Here’s something for Malcolm Turnbull to contemplate over the summer break: resignation.
Pulling the plug on his faltering leadership would benefit his party, the country – and very likely him. These are all long-term evaluations; such an event would obviously be immediately bruising and traumatic.
For the prime minister, the alternative, staying put until he is forced out, either by voters in 2019 or his partyroom before then, with very little to show for it all, would ultimately be more debilitating for his post-politics soul and detrimental to his history book entries.
Robert Menzies supposedly said that in politics “defeat breeds disunity”, and until recently this was routinely the case. Being in government, pulling the levers of power, cloaked in the authority of the state, tended to paper over a party’s contradictions, fault lines and compromised identity.
Then when they had lost office, the same personnel, slumped in the opposition benches, appeared not so impressive. That outfit that had previously seemed to brim with talent now looked quite bereft. They squabbled and stood for little.
But since 2010 that dynamic has been turned upside down. Now, at the federal level at least, government angst and division is regularly on show and oppositions, mainly because they’re generally travelling well in the opinion polls, boast unity and purpose – if you can call opposing everything you can get away with purposeful.
So whereas once upon a time a prime minister would see off a series of opposite numbers, these days it’s the other way around.
What has driven the changed landscape – it surely includes the global financial crisis and declining major party support leading to increasingly difficult Senates – is moot. What matters is that Turnbull’s elevation didn’t bring back stability. Our tragicomedy plays on.
And the Liberal Party is in a lopsided place.
Turnbull represents the Liberals’ economically dry, socially progressive pragmatic wing, and because he’s travelling poorly in the electorate he needs to repeatedly placate its rump of angry conservatives.
Yet recall the experience of Tony Abbott, resolutely in the conservative camp. When the insecurity of his prime ministership became apparent in early 2015 the quarter he felt obliged to mollify was also the party’s right, lest they shift their affection to Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton.
Is something odd with this dynamic?
Had the Coalition been returned handsomely in July’s election, Turnbull might have stamped his authority on the party. That was certainly his and his supporters’ plan. Being perceived as an electoral asset generates internal respect; the continuing conservative ascendancy is partly a legacy of John Howard’s four wins from 1996 to 2004, and of Abbott’s 2013 victory. Donald Trump’s triumph across the Pacific has emboldened Australian conservative culture warriors further.
This is a terrible time to make election predictions, but here’s one anyway: the Labor Party will win the next election, and if Turnbull is the defeated prime minister the Coalition will react by moving back, further back, to the wacky fringe, the reasoning being that the poll showed moderates are losers.
Of course, the next ALP government will itself degenerate into a clown show as the opinion polls turn sour, Senates continue to block and budgets remain in deficit. Old animosities will resurface, leadership ambitions set free.
But Turnbull next year can decide what kind of opposition the next government faces. If he bows out and allows his party to be all it currently wants to be – the parliamentary wing of the Andrew Bolt, Allan Jones and Ray Hadley shows, the party of Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, George Christensen and Cory Bernardi, roaming the countryside pursuing pointless ideological battles, electoral defeat in 2019 will be even more assured.
But after that the lessons drawn by the party from the outcome will push it more towards the sensible centre. Good for the party, good for the nation.
So give it some thought Malcolm. Your family misses you.
You could even claim that, like your good friend John Key, left on your own terms.
Peter Brent is an Adjunct Fellow at Swinburne University.
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