And so the Canberra circus rolls on. Perhaps it’s unfair to call it that, as with real circuses people actually willingly pay money to enjoy the spectacle of skill, agility, poise and humour – all the factors absent from the political spectacle being performed at the moment by the federal Liberal Party.
With the defection of Cabinet ministers Cormann, Fifield and Cash (recall, political junkies, that Cormann, Fifield and my then boss Mason were the first shadows to resign from Turnbull’s opposition frontbench in 2009 over the issue of the ETS, precipitating Malcolm’s original downfall) it’s almost certain that Turnbull no longer has the numbers in the party room to remain as the leader and therefor the Prime Minister.
So what’s next?
Turnbull said he will only call the party room meeting tomorrow if he receives a letter from 43 members and senators requesting such a meeting. The magic number indicates the majority of the federal Liberal Party, so if the letter arrives, Malcolm will “treat that as a vote of no confidence and… will not stand as a candidate in the ballot.” The question is whether all the people now seemingly supporting the spill will have the courage to put their signatures under the PM’s death warrant.
If they don’t, hello weeks of instability ahead that will make all of the past decade’s leadership challenges looks like picnics in the park.
Turnbull has also asked the Solicitor-General to give advice on Peter Dutton’s eligibility to stand as a candidate over a possible financial conflict under s. 44 of the Constitution. This is an issue that Labor has dredged up some time ago and kept in the proverbial filing cabinet only to unleash it with a perfect timing earlier this week.
Let’s say that the party room meeting does happen tomorrow, with Turnbull not recontesting the leadership. What can we expect?
Peter Dutton is the original challenger, who narrowly missed out on his first try a few days ago. Hailing as he does from the right of the party, he is probably the only candidate for the top job who can change (or at least try to change) the policy direction of the government sufficiently to differentiate it from the drift of the Turnbull prime ministership. He could go hard on the energy prices without genuflecting to Paris, as well as address the community concerns about the levels of immigration. Both would definitely cheer up the party base. The problem for Dutton is that he is the left’s ultimate bogeyman, and while actually a decent guy (note: I worked for him for two years back in the Decline and Fall of the Howard Empire era), the incessant demonisation has worked to scare a lot of the swinging vote in the middle, particularly in the trendier south.
Scott Morrison’s only advantage is that he is not Malcolm Turnbull. His main disadvantage also is that he is not Malcolm Turnbull. I wouldn’t expect the Morrison government to provide any substantially different policy direction to its predecessor. In addition, Morrison has all the charm and charisma of an undertaker, which he most likely would be to the Coalition government. Recall that in both the immigration and the social services portfolios Morrison was as hated by the left as Dutton is today. For all that he’s not quite right but not quite left either. In fact that’s the problem: Morrison is a bit of this and a bit of that but nothing in particular.
Julie Bishop is rumoured to be the third contender. She is the most popular candidate in the electorate, but like Morrison, I wouldn’t expect her government to pull any rabbits out of the hat – if there ever have been any rabbits in the hat, they have died of starvation over the past two years. Julie would have to call a snap election to capitalise on the brief honeymoon, before the punters realise that for all her many talents and charms she would likely be Turnbull in a skirt, albeit an expensive and stylish one.
There are even stories circulating that Tony Abbott wants to put his budgie-smugglers in the ring. To at least some on the right of the party, Abbott would be just like Dutton but better, because of his profile and experience. These two factors also happen to be the main disadvantages working against Tony within the party room I suspect and certainly out there in the voter land. It’s difficult to see Abbott somehow coming through the middle and snatching the prize again, just as it is difficult to see him performing better electorally than Turnbull. His heart might be in the right place, but I doubt whether the people of Australia have changed their mind about him, even if has learned the lessons from his downfall, which in any case I’m not sure he has.
To sum it up, the Coalition seems to be heading for trashing at the next election, and none of the candidates offer the combination of new winning policy direction and electoral appeal to make for a sufficient circuit breaker that would put the government back in contention. Of the lot, Julie Bishop is probably the most attractive short term solution if the only objective is scraping through the finish line at the polls. None of them can fix the bigger problem with the federal Liberal Party, namely the fact that it is bitterly divided but at the same time directionless. If the party has moved too far too the left, as many anti-Turnbull people believe, this clearly has not charmed enough swinging voters in the centre to throw their support behind it. If the party moves back to the right, it will no doubt make more of its base happy, but will it be able to more successfully appeal to the electorate, which likewise seems to be increasingly unmoored and directionless, albeit arguably leaning more to the left, certainly in the economic sphere?
Of course another possibility is that there are not enough signatures and therefore no party room meeting to change the leaders, but Turnbull understanding that he indeed no longer has the majority (in a secret ballot) calls a snap election as an FU to the party that broke his heart. This would be the case of “if I can’t have it, you won’t have it either, mofos” and many wouldn’t put it past a wounded Malcolm. As vicious as it sounds it is probably the best worst option as it allows the author of the drift and the fall of the Liberal Party to own its electoral defeat. I certainly don’t wish that on the Libs, particularly as the alternative is the Shorten government, but it’s unlikely that anything short of that will set the party on the road to finding itself again. Besides, if wishes were horses, bloggers like me would ride as savagely as my Mongol ancestors once did. And we really wouldn’t want that.