“The reality is political parties are like football clubs,” said Malcolm Turnbull yesterday. “They seek to recruit people they think might be good players.”

In which case, Labor should consider giving the Libs a few draft picks for the sake of preserving competition. Come to think of it, maybe the Liberals are tanking in order to get them.

I never thought I’d use the term “hapless” about Malcolm Turnbull. He is so utterly the last person you’d ever call hapless. Haplessness is what he used to reduce business rivals to. Hapless is what he made Brendan Nelson, without even trying to. But right now, hapless is about the best thing you can say about him.

Forget about the Labor recruitment thing — except to bear in mind that clearly confidentiality means nothing to senior Labor people (Bill Kelty honourably excepted). That’s just the Government trying to further alienate Turnbull from the Liberal base and reduce his fundraising capacity.

No, Turnbull is now starting to resemble — OK, has resembled for some time — John Howard 1.0, whose stint as Opposition Leader was severely damaged by the Queensland Nationals.

The Joh-for-PM push was marked by extraordinary arrogance and astonishing political stupidity. The media encouraged it, partly for good fun, but partly because they bought the absurd claims of the Joh crowd that they were in tune with the real feelings of voters.

It’s happening all over again. And the de facto Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce demonstrated the same stupidity and arrogance on the weekend at the Nationals’ Federal Council meeting.

First there was Joyce on leadership, declaring Turnbull wasn’t his leader. The Senator is undoubtedly a busy man but perhaps he should take five minutes and read his own constitution. He’s a member of the Liberal National Party, not the National Party. The LNP is affiliated with the Liberal Party, not the National Party. Which makes Turnbull his leader.

Admittedly, the issue is made more difficult by the fact that Warren Truss is the invisible man of Federal politics and can hardly claim to be Nats leader when Joyce is running the show.

Joyce also shows a remarkable and self-destructive ignorance of history.

The National Party has been struggling to resolve the dilemma of what it stands for for more than a decade. Pauline Hanson and the regional backlash against the decline of services in the bush put the wind up John Anderson so badly he launched a major campaign to win back the bush in the Howard Government’s second term. Anderson, a thoughtful and intelligent bloke, was committed to developing serious responses to the issue of long-term regional decline. But that reduced, under his rather less intellectual successor Mark Vaile, to an vast pork barrelling campaign which blew up in the Nationals’ faces in the middle of the 2007 election campaign.

None of it worked. The Nationals kept going backwards, and rural independents like Tony Windsor went from strength to strength.

The Joyce prescription for saving the Nationals is more of the same, but with the Queensland-style twist of being more separate from the Liberals.

Having a split in the conservative side of politics is one of the key reasons why Labor has been in power in Queensland for most of the past two decades. It got so bad last year the Nationals decided they’d had enough and took over the Liberal Party.

Joyce wants to ignore that and go in the opposite direction. It is a gift to the ALP.

The immediate example is the emissions trading scheme, on which Joyce has claimed that Liberal turkeys will vote for Christmas and join him in opposing it. The problem Joyce poses for the Coalition isn’t so much in three months’ time as at the next election, when voters and business won’t be certain what the Coalition’s ETS policy is – or whether they even support one.

Mark Vaile made similar noises during the 2007 election campaign, denying climate change and undermining the Howard Government’s stated policy to introduce a “comprehensive” emissions trading scheme. But everyone knew that Howard made and implemented Coalition policy. Turnbull doesn’t have a fraction of that authority, and nor will anyone else.

Joyce also wants a referendum on nuclear power. The man’s lack of political judgment knows no bounds. Quite apart from nuclear power being economically unviable, it seems Joyce wants to hand Kevin Rudd, the most skilled politician of recent years, another weapon with which to demonise the Coalition.

If the Nats follow Joyce, they’ll wipe the Liberals out as well as themselves. Australia will be left without a viable Opposition. And how on earth the Coalition will run a functional campaign in Queensland at the election is anyone’s guess. For starters, what’s the policy of LNP candidates on the ETS?

Not that all of Turnbull’s problems hail from the bush. In a significant piece in The Weekend Australian, Greg Sheridan, the conservatives’ in-house foreign policy thinker, went after Julie Bishop over China and didn’t miss. He declared the Coalition “has probably for the moment definitively forfeited the right to be taken seriously as an alternative government.” And that was just the start of an extended savaging.

Sheridan’s close links with Alexander Downer make his attack all the more serious.

The only positive side to Julie Bishop at the moment is that her foolishness is corralled to foreign affairs, which most Australians ignore. The Liberals need to find somewhere even more obscure to hide her, or dump her. They can’t do much about Barnaby Joyce but they can get rid of their Deputy Leader.

Peter Fray

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