This was originally published on November 30, 2007.
The demise of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership ambitions yesterday was in part revenge by those Liberals who have always treated the former Republican leader with, shall we charitably say, suspicion. Make no mistake, right wing warriors such as Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott have never warmed to Turnbull. They despised him for his role in pushing an Australian republic during the 1990s.
Abbott, let’s remember, was Turnbull’s opponent in that debate and Minchin never made any secret of his contempt for the idea of ridding Australia of the British monarchy. Both men were the hardest-working of Howard government ministers in advising and spruiking for the monarchist campaign in the 1999 Referendum.
Over the past five years, individuals like Minchin and Abbott and their supporters have had to endure the rise and rise of Malcolm. From the time Malcolm Turnbull made his peace with John Howard in 2001, the right has quietly seethed as their former nemesis rose rapidly through the ranks to become Environment Minister in the Howard government.
But yesterday the empire struck back. Turnbull’s courageous and morally correct decision to announce this week that, if he were Liberal Leader, the Party would join with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a formal Apology to Indigenous Australians for past wrongs sent Minchin and Abbott and the conservatives in the Tory party into a frenzy. The work that John Howard had done over the past decade in reshaping the Liberal Party into an unambiguously capital C conservative force in Australian politics could be brought undone by a man of Turnbull’s intellectual prowess and marketability to the electorate.
Minchin and Abbott had their minions out yesterday castigating Turnbull in no uncertain terms and making the point that they don’t think he will ever be suitable to lead the Liberals. He’s too slick, too Sydney eastern suburbs, too liberal, makes announcements without consulting his colleagues, not the man for us – all this and more from Howard’s self-styled Praetorian Guard.
Turnbull is his own man. Strong-willed and fiercely independent – not a man to be sat upon by factional heavies or party number crunchers like Minchin.
Brendan Nelson on the other hand is shallow, has swung to the Right simply because it is opportune to do so, and is a leader of whom Minchin and Abbott approve. Nelson believes in only one thing – himself. His career is a testament to that fact. He is a Faustian character.
And the forces of darkness – those who don’t seem to understand that the Liberal Party, if it is to regain office, must embrace the centre – not only triumphed in defeating Turnbull, they snared the Senate leadership as well. Nick Minchin is hanging around as leader for the Liberals in the Senate, and now he has a fellow right wing bovver boy in Eric Abetz as his Deputy.
Abetz got off to a dreadful start yesterday. He was surely smoking something when he said yesterday that Labor, when it has been in government, treats the Senate with contempt, and rams through legislation! Earth to Eric – remember your own government’s emasculation of Senate committees the moment it got control of that institution after the 2004 election?
The Liberal Party had a chance yesterday to make a break with the past and become, like its counterparts in the UK under David Cameron’s leadership today, a more tolerant and compassionate party. But instead they opted for more of the same. The Party has learnt nothing since Saturday. That’s what’s wrong with the Liberal Party.
Greg Barns is the author of What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? (2003) and was disendorsed, because of his public criticism of the Howard government’s asylum seeker policies, by Senator Abetz and his colleagues in the Tasmanian Liberal Party in 2002.