My favourite image of Liberal turmoil (TM) last week was Julian McGauran solemnly intoning last Thursday how he would cross the floor on the CPRS bill come what may.

“Any leader that blindly disregards the greater majority of the party room invites trouble, so this is all in Malcolm’s hands,” McGauran said. To accompany his pronouncement, he was filmed pretending to be busy in his office, unperturbed by what was clearly a very Bad Hair Day.

McGauran first arrived in the Senate – as a National – 22 years ago. Yes, 1987. He had a spell out of Parliament after 1990 but returned in 1993 and has been there ever since.

McGauran is best known for walking out on the Nats in 2006 and into the Victorian Liberal Party, who welcomed him and his enormously wealthy pastoralist family with open arms. The McGaurans have always been generous political donors.

Beyond that, his contribution to public life in those 19 years as a Senator? Zip. Zero. Nothing. In short, who the hell is Julian McGauran and why is he making his leader’s life difficult?

McGauran’s been around a long time but learnt nothing. He entered Federal politics in the Joh-for-PM election. He would have seen the Howard-Peacock conflict up close, and the destruction of John Hewson, not to mention the lunatic interregnum of Alexander Downer. And he would have seen the unity under John Howard. But evidently none of it registered in his brain.

The Julian McGaurans of the world, rich dullards shoehorned into Parliament where they can’t do any damage to the family businesses, can always be relied on to act stupidly.

Joe Hockey, on the other hand, has no excuse. He has been a Cabinet Minister, and even if he wasn’t in politics in the 80s and early 90s, he need only have gazed across the aisle to see the Labor Party tearing itself apart after 2001, or contemplated how John Howard’s own leadership wobbles in the last months before the 2007 election sucked oxygen out of that Government’s attempts to defend against the Rudd onslaught.

What possesses intelligent politicians to behave in exactly the manner that they know is guaranteed to undermine their leader and harm their own interests? What isn’t clear about the simple political fact that no matter who the leader is, they’re going to struggle to make much of a dent on a disciplined first-term government?

Maybe it’s the nature of political life, so much of which is now stage-managed, given over to performance and the utterance of carefully-scripted lines. Perhaps they figure that, being no more than actors on the stage of public life, they should follow the leadership instability script, despite knowing how it always ends.

Or it could be that line, variously ascribed to Santayana, Hegel, Voltaire and others that those who fail to understand history are condemned to repeat it. “First as tragedy, then as comedy” that wag Marx added. But what about the third time, Karl? The fourth, fifth, sixth? The Liberals have done leadership turmoil so often in the last twenty years that now we’re into one of those uncomfortable absurdist comedy moments where the performer simply repeats themselves over and over again until the audience erupts from their bourgeois comfort zone or, more likely, leaves.

What does change is the speed of the cycle. In the 1980s, the Peacock-Howard conflict played out over years. John Hewson lasted a full fourteen months after he lost the 1993 election. The Alexander Downer Comedy Hour was admittedly short, but Downer was a special talent.

Both sides of politics had stability for the second half the 1990s, but this decade things began to speed up. Simon Crean lasted two years and never faced an election. Latham managed 13 months, Beazley Mark II 22 months. Brendan Nelson only got ten months, and never even got a honeymoon. His leadership started crumbling the moment he got it.

That’s politics in the 24/7 media cycle, when crises develop, engulf and (if you’re lucky) retreat in the course of a day.

Should Malcolm Turnbull join the list above, the cycle won’t slow down for his successor? There’s plenty of time between now and then second half of next year for us to go through the whole ritual or rise, fall and self-immolation again if Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott produces sufficient gaffes and stumbles. And then what? Turn to another alternative just in time for the election?

The result is to burn through a generation of political talent in a futile attempt to prevent what every government since the 1930s has managed – a second term. Madness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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