it must be someone who can unite the warring Liberal wings, has the respect of both party room and wider membership, can initiate as well as implement policy, has a proven track record of competence and political nous, and can call on the talents of all Liberal and National MPs to serve the Coalition cause (code for being able to bring Tony Abbott back into Cabinet).
There is a Western Australian who ticks all these boxes. But Julie Bishop it ain’t.
It is Mathias Cormann.
After his surprise appointment by Abbott in 2013, the Finance minister has excelled. His contribution to successive budgets has largely kept the government’s show on the road. He has handled curly political briefs, from selling Medibank Private to designing and implementing the same-sex marriage plebiscite, with aplomb. He is willing to sell the government and eat manure sandwich after manure sandwich in doing so. He’s respected by the Opposition and cross-bench in the Senate for his negotiating skills and integrity.
Even Angela Merkel thinks he’s a bit of all right. And Cormann’s back-story as a German-speaking Belgian who fell in love with his adopted country and made a great success of his life here, is anything but ordinary.
Cormann would be a walk-up starter if the leadership became vacant, save for the little problem of his being a senator. But as with John Gorton in 1968, he can be PM from the Senate until a lower house seat opens up, and there are several Western Australian under-achieving backbenchers who could be tapped to make way for him, if they can be ‘persuaded’ to accept that the good of the country, and the Liberal party, requires them to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
If Turnbull cannot survive, the Liberals can’t easily go back to Abbott, and there are no lower house Cabinet ministers either seasoned for the leadership, or like Bishop and Scott Morrison are tainted by their history. Going for a senator may be a leap of faith, but in Cormann’s case his safe pair of hands makes him well worth considering if Turnbull sees the inevitable and falls on his sword.
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