Questions of causation are notoriously tricky as well as being highly susceptible to confirmation bias – in this context that means that you find the starting point, or triggering cause, that best meshes with your underlying substantive beliefs or preferences or druthers. Now in law questions of causation, especially when determining issues of negligence, are often dealt with using what’s known as the ‘but-for’ test. The idea is that ‘but for’ some action X none of the rest of the later circumstances that eventually led to the calamity would have happened. So X is deemed to be a key cause, one that will often attract blame and opprobrium.
Of course, there’s a certain amount of arbitrariness or implicitly begging the question (that phrase here being used in its proper, not popular, sense) going on with this test. After all, there are myriad causes leading up to any effect, calamities included. So ‘but for’ any of them the calamity might not have happened. Think about it for even a moment and you quickly realise that questions of causation can lead those who disagree into a quicksand of back and forth raw assertions that more or less mirror the disputants’ underlying substantive positions. Still, conceding all that, you can do a lot worse than asking the ‘but for’ question in the sense of going back to the earliest (and otherwise avoidable) action in time that plausibly triggered everything else and attributing to it the key role in terms of causation and so blame.
And that little preamble leads me to the fiasco that is our current national Liberal Party, now part of a minority Coalition government having lost the Wentworth byelection this past weekend. You don’t need me to tell you what a mess this Scott Morrison government has become. In trying to win what is probably one of the three or four most left-leaning Liberal seats, Morrison campaigned for Wentworth by sounding as though he were auditioning for a job as cheerleader-in-chief for Malcolm Turnbull.
Had you just landed from Mars you’d have thought Turnbull was about to be declared a saint, such were Sco-Mo’s ‘it wasn’t me’, ‘I was by his side to the end’, ‘it was those other nasty partyroom spill perpetrators’ special pleadings. And even all that nauseating guff didn’t work in a constituency that always looked like a noticeably leftwards outlier in terms of where the median views of a Coalition government’s voters would lie.
So now Morrison has to pivot massively away from his Turnbullesque genuflecting as he tries to get ready for a general election where the preponderance of the party base across the country (correctly in my view) thought Turnbull was the problem, not the saviour. Henceforth, Morrison will be dealing with them; core Coalition voters who thought that the Libs should have gotten rid of Malcolm earlier, at least a year ago, not an unrepresentative slice of incredibly upmarket Sydney voters who fly business class, drive their BMWs to work from their solar panelled mansions while lamenting the coming global warming calamity that only the Paris Accords and more renewables can forestall and who loved Malcolm. Having tried to appeal to that virtue-signalling lot, good luck attempting to appeal to core conservative voters in this country.
I won’t bother pointing out the obvious, which is that in forcing this byelection Malcolm was a self-obsessed bastard with no real loyalty to the Liberal Party. Anyone who thinks Malcolm’s behaviour after being knifed was better than Tony’s is simply from a different planet than I. Even Black Handers like Pyne should be able to see this is true.
No, instead let us ask the causation question. What is the biggest and most blameworthy cause of the likely electoral whipping that will soon be dished out to Team Morrison and this Coalition government? Well, the answer to my mind is pretty obvious. ‘But for’ the knifing of a first term PM who had won your party a massive majority and the installing of the most left-leaning Liberal PM ever, none of the ensuing chaos would have happened. Worse, it was obvious at the time that knifing a first term PM was incredibly stupid and overwhelmingly likely to lead to terrible consequences. Heck, it was obvious enough for me to predict it in the pages of this journal only a day or two after it happened in 2015. As I said then, even two decades later the Tories in Britain were still trying to heal the wounds caused by knifing Maggie Thatcher, and there’s a lot more justification for getting rid of a long-serving PM than of one who’s barely halfway through his first term.
More and more we learn that Turnbull and some core co-conspirators started plotting Abbott’s demise shortly after the big 2013 election win. Sure, the ABC was all too happy to help out a more left-leaning potential leader. Sure, Tony made errors, most of them related to not standing up for his core convictions (like abandoning the attempt to repeal s.18C, like increasing taxes, and like letting Turnbull anywhere near the NBN and communications policy). But none of that comes close to excusing what those 53 MPs did who defenestrated Abbott. And soon the cost of that act will be visited upon a political party in massive strife. I believed the cost of that treachery could have been lessened if Shorten had won a narrow victory in 2016 as opposed to delaying this and seeing the pain magnified a few orders of magnitudes. Had that happened the folly of the Abbott coup could have been dealt with pronto and the cross-section of the party’s voters reconciled. It was not to be, despite my first ever Labor vote.
Well, nothing in life is certain and miracles do happen – Morrison might even grow a spine and cut immigration, pull out of Paris and put the repeal of 18C back on the table. But barring all that expect the blame game to start the morning after the general election loss. Niki Savva will say ‘but for’ Tony Abbott the Libs would have won; PVO will say ‘but for’ Tony Abbott the Libs would have won; the Black Hand gang will say ‘but for’ Tony Abbott the Libs would have won (perhaps with the help of GetUp!).
For the rest of us, though, who should get the biggest dollop of blame for the state of the 2019 post-election loss Liberal Party will be clear. The ‘but for’ test will have spoken.
Step forward all 53 defenestrating MPs who removed a first term PM and take a bow. The eventual effects of your idiotic action back in 2015 would have been patently clear if you hadn’t contracted out your thinking to the ABC.
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