In the legendary “Entirely a matter for you” sketch in which Peter Cook savaged the judge’s summing-up in the notorious 1979 Jeremy Thorpe trial, he invited the jury to disregard the evidence presented by a hit-man entirely on the basis that he was “unable to carry out the simplest murder plot without cocking it up, to the distress of many”.
The words perfectly sum up the Liberal Party of 2009. They are such staggeringly inept assassins that their plots are as much a danger to themselves as to the intended victim, one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.
You had to shake yourself yesterday, pinch yourself to make sure you weren’t experiencing the effects of some powerful hallucinogens, or that David Lynch hadn’t taken over directing Australian politics, or that we hadn’t slipped into some strange parallel universe.
We’ve all grown used to the Prime Minister insisting that the CPRS will address climate change, a statement palpably, ludicrously wrong but apparently accepted with equanimity by the opposition and much of the media.
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But that was as nothing to Kevin Andrews, a man whose career of public service remains admirably untainted by evidence of competence or common sense, offering himself as a serious candidate for the leadership of his party, complete with a half-hour long doorstop in which he put forward his formidable claims for the position.
I repeat, Kevin Andrews. Do not adjust your set.
That he didn’t even get to enter the ring with Turnbull, because there wasn’t enough votes for a spill, was further demonstration of the frightening levels of incompetence among Turnbull’s would-be killers.
Instead, we got a sort of de facto contest, won by Turnbull/let’s not have a spill 48 to Andrews/yeah bring it on 35.
Five would have been a triumph for Turnbull. 15, not too bad — just the denialists and fanatics such as Jensen and Tuckey. 25 — ouch — that would have been damaging.
35 is confirmation Turnbull, probably the most brilliant and certainly the richest man ever to lead a federal opposition, won’t be with us for much longer. 35 is demonstration that it’s not merely the climate denialists, it’s MPs and Senators genuinely angry about Turnbull’s handling of the CPRS, regardless of how they feel on the issue.
Turnbull has intimated he will change, that he will be more consultative and inclusive. What he really needs, one suspects, is a complete personality transplant, because Turnbull, a near force of nature who has swept all before him in careers across the media, law, merchant banking and IT, seems unable to stop those brain snaps that routinely derail him.
The CPRS Bills are now making their way through the Senate. The bells are regularly ringing here in APH, and Liberal senators are routinely crossing the floor. It’s now almost a non-event, in the same way the permanent opposition of the Nats is no longer even newsworthy.
But the next challenge for Turnbull is the reshuffle, which cannot be delayed much longer.
The reshuffle is an opportunity to promote new talent such as Simon Birmingham and Jamie Briggs but it is also an opportunity to reconcile with party conservatives, to try to heal the gulf that grew wider yesterday with Matthias Cormann, Brett Mason and Mitch Fifield resigning their shadow parliamentary secretaryships. A frontbench line-up that punishes conservatives will virtually guarantee trouble from the get-go. The reshuffle is therefore a test of just how committed Turnbull is to trying to rebuild his party’s cohesion.
The biggest question mark is over Andrew Robb, and whether he will return to the frontbench when he recovers. It is hard to see how Turnbull would have him back, and yet how could he not — Robb adds much-needed ballast to a lightweight leadership group (Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop) and leaving him on the backbench risks turning him into a leader-in-waiting around whom conservatives can gather.
Robb has something that neither Tony Abbott nor Joe Hockey can provide — he can reach out to those on the other side of the moderate-conservative divide that is entrenched in the party. Robb is a conservative, but not painfully so like Abbott (and certainly not when it comes to the monarchy).
He’s also got more policy grunt than both men put together, with a strong economics background. Both healing and some substantial policy are desperately needed by the Liberals. Robb’s only, and major, problem is that he’s a politician’s politician, and unlikely to find while appeal or recognition in the electorate, although his battle with depression will have lifted his profile.
All three men know it’s a poisoned chalice but someone has to get them back to Plan A, which was always to avoid going backwards at the coming election so that 2013 is a real contest against what will be by then a middle-aged Rudd government.
This time last year Turnbull took a savage hit in the polls after the Nationals and some Liberals defied him to cross the floor. It was during a late-night Senate sitting that bordered on farce and exposed real tensions not just in the coalition but within the Liberals, especially around Nick Minchin, who famously declared he had been in the toilet during the crucial vote.
Exactly one year later and the coalition, far from progressing from that point, has gone backwards. The Nats are defying the Liberals, and there are far more Liberal Senators prepared to cross the floor. The Liberals have promised to get their act together — again — but it has all the authenticity of Turnbull’s assurance that he’ll turn into Mr Nice Guy.
Just when you think they’ve hit bottom, the Liberals surprise by finding new ways to tear themselves apart.
Who seriously thinks they have finished?