“What is this?”

“It’s my essay sir.”

“Turnbull — what is an essay?”

“It’s a piece of non-fiction arguing a core proposition that considers the evidence for and against, drawing in a wider series of reflections and speculations about the world, the whole piece often but not always illustrative of a broader more comprehensive world view.”

“What have you given me?”

“A series of disconnected sledges of Rudd minor’s essay, sir.”

“And what is your excuse?!!!”

“Sir, please sir, we live in a flat sir.”

The looming deadline for Turnbull, M to supply The Oz‘s Saturday essay must have brought back some unpleasant memories — even supposing that he actually touched any part of it himself. If ever something looked like it was put together on the school bus, it was Turnbull’s pathetic riposte to the thoughts of Chairman Kevin Vol 43, part vi as published in the Fairfax press last week, soon to be released in a commemorative limited edition, on parchment with a pink ribbon for binding.

No core, no centre, no depth — just a series of itemised platitudes and a bit of general issue “principles”, essentially a stump speech dressed up. It’s the second time that Turnbull has failed at the gate — the first was for Peter Van Onselen’s edited collection of Liberal essays, a free kick from MUP for a well-resourced party seemingly incapable of pulling together a conference to work out what it actually believed.

The fact that neither Turnbull, nor Nelson nor Bishop could bother to provide an original reflective piece seemed indicative of the deep hole the party found itself in.

However, with Turnbull’s “essay” revealed in The Oz the non-contribution to the book now seems like a wise move. Better keep silent and have people suspect you’re a fool, than open it and … Bizarrely, The Oz not only did Turnbull a disservice by commissioning it (and then running it inside, with a single column 7 lead-in on the front of the Inquirer), they shot themselves in the foot too. With the Rudd government making a very deliberate effort to sideline News Ltd as the place where things happen, what did the Surrey Hills sultanate do? An imitative form of catch-up, which only served to emphasise their new, relegated status.

The move was all the more pathetic given the amount of mockery that’s been directed Rudd’s way for his enthusiasm for long-form writing, an activity which once again seems utterly oblivious to the smooth way in which Rudd is using his intellectuality to box the Coalition in. Yes, a lot of people think Rudd is a bit of a wanker, a swot, a show-off. Yes, ninety five per cent of them won’t read his Monthly essay, and seventy-five per cent won’t read the Fairfax essay.

But such writings achieve other aims. They are readable by anyone who wants to try them, but they are also aimed at the party cadres, who have to go out to the people and agitate and propagandise. They make clear the theoretical basis upon which the party takes practical action. An effective leader of a party that wants to change things repeats that theory — Rudd’s being basically that neoliberalism is an anti-social ideology that does not recognise the full complexity of human life and human good, that it is essentially a one-dimensional view of society where a multi-levelled view, of a mixture of competition and co-operation is required — endlessly, nine ways from Christmas. When the party moves, it moves together.

The other big effect of Rudd’s Maoisant approach — you’d have to be blind to not see the Great Helmsman’s hand at the tiller — is that it occurs in a period when people are willing and eager to vote for someone who is smarter than them. Howard and Bush both rode to victory on a wave of conservative identity politics — all the while denouncing identity politics — in which you were asked to vote for someone not as a leader, but as a flattering mirror, an embodiment of how you wanted things to be.

The Howard-whores at The Oz and elsewhere always wildly overestimated the degree to which that was effective — and if WorkChoices showed how easily people were willing to dump him, the global financial crisis showed they were not averse to burying him alive. The same went for McCain and Palin in the US — the prospect of a financial meltdown made the eggheads attractive not because they were like the voter, but precisely because they weren’t. For many voters Rudd and Obama were hired, not elected, because they were different to thee or me.

To say that the Liberal Party has never been a theoretical party is an understatement. But there have still been times when they could withdraw to the eyrie and think things through — whether that manifested itself in The Forgotten People, or Howard’s thinking through of the culture wars in the early 90s. It can’t run on this notion of hard-headed practicality as an excuse not to think for ever.

All the more so, since it has the example of the British Tories — wandering a decade in the wilderness before reinventing themselves — as a useful crib that could them back in the game quicker. Will they take it? Don’t hold your breath — they may be in the remedial class for some time to come.

Peter Fray

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