Leading article Australia

Turnbull’s Costa Concordia

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

22 September 2018

9:00 AM

In 2012, the liner Costa Concordia struck a rock just off the Italian coast. The huge ship capsized and sank, and 32 passengers and crew lost their lives. For several years the wreck lay on her side half-submerged, testament to the dereliction of duty of her cowardly captain, Francesco Schettino.

To impress his mistress, Schettino sailed the Costa Concordia recklessly close to shore. When the ship was being evacuated and panic reigned, Schettino scuttled into a lifeboat while hundreds of others remained aboard, point-blank refusing to return to his stricken ship to lead his crew and save lives. He gave no assistance to the competent crew still on board trying to do the right thing. Schettino rightly was convicted by an Italian court of manslaughter and is now serving a long prison sentence.

There is a striking parallel between the fate of the Costa Concordia and Francesco Schettino, and that of the Liberal party and the now former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Turnbull steered the Liberal ship of state onto the rocks of energy policy, recklessly trying to impress his green lobby mistress with his personal commitment to carbon emissions reduction, and utterly unrealistic Paris Agreement targets, ahead of his duty to reduce power prices for struggling Australian households and businesses. In doing so, Mr Turnbull ignored the real concerns of his passengers, the Australian people. He failed to listen to warnings from political realists in his own crew, notably Tony Abbott, simply because he didn’t like them. As a result, his leadership foundered last month along with his National Energy Guarantee.

But once his Liberal ship hit the rocks, Mr Turnbull abandoned her with a breathtaking dereliction of political duty.  He made sure an emergency captain he loathed, Peter Dutton, was blocked from taking the helm. He plotted not only to stop Mr Dutton, but to ensure a candidate acceptable to him, Scott Morrison or Julie Bishop, gained enough time to take the leadership even as the government teetered on the brink of collapse. By employing political rat cunning against his colleagues in a way he never did against Bill Shorten and Labor, Mr Turnbull widened ugly divisions within his own party that will be almost impossible to heal before the federal election due in eight months’ time.

It is his conduct since the ballot, however, that is most like that of the pathetic Captain Schettino. Like Schettino, Mr Turnbull abandoned his stricken ship. Having lost the leadership, he bailed from his seat and cancelled the government’s parliamentary majority – a parlous majority that he created through his inept 2016 election campaign. He not only forced a by-election for Wentworth, but he and wife Lucy scarpered off to New York, not lifting a finger to help his preselected successor and outstanding candidate, Dave Sharma, fend off a determined challenge by Labor and media darling independent, Kerryn Phelps. Polls and Liberal insiders suggest the Liberals can lose Wentworth, but that doesn’t seem to bother Mr Turnbull, nor will he return early to help save his seat. Indeed, he is showing more loyalty to his son Alex, who is actively fundraising for Labor out of spite, than to the party that gave him – however foolishly – the opportunity to realise his prime ministerial ambitions.

Even more reprehensibly, Mr Turnbull’s open lobbying of Mr Morrison and other Liberal colleagues, to ensure Mr Dutton’s eligibility to sit as an MP is referred to the High Court, is a bastard act against his own government. The new prime minister has made it clear that he doesn’t agree, yet Mr Turnbull persists, eager to settle scores – to Labor’s delight. Mr Turnbull should accept Mr Morrison is now in charge and simply shut up. His disgraceful post-leadership conduct makes clear Mr Turnbull’s highest loyalty was always to himself, the Liberal party being merely a flag of convenience for his vaulting ambitions.

Mr Morrison has made a promising start to saving Liberal furniture. The decision to split the Energy and Environment portfolios, and to install Angus Taylor in charge of the former, was inspired. More worrying, however, is the failure to follow through and consign emissions reductions to the dustbin of Liberal party policy making.

The polls suggest the Coalition is doomed. But Mr Morrison can still succeed, even though Mr Turnbull’s childish and selfish antics deprive him of the little political oxygen available. To do so, the new PM needs to rediscover the natural conservative values Mr Turnbull worked so hard to bury. He must make bold statements unequivocally deploring political correctness and aggressively take the fight to Labor on cultural values.

Politics is a brutal business, but it is also a test of character. When grace, dignity and courage were called for, Mr Turnbull instead displayed petulance, arrogance and hubris. History will not be kind to him and his prime ministership, and the pathetic manner of his departure ensures he will be remembered as the Francesco Schettino of Australian politics.

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