Mad Monk? It sounds crazy but it just might work…
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.
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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