John Howard is a great Australian and a great Liberal. Over the 75 years if its existence, only two figures stand out as true giants of the party: its founder and most successful leader, Sir Robert Menzies, and Howard.
But in his desire help the party stay strong into the twentieth century, Howard unwittingly almost destroyed the Liberal party as we know it.
In 2010, Howard persuaded Malcolm Turnbull not to quit parliament.
In the aftermath of his December 2009 party room deposition by Tony Abbott by just one vote, Turnbull resolved to leave politics at the 2010 election. His vanquisher, Abbott, showing the magnanimity and consideration for others that have always been part of who he is, urged Turnbull to stay and strengthen the Coalition team that, by all indications in early 2010, was facing a second mauling by then PM Kevin Rudd and Labor.
But it was not the entreaties of the new leader but of Liberal great Howard that finally turned Turnbull and keep him in the parliamentary fold. In hindsight, however, what a monumental mistake that was, a mistake that came close to destroying the Liberal party’s broad church as we know it.
Abbott nearly won in 2010 on a platform that was as much anti-Turnbull and his carbon price obsession as it was anti-Rudd. In 2013 Abbott won a convincing mandate in his own right, including ditching the very carbon tax that Turnbull always wanted and on whose rocks he sacrificed his own leadership in 2009.
Did this matter to Turnbull? No.
Having stuck around in 2010, Turnbull did his utmost to destabilise, disconcert and destroy Abbott’s leadership. As a frontbencher and minister, Turnbull was classic passive-aggressive: a grudging member of the Abbott team but always tending the garden of his own leadership return. He wasn’t content to sit back and let time take its course, there being no obvious viable successor to Abbott beside his patrician self. That he was a leader-in-waiting, the once and future leader, was something he never missed the opportunity to remind his parliamentary colleagues and the Australian public.
Remember all those bomber-jacketed Q and A appearances, the adulating Left-leaning ABC audiences and the inevitable Dorothy Dix questions that allowed Turnbull to set out his leadership stall, contrasting his oh-so-cool self to the strait-laced, conservative and un-woke Abbott?
As Abbott has told the Australian’s Troy Bramston, “Malcolm always thought his destiny was to be prime minister and I happened to be the obstacle for that. And so he dealt with me as best he could.” Turnbull started the drip-drip-drip against Abbott’s leadership from the moment John Howard persuaded Turnbull and his wounded ego to stay on.
Had Turnbull been left to stick to his stated purpose in 2010, and left politics, this never would have happened. His staying on guaranteed eight years of leadership instability that destroyed Abbott’s prime ministership, almost destroyed the Liberal party but helped to destroy the Australian public’s trust and confidence in our political institutions.
Abbott’s leadership was far from perfect, and he was poorly advised by some whose job it was to make his leadership successful and his job secure. To his great credit, however, he has come to accept and acknowledge he made serious mistakes for which he paid the ultimate political price.
But one wonders how much better he would have fared if he was not put under constant pressure by a persistent, determined, only tokenly loyal Turnbull snapping relentlessly at his heels. The sort of unending pressure Turnbull and his coterie of acolytes forced Abbott to make errors of policy and political judgment and magnified those, like the botched reintroduction of knighthoods, that were the captain’s calls of Abbott and his close personal advisers.
History records that Turnbull challenged and replaced Abbott as leader in September 2015. It does not record that Abbott, for all his faults, was someone with a sense of integrity, principle and decency who was cut down by a self-regarding chancer, an outsider, a dilettante whose intellect was great but whose political abilities were negligible and emotional intelligence questionable.
Turnbull’s overweening personal ambition almost destroyed the Liberal party as we know it, yet he doesn’t seem to care. Despite Scott Morrison’s election miracle made possible by Bill Shorten’s hubris, the scars of the leadership meltdowns of September 2015 and August 2018 won’t fade quickly for the party of Menzies and Howard.
Fortunately, the Liberals’ existential threat was extinguished – for now – by Morrison in May. That Turnbull, with his petulant and self-indulgent interventions after he lost the prime ministership, did his utmost to ensure that if he couldn’t be a Liberal prime minister, no-one else could, is a matter of record as Turnbull himself fast becomes a footnote of history. He will not, however, easily be forgiven for his selfishness if not outright treachery since last August, even by those who formerly were his close supporters. Nor should he be.
Turnbull himself once declared, grandiosely, that humility is for saints. Schadenfreude is for the rest of us who watch the fall of someone so entitled, and take grim satisfaction in it.
History will be far kinder to Tony Abbott than to the man who schemed so relentlessly to bring him down, only to prove himself a far worse a prime minister than any other Liberal, bar Billy McMahon, had ever been.
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