Shambolic isn’t the word for it. The Liberal Party is so far beyond shambolic we’re starting to run out of adjectives. The party’s conservatives and the liberals are locked in a death match with each unable to deliver a killer blow. They can only wrestle around in public, while the government, and the rest of us, watch. Watch, increasingly, with embarrassment. This party is ripping itself apart into two camps virtually at war with each other.
“The lunatics are running the asylum”, was the despairing summary of one Liberal staffer.
Who could lead such a flailing collective of internal hatreds and ideological divisions? Who could bridge the divide, the gulf between these inimically opposed forces?
Well, no one, probably, certainly not at the moment.
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But Malcolm Turnbull has proven almost uniquely incapable of it. His moderate views aren’t the problem, it’s his leadership style, in which a lifelong tendency — need — to go for the jugular comes to the fore when he needs to be inclusive and consultative, especially in the post-Howard Liberal Party, freed from the dominance exerted by its central figure of the past two decades.
Again yesterday Turnbull showed how he knew how important patience and consultation were in his quest to get his colleagues over the line on the CPRS. He let the party room talk for hours on end, insisting everyone who wanted to be heard should be. And then, while several senators were absent, at the death, he declared he had won and walked out, leaving conservatives furious and insisting they had the numbers.
It’s a pattern that we’ve seen before, and plenty of his colleagues have noticed.
I suspect that’s partly why Andrew Robb had no qualms in turning his back on the man he helped into the leadership last year. Robb has serious policy reservations about the CPRS package. But in other circumstances, he might have kept his doubts hidden, concerned about the impact on the party leadership.
Evidently, he has decided Turnbull’s leadership cannot survive, even if he succeeds in today’s spill or non-spill. And he’s almost certainly right.
The only problem is that there’s no one else currently. Certainly not Kevin Andrews. The instinctive reaction even of many Liberals to his name being linked to the leadership is laughter.
The larger irony in all this is that Turnbull, a man genuinely committed to taking action on climate change, has massively damaged, and probably destroyed, his leadership over a scheme that will do absolutely nothing to address climate change. To have wrecked his political career and hopes of the prime ministership in the cause of preventing global warming would be commendable.
But to wreck them for Kevin Rudd’s CPRS? Oh, Malcolm.
Instead, Turnbull and Rudd, and Penny Wong, will forever be associated with a new model of policy development in Australia.
The model is simple: if powerful interests are opposed to significant reform, they must be bought off at the expense of the taxpayer. The era of reform driven by political bravery, by the willingness to sacrifice political capital for the sake of achieving long-term improvements in the living standards of Australians, the Hawke-Keating-Howard era in which good policy could be good politics, is over.
All powerful interests now need to do is hire a prominent consulting firm to show that reform will lead to significant job losses, promote the bad news via friendly journalists or media outlets hostile to the government, hire a top lobbyist, make some generous donations, and wait for the politicians to cave in.
If major reform cannot be achieved by a Prime Minister at record levels of popularity faced with an opposition tearing itself apart and an opposition leader pathologically incapable of healing the divisions in his party, then hope for genuine reform is lost.
That’s the real story today, regardless of who wins this afternoon, or at what point Malcolm Turnbull finally topples.