The bitter irony for Turnbull’s leadership
The reason the job of federal opposition leader is the toughest gig in politics, is not simply that it’s a hard thankless slog with endless headaches and slim prospects of success.
Or that outside the immediate pre-election period, you are largely irrelevant to voters. Sure, these aspects don’t make the job much fun, but at least they are relatively predictable.
No, the real reason is that to have any chance of success, you need a team focused on winning when in reality, you’re more likely to be heading up an ill-disciplined rabble.
Samuel Johnson once observed that nothing focuses the mind like a hanging. In politics, the opposite is true - people start running off in every direction. Or, put another way, nothing unites a team like the tangible prospect of victory.
It was this sense that brought the warring Labor factions to heel in 2007 when they realised they were suddenly in a position to win later that year.
Kevin Rudd’s extraordinary capital as new the leader derived not from his charisma nor his numbers but from his perceived capacity to deliver his party unto the promised land. This kind of authority however, is rare for opposition leaders. Basically, they have to be lucky in their timing as Kevin Rudd was and, as it appears, the British Tory leader, David Cameron is now.
Both have come in at the end of long periods where their political opponents have run out of puff, making them ripe for the picking.
When the deposed Labor leader, Bill Hayden observed bitterly back in 1983, that “a drover’s dog’’ could have led Labor to victory, he was addressing the same point. Opposition’s don’t so much win elections as governments tend to lose them.
Malcolm Fraser probably did so in 1983, John Howard certainly did in 2007 and Gordon Brown most certainly will.
For an aspiring alternative, the trick is to both be there and be credible. This is where the problem starts because, these two pre-conditions are inter-dependent - being credible, as Mr Turnbull noted this week, has to start in your own party-room and if people don’t believe they ‘can’ win, they become unmanageable.
Maybe it was the lessons he learned from the soon-to-be successful greened-up British Tories or maybe it was just the end of his patience, but when Malcolm Turnbull flew back into Australia and the growing storm of dissent over emissions trading, he had obviously decided to up the ante.
Gone were the arcane tactical arguments deigned to appease the doubters and in their place was a bold in-your-face commitment to pursue active climate change policy.
“There is nobody in the Liberal party that is more associated or connected with taking action on climate change than me,’’ he said.
Such is his new determination that he has put his his leadership on the line. Some think this is crazy-brave but really, what choice did he have?
Thanks to the former leader, Brendan Nelson who deliberately whipped up party-room dissent as he sailed out the door to work for the Labor Government, right-wing MPs were becoming increasingly bolshi. It was, and remains, an untenable situation for any leader.
Hard-liners like SA’s Cory Bernardi, and buffoons like Wilson Tuckey and Julian McGauran were openly criticising their leader’s plan to negotiate on emissions trading legislation and others were joining the fray. This is one of the serious disconnects in this argument.
The dissenters remain unmoved by the threat of a double dissolution and even believe that an election on the issue, is a political opportunity. According to this thinking, conservatives faces a greater threat from surrendering than if they stand up for what they believe in.
Of course this heroic mindset is easier to embrace if you’re a 200 year old curmudgeon with no credibility and no political future, or for that matter, a senator with no prospect of promotion under the current leadership.
But internal opposition to negotiation is not restricted to global warming sceptics. Many MPs for example, fully accept that double-D would be bad, but assess the risk of such a poll coming about as extremely low.
Few believe Kevin Rudd wants to go early anyway and many are twigging to the fact that it would present risks for Labor too. And, as well as shortening its current term, it would also truncate its second term by a year should it win, because of the vagaries of the constitution and backdated Senate terms etc. Hence the growing intransigence.
There is simmering resentment too amongst Liberal MPs that both the PM and their own leader are now on the same track - ie, using the threat of a double-D election to pull way-ward Liberals into line.
Finally there are those who agree with Malcolm Turnbull not just in terms of the strategy but also on the substance of the issue. Notice how silent this group is. Mr Turnbull has apparently been ringing around looking for people to back him publicly but so far, few have obliged.
The upshot of all of this is that it is one big political mess and it will take all of Mr Turnbull’s considerable intellectual powers to discern a path forward. Whether intentionally or not, the next party room meeting on October 20, now looms as a de facto leadership ballot. Opposition leader. It’s a pig of a job, but who could do it better?
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