Well, that broke the monotony huh?
Amid all the sound and fury last night, let’s not overlook that Malcolm Turnbull has achieved a truly remarkable feat: drag his party kicking and screaming to actually support the Government’s CPRS, in an amended form. It is an impressive achievement.
And forget about Wilson Tuckey and Dennis Jensen and the denialist bloc within the Liberal Party calling a spill against Turnbull on Thursday. If the spill motion gets up, Turnbull will likely have the numbers, and for that matter won’t even need them in the event Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey don’t stand. I mean, seriously – Kevin Andrews? A man whose ministerial career was marked by both incompetence and malice? He’d be lucky to get his own vote let alone anyone else’s.
But Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is terminal after yesterday for two reasons: he now has a formidable array of conservative figures aligned against him, and he has confirmed yet again that he is unable to control his high-handed and aggressive style of leadership.
Andrews Robb’s decision to join the “no” camp was the bombshell of the day, but one quickly overtaken by talk of spills and numbers. It remains a critical development. Robb is the most substantial figure in the party apart from Turnbull. He is more widely-respected than Abbott, he is far, far smarter than Joe Hockey, he has supporters amongst both conservatives – his instinctive political home – and moderates (he is a republican). Above all, he was Turnbull’s trusted point man on the ETS before he was felled by illness. His decision to oppose Turnbull would not have been taken lightly. It would have been taken in the full knowledge that he was turning his back on the man whom he strongly supported for the leadership in November 2007 and September 2008.
It also means that there is now a solid bloc of Nick Minchin, Robb and Tony Abbott, amongst the senior leadership, who opposed Turnbull. This is a far more formidable grouping than a clutch of denialists like Corey Bernardi.
A key feature of the partyroom meeting yesterday was always going to be how Turnbull handled it. There has been a growing chorus – from senior Liberals down – in recent months that Turnbull is unable to control his aggression, unable to rein in his tendency to go for the jugular. It was bad enough when he bit off more than he could chew against Kevin Rudd over the faked email affair. But when directed at his colleagues, at it increasingly has been over the CPRS, it makes enemies where it is unnecessary to do so.
And Turnbull has tried to rein it in. He was extraordinarily patient in getting the party slowly but surely to move to a point where it would at least consider a deal – remarkable given it voted against the CPRS point blank earlier in the year. But he always seemed a brain explosion away from undoing all the hard work – like when he labelled opponents smartarses and reckless and irresponsible, and visibly and deliberately put his leadership on the line over the CPRS.
Yesterday, again, he tried hard – insisting that everyone who wanted to be heard should speak their piece. Hour after hour it went. Denialists, legitimate sceptics, climate change believers who didn’t like the CPRS, supporters – all had their say.
And then, as if he could restrain himself no more, he declared victory while senators were out of the room, saying he had a majority.
There was no hint of sharp practice in doing it while senators were absent – or at least that’s what Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce said. Both said that wasn’t an issue – people had been going in and out of the partyroom all day. But very quickly, Turnbull’s opponents began saying that he had misrepresented the partyroom position. Kevin Andrews in effect accused Turnbull of lying, saying “40 or 41” backbenchers had opposed the CPRS package, and only 33 had supported it. Tuckey said 40 were against the package. Another counted it 47-47 after including shadow Cabinet members.
The same words were again used – high-handed. Arrogant. Bullying. Sentiments unlikely to have been curtailed by his repeated, Muhammad Ali-like claim at the ensuing press conference “I am the leader”.
Turnbull has achieved an astonishing feat in getting his party to back the Government’s CPRS, particularly given just how alien he is to many conservatives in his party and how relatively politically inexperienced he is. But regardless of what happens later this week, he has confirmed the suspicion many hold that he simply cannot control himself. Worse, there are serious, substantial party figures who are now alienated from him.
For a party as deeply divided as the Liberals, Turnbull’s style simply can’t work. Frankly it’s doubtful whether anyone’s style could work given how badly they are fractured. But Turnbull risks exacerbating their divisions with his approach – and that is exactly what appears to have happened this evening.