Malcolm Turnbull has just meandered his way through a press conference about the Utegate debacle. You can read about it here. It came amid renewed speculation in Liberal ranks over the leadership question, which The Punch adds to with this piece.

Tony Abbott with wife Margie and daughters Frances (L) and Bridget at home in Forestville, Sydney. Picture: Rohan Kelly

WHETHER you’re a rabid left-winger, a moderate liberal or an arch neo-con who thinks Camp X-Ray should not be shut down but turned into a franchise, you would have to concede the fact that the greatest period of unpopularity in the Liberal Party’s modern history has coincided with having two leaders who are anything but traditional conservatives.

The incessant speculation over Malcolm Turnbull – fuelled by the polls, and given a powerful new shot in the arm by the latest Utegate developments – invites serious talk about whether the Libs might now return to a conviction politician.

Someone who has remained steadfast in their social and economic views, and who for all their bluster never leaves the public in doubt as to their position on an issue.

That person is Tony Abbott, who with the launch of his treatise on the future of conservative politics in the past fortnight has established himself as the “in case of emergency break glass” candidate for the Liberal Party leadership.The party is getting closer to picking up the hammer.

For all of the Mad Monk’s madness, if elected he would be the first Liberal Leader of the past three who was capable of taking a position and sticking to it, come what may.

It would be a pleasant change for the Libs, who have charted new depths of despair since their defeat in November 2007.

Their woeful standing stems largely from the fact that, as Simon Crean and Kim Beazley did with the Labor Party during its 11-year exile, no-one really knows what the Liberals or its leaders stand for anymore.

Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull share the unfortunate honour of registering a pitiful 16 per cent approval rating in Newspoll. Nelson never recovered from his death plunge in the polls, and was panicked into calling a spill which he lost to the man who now also finds himself with the passionate backing of fewer than two out of every 10 Australians for the country’s top job.

Nelson and Turnbull also share a skittish political pedigree where they were either involved with, or courted by, the Australian Labor Party before they stopped playing footsies and got hitched to the Libs.

“I’ve never voted Liberal in my life,” the earring-wearing Dr Nelson ranted at a public health rally in the 1980s, with the footage continually coming back to haunt him as cynics wondered whether as a minister and latterly as party leader he really had a dog in the fight.

“The man who broke the nation’s heart,” Turnbull thundered about John Howard on the night the republic referendum went down, only a few short years before he ended up seizing Wentworth and currying favour with Howard to win a place in his (last) Federal Cabinet.

Dalliances with the broad Left are one thing – what matters is how you behave once you’ve formally signed on with the party of your choice, and both Nelson and Turnbull have been all over the place.

Voters expect oppositions to provide a point of difference. They don’t want them to be blindly negative or automatically nay-say everything the government does for base political gain. But they do want them to put forward a clear and thought-out alternative view.

As someone who is paid to have some understanding of politics, I struggle to remember just what it was that Brendan Nelson stood for when he was Opposition Leader. And it’s just as difficult to work out what Malcolm Turnbull believes in, other than the fact that he, not Kevin Rudd, should be Prime Minister.

Turnbull has copped it on the Emissions Trading Scheme from within his own ranks for two reasons.

Firstly, party hard-liners and climate change sceptics believe he’s a captive of faddish inner-city ideology over the environment. Secondly - and more damagingly, as it’s the thing which makes voters turn off - no-one seems to understand what his position on the ETS is anyway.

If Turnbull has been consistent at all, he’s been consistently confusing.

His entire budget address in reply hammered the Government over debt and deficit but did not contain a single line explaining how a Liberal Government would pay off the deficit. Last week, when Turnbull dispatched his shadow health minister Peter Dutton to attack Rudd for squibbing on his promised federal take-over of the state health system, the press conference ended in farce when Dutton said the Liberals had not yet worked out whether they supported the take-over.

Turnbull’s vacillation over the Bill Henson affair – where he went from dogged public defender (and, indeed, owner) of the artist, to belated critic of his methods – gave a good insight into the bloke’s expediency.

As Annabel Crabb wrote in her Quarterly Essay on Turnbull, his first reaction at the Henson raids was to say to then Liberal Leader Brendan Nelson: “Do you know how many art galleries I have in my electorate?”

Turnbull changed his tune. And his oscillating was summed up during an amusing exchange with John Howard at last year’s NRL Grand Final, where just before kick-off the former PM playfully grabbed Turnbull by the shoulder and pointed him in the direction of the general admission seats, saying: “Look over there Malcolm, 95 per cent of those people think Bill Henson is a pervert.”

Abbott’s bovver-boy style, best evidenced by his three-way clanger during the 2007 election campaign where he insulted the dying Bernie Banton, got into a fight with Nicole Roxon, and ended the evening on Nightline declaring “Shit happens”, is a source of alarm for many in the Liberal Party.

He’s probably the most disliked member of the Liberal Party on the left of politics because he says what he thinks, and what he thinks is usually anathema to moderates and progressives.
It’s a quality he shares with another bloke - John Howard, who of course was in power for 11 years.

Bob Hawke was often explosive, Paul Keating was permanently rude, John Howard was perpetually prudish, doggedly conservative, and all three of them were politically successful because they stood for something and believed in what they said.

Despite Abbott’s well-documented hardline views, in the past couple of weeks he’s also shown a willingness to compromise, arguing in an opinion piece that the Liberals should cut their losses and back Rudd’s ETS even if they believe it to be flawed.

The piece was hailed as an act of support for his besieged Opposition Leader – perhaps in hindsight it was more about Abbott wanting to demonstrate to his colleagues that he’s not as pig-headed as they have thought he is.

Whatever the case, the Libs are running out of options anyway. Maybe it’s time they took the mad one.

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    • RT says:

      04:09pm | 04/08/09

      Usually in politics,  if it sounds crazy, it is crazy. While the Mad Monk as opposition leader would provide plenty of inspiration for cartoonists and copy for columnists, he wouldn’t make a popular leader and would have less chance, if anything, of becoming PM than Nelson or Turnbull had. The voters would only need to be reminded that Abbott was so close to Howard that you could often see only his bootlaces. But let the Libs go ahead, it’s entertaining watching them burn leaders.

    • RT says:

      04:14pm | 04/08/09

      An opposition leader doesn’t necessarily have to ‘stand for something’ to take government at the next election.  Does anyone in NSW know what opposition leader Barry O’Farrell stands for, apart from wanting to be Premier? Does O’Farrell know?  He’d be against motherhood if he though there was a short-term political advantage in it. Yet he has a winning lead in the polls.

    • Carol says:

      04:20pm | 04/08/09

      Costello is the only one to lead the LIbs. No one will take any notice of Abbott, but they will take notice of Costello. People still listen to what Costello has to say. More than I can say for Rudd. And for all those people who will say it’s another Howard, remember he was not close to Howard in the end.

    • Nick C says:

      04:25pm | 04/08/09

      Whilst not to the extent of John Howard, Tony Abbott is too conservative to be Liberal leader. He would need to get both factions at the federal AND state level of the party reading off the same page; and also scrap the Coalition’s habit of kowtowing to the government on disastrous policies such as the ETS. I think Abbott is a decent bloke, but he needs to do all of the above, and an awful lot more, whilst charming the electorate - many of whom think he’s a bit of a wazzock.

    • LS says:

      04:26pm | 04/08/09

      True believers can keep you out of office too. Ask any British Labour Party supporter about Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock.

    • iansand says:

      04:51pm | 04/08/09

      It would certainly be entertaining…

    • Ricki says:

      05:12pm | 04/08/09

      “Who’s on first?”  It’s too perfect.

    • Venise Alstergren says:

      05:20pm | 04/08/09

      It amazes me to read people’s comments wherein they think Tony Abbott would be a suitable leader of the Liberal Party. The man is a Jesuit trained Catholic of the same thinking as the late B A Santamaria and the ex-Independent Senator, Brian Harradine-both Jesuit trained Catholics.
      In a travesty of unusual-even by his standards, John Howard PM wanted the numbers to push the Telstra bill through Parliament. Accordingly, he approached the Indep. Catholic Senator Harradine for his vote. Harradine accepted ON CONDITION that Tony Abbott would be moved to the Health Portfolio. A position which would enable Abbott to negate anything which looked as if it would go against Catholic dogma.
      Tony Abbott was duly shifted to the health portfolio where he was able to set the female vote back for a long time. Does no-one remember the RU486 bill?
      RU486 was a ‘morning after’ sex pill. A pill to stop women becoming pregnant. Tony Abbott, under the directions imposed by the Catholic Church
      stopped it cold.
      This is not a fair-minded person dedicated to helping Australia. It is a man with his mind made up that all women will abide by the rules of the Catholic Church.
      The Mad Monk himself.

    • Garth says:

      05:22pm | 04/08/09

      Abbott or Costello!  Says it all, doesn’t it?

    • Harry says:

      05:24pm | 04/08/09

      Abbott is a christian and I think we should get away from having people with strong religious beliefs run our country and make decisions for us.

    • margymay says:

      06:15pm | 04/08/09

      Harry - are you saying that, in contrast to Tony Abbott,  Mr Rudd, who is interviewed as he comes out of church each week, holds weak religious beliefs? 
      Re Tony for Leader:-  I for one would like to see someone leading the Opposition who has a passion, a bit of fire in the belly,  for what they espouse. Being a ‘nice enough bloke’ (which I believe both Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull are,)  is not enough.  The Party needs new fresh ideas,  direction and conviction.  Tony is the man for the time.  Besides, I think the media would just love to hate him.

    • Zeta says:

      06:25pm | 04/08/09

      Tony Abbot is the last bastion of true conservatism in Australia. Whoever said ‘Tabbo is too conservative for the Liberal party’ is a Communist and a threat to our national security.

      1. Tabbo will unite the factions in hatred. Every one will hate him, but they’ll hate him in the way the Ba’ath Party secretly hated Saddam. They’ll be glad it’s Tony’s house the bombs are being dropped on.

      2. Tabbo doesn’t care what you think - he survived his daliances with possible illegitimate children, and if you even look at him sideways about it, he’ll respond with a sharp ‘you wot?’ and threaten to head butt you into the dirt, you lefty scumbag.

      3. Tabbo is fighting fit for the job - I’m as straight as the next Liberal numbers man, but the mere sight of Tabs in his bike racing strip gets me hotter than Mal Brough doing an outdoors Intervention presser in Tennant Creek.

      4. Tabzy is Catholic - so what? Heaps of people are. There is a whole tiny nation of them somewhere in Italy, I’m reliably informed. Tabbo’s Catholicism gets tossed around more than a hot copy of The Martyrdom of Polycarp at a Parish book stall. It’s meaningless. The fact is, we were all Catholic until King Fancy Pants whatever started chopping women’s heads off. And if your still smarting about that RU486 rubbish, go buy an organic Algerian condom you limp wristed latte sipper.

    • Richard says:

      07:46pm | 04/08/09

      As a Labor supporter I dream daily that the Liberals will do something incredibly stupid like making Tony Abbott their leader. His rabid, Catholicism and conservatism is so far outside the Australian mainstream that he would lead the Opposition down a long dark path to nowhere.  His personality is abrasive, his politics are extreme, his political tactics are odious (eg, continuous personal abuse) and his abilities are limited.  Abbott as leader? Bring it on!

    • Michael says:

      08:35pm | 04/08/09

      Zeta, although i probably disagree with 90% of what he has to say, that’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever read and if I was still laughing come election time I’d probably vote for the bigoted silver tail.

    • Shelley says:

      03:40am | 05/08/09

      The Nationals are looking better every day. At least you know where they stand.

    • Pete from Sydney says:

      08:58am | 05/08/09

      Give him a crack…it will mean another shoe in for Kevin ‘07…the way the Libs are tracking it will be Kevin 17…..seriously they must have someone better than Tony?

    • G says:

      08:59am | 05/08/09

      Shelley the Nationals stand with the Liberals

    • Andrew says:

      09:54am | 05/08/09

      If Tony Abbott becomes leader of the Liberal Party, I will cancel my membership of 30 years.

    • joe says:

      11:02am | 05/08/09

      Venise Alstergren I love the way you think you are exposing dirt on Abbott and trying to shock us by pointing out he is a Catholic and went to a Jesuit school. Oh the horror! How could he. We couldn’t vote for him now.

      Let me point out that there are 5 million Catholics in Australia (and only 1 million unionists for example)

      Other mistakes in your conspiracy story include that RU486 doesn’t ‘stop women becoming pregnant’ like ‘the pill’ but performs a “non-surgical means of abortion” and the RU486 was allowed in during howard’s government when Abbott was health minister.

      This is all so shocking that Abbott has just launched a book with many more details on his life, upbringing , beliefs and ideas. That’s right he has beliefs and ideas unlike most pollies. Shock horror!

      I prefer a conservative leader for the Libs any day over these guys who stand for anything, but tend to the left.

    • Dude says:

      11:18am | 05/08/09

      Let Abbott and his ilk form a Conservative party or join Family First, The Nationals or One Nation and stop pretending in the Liberal party. What a joke the conservatives are in this country!

    • Clare says:

      01:57pm | 05/08/09

      It’s amazing to me to read all the bigoted remarks against Catholicism. We are only finding out now the troubles our society contends with as we ditch our Christian heritage and values.  I believe Tony Abbott would make a great leader. He has integrity and guts and that’s what I like in a man - especially a leader. The widespread media seems to have a crush on Kevin Rudd who as far as I can tell doesn’t seem to say much at all ! 
      P.s Zeta you said beautifully !!

    • Pete C says:

      10:43pm | 05/08/09

      Venise Alstergren, you have betrayed yourself! Fool! Now the sinister, black-robed Jesuits and the agents of the inquisition wll be after you with racks and thumbscrews. You had better flee to Belfast while there is yet time! They have their agents everywhere, you know! On the other hand, you might consider a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down.

    • Felix says:

      12:28am | 15/08/09

      Abbott is not so much a “Christian” as he is a religious nutter. He would have joined the priesthood but them found out the pay is not great. Money over faith any day?

    • Cass P says:

      10:40am | 01/12/09

      I have no problem with our politicians subscribing to a religion, and having religious convictions, but I have deep concerns with having hard-line religious fanatics such as Tony Abbott in positions of power within our government. Particularly as Abbott has already demonstrated a propensity to prioritise his religious agenda over public interests and logic.

      @Venise Alstergren: In the interests of accuracy I have to take issue with your comment regarding RU486. It is *not* a ‘morning after’ pill designed to prevent pregnancy occurring, it is an abortion pill designed to chemically terminate an existing pregnancy. Emergency contraception (aka ‘morning after’ pills) such as NorLevo are available over-the-counter in Australia and have been for some time. Although I believe Abbott’s position is to make EC prescription-only.

    • Les says:

      09:29am | 15/08/10

      That the people of Australia could give the slightest countenance to either a dammed athiest or a jesuit for prime minister is an indication of the spiritual poverty of this country. The 1688 Bill of Rights is still valid in Australia and forbids any catholic from being a monarch. I know that a prime minister is not a monarch but the principle holds true for prime ministers.


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