Australia’s Hindenburg


The ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull is Australia’s Hindenburg. No, not the Zeppelin air ship whose fiery destruction provided one of the most iconic images of the intrawar years – though some would say that that’s pretty apt too: a lot of hot air*, followed by a spectacular crash and burn (*actually it was hydrogen). I’m talking about Paul von Hindenburg, the German General who became commander-in-chief and for the last two years of the Great War was a de facto military dictator of Germany.

After the war, Hindenburg became the focus of the “stab in the back” legend (Dolchstoßlegende), where the German Army was actually winning the war against the Entente allies in the West in 1918 (having already won the war against Russia in 1917 on the Eastern front) when it was treacherously undermined by the civilians back home, particularly republicans, socialists and Jews (all three categories pretty much interchangeable for the legend’s proponents). It was a flight of fancy but it proved popular because it accounted for the course of events (or rather the prevailing perception of the course of the events) where the German Army indeed seemed to have been winning before suddenly suing for peace in circumstances when no enemy soldier has even set foot on the German soil. Surely, something dastardly must have happened, the confounded civilians thought and the army nodded along because this conspiracy theory usefully saved their honour and reputation as undefeated heroes. In reality, the German army overstretched itself in its spring offensives and then spectacularly shattered when faced with an American/Australian/British/French counter-offensive the way a progressively weakened piece of metal finally just snaps. The armistice, as much as it came as a shock to German non-combatants, was the only circuit breaker to prevent the army from a complete collapse and a likely foreign invasion and occupation of Germany.

But enough about old history and in with the new:

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has blasted the Liberal Party on the world stage and made a stunning claim about his Liberal rivals.

In a wide-ranging interview with esteemed British journalist Andrew Neil on BBC program Politics Live, the former PM described his ousting from the top job in August last year as “madness”.

Mr Turnbull said he was removed because his own party did not want him to win the next election.

“Basically, you could argue that their concern was not that I would lose the election but rather that I would win it,” he told Neil. Mr Turnbull said the Liberals were just two points behind in the public polls, and ahead in internal polling of marginal seats.

Neil was clearly shocked by the statement and replied, “Are you telling me your own party didn’t want you to win the next election, that’s not credible is it?” He also reminded Mr Turnbull that the Government had lost 40 consecutive polls.

“I think (being ousted) said more about the internal politics of the Liberal Party than of the electorate,” Mr Turnbull explained.

“At the time of the coup in August we were level-pegging on the public polls with the Opposition and we were four points ahead on the polling in marginal seats, so the government was absolutely in a competitive, winnable position.

“But we had become, we’d drawn, had essentially drawn equal, even, and in our own polling in the marginal seats which is obviously the only ones that matter you know in terms of determining government, we were ahead.”

As I wrote at the time of Turnbull’s removal from the top, I was inclined to believe he should have been left where he was, not because he was going to win, but so that he could unequivocally own his defeat at the hand of the voters (or at least as unequivocally as a man can who would still blame everyone but himself for the result, including his own party and probably the people of Australia who didn’t understand and appreciate him enough). And also because the rewriting history could have been avoided:

His messy removal will only contribute to the legend of St Malcolm who would have won the next year’s election against Bill Shorten but for the “stab in the back”; he didn’t lose, he was betrayed. There is an emotional appeal to this narrative, but it’s as credible as the original Dolchstoß German excuse exactly a century ago. Could Turnbull have won the next election? Possibly. But not probably. But because we will never know for sure it will be easier for his supporters to blame the internal instability and white-anting rather than the lack of direction, policy vacuum and failure to connect with more voters for the electoral wipe-out that has been on the cards for a long time if you believe pretty much all the opinion polls.

The truth of the matter is that “at the time of the coup in August”, Malcolm was continuing his almost two years of consistently trailing Labor in opinion polls. The man who wasted the honeymoon after his own successful “coup” against Tony Abbott and then barely scrapped in at the 2016 election (which, for the record, I thought that Abbott would have lost) just couldn’t do anything right to win back the electorate, in part because he wasn’t actually doing very much except just being there and being himself. This was the reality that the Liberal Party party room was facing in August last year – all the members and senators were well aware of the national polling as well as the internal party polling, but seems to have interpreted them differently than the then PM. I’m reasonably well aware of the thinking of those who engineered and those who supported Malcolm’s removal, and I can tell you with a hand over my cold right-wing heart that no one was motivated by the concern that Turnbull was leading the government to another victory.

As I wrote then, we will never know what could have happened with Malcolm still in the top job as we speak in early 2019. Personally I don’t believe he would have won the coming May election. I also don’t think anyone else could have, with a possible exception of Julie Bishop, but only if she, unlike Malcolm, took advantage of the initial bump in popularity and called an early election.

Germans believing that they would have won the war but for the internal backstabbing gave us the political shitshow that was the Weimer Republic, followed by the ascent to power of Hitler, the main propagator and the main beneficiary of Dolchstoßlegende. Can’t say I’m much looking forward to the Weimer Liberal Party but at least, by all accounts, Berlin was a hoot in the 1920s.