Holding our breath to see if Malcolm survives
UNLESS Malcolm Turnbull is Harry Houdini, he is about to join the likes of John Hewson as another `almost was’ wealthy businessman who promised much but ultimately could not manage the politics.
Things could hardly have gone worse for him this week. Just when he had the Government under real pressure over its faltering management of the Oceanic Viking crisis, problems on his own side overwhelmed him. Next week looks harder again.
He must be wondering why he left a perfectly successful career in business for this. He may not be wondering for much longer.
Mr Turnbull’s laser-like focus on the Oceanic Viking issue this week was effective but it also highlighted the depths of the challenge he faces reconciling his more moderate personal views with the conservative core of his party.
The dog whistle was out with a vengeance as Liberals suggested in Parliament that the refugees would compound their queue jumping by also jumping ahead on the public housing waiting list.
Mr Turnbull apparently endorsed this approach but one suspects he did so reluctantly. This kind of projection by leaders is always dangerous. Ultimately, it goes to credibility. As one observer noted this week, ``Turnbull’s problem is that he keeps selling off bits of his soul’‘.
It is not however, a problem he has on emissions trading which has suddenly and spectacularly morphed into a de facto leadership contest. Party sources say Tony Abbott, backed by the powerful leader of the right, Nick Minchin, is now actively re-positioning to take over.
He is aware that if Turnbull falls, the replacement cannot, by definition, be another emissions trading advocate. That rules out Joe Hockey, the only other realistic contender. Mr Abbott now thinks the Government’s scheme should be voted down - a complete reversal from his curiously pragmatic view only months ago when he said Turnbull was right to push it through.
One unaligned party-room source told The Punch it appeared that Nick Minchin had decided some time ago that Malcolm Turnbull must be replaced. Certainly his decision to aggressively advocate defeating the emissions trading scheme bills was a statement.
It was transparently calculated to do maximum harm to the cause of moderates arguing for a deal with the Government. Senator Minchin described the bills as ``an abomination’‘, called for their resounding rejection, and called Kevin Rudd’s pursuit of a scheme ahead of the rest of the world as as a ``vanity’’ that was ``really sickening’‘.
There was little room for misinterpretation from the hard-hitting speech. Nor was there from the fact he was joined by 17 enthusiastic senators as he delivered it.
The Liberal Party is now rent with division and faces its deepest crisis in well over a decade.
For Malcolm Turnbull there is a variety of ways this could go but all are bad in varying degrees. The best option would be for a deal to be reached through his negotiator, Ian Macfarlane with Penny Wong, and for the party-room to support that deal.
Macfarlane has had some success in this endeavour particularly with the removal of agriculture from the scheme. This is still the most likely scenario at present. In the event it goes this way, his supporters will say he has won a foundational battle to modernise the party and now has unrivaled authority.
The truth would probably be something different. As many as a dozen senators could still cross the floor to vote against the bills in direct defiance of the leadership. This would not be done lightly. The ongoing bitterness would likely reverberate until it shakes the leadership apart.
Then there are the abstentions - people too frightened to back their tough talk with a `no’ vote who are caught conveniently in the bathroom when the vote is taken.
The worst case scenario would be that the party-room rejects Mr Turnbull’s recommendation of a negotiated deal. This outcome, which could come as early as Monday or Tuesday, would end his leadership pretty much on the spot if only because of his own previously stated position on the issue.
The severity of this is possibility could lead him to a middle way in which he instructs Mr Macfarlane to strategically fail to reach a negotiated settlement thereby avoiding a party-room humiliation.
Either way, the terrain ahead of Mr Turnbull is treacherous. Optimists say he could yet emerge victorious. They are drawing parallels with the bitter but necessary fights to modernise their respective parties waged by leaders such as Tony Blair, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and even the British Conservative Party leader, David Cameron who looks set to win next year.
But perhaps a more apt comparison is probably with Simon Crean who fought entrenched interests to modernise the ALP and no doubt positioned it well to go forward, but did not survive to reap the benefits.
At this stage, it appears the numbers are probably with Mr Turnbull. Indeed, Mr Macfarlane, who has been keeping a little black book on the numbers, thinks his side has about two thirds of the party-room on-side.
But no-one has seen the deal yet and a party-room revolt and/or a complete breakdown of voting discipline in the Senate cannot be ruled out. Either would end Mr Turnbull’s leadership. It would just be a question of whether it happens quickly or down the track.
Unless of course, he really is Harry Houdini.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…