The Liberal Party is remarkably inept at dealing with its leadership problems, which is peculiar given just how much they depend on their leader to keep them unified. All parties realise from time to time they have to replace a leader. Labor usually has plenty of hardheads who can oversee the process of spilling and then replacing a leader with the minimum of bloodshed.
But the Liberals have never mastered the art. They could never resolve the Peacock-Howard tension in the 1980s, instead letting it confine them to opposition for two or three terms. Peter Costello complained about it – admittedly from a self-interested point of view – in his memoir, saying the Party simply couldn’t manage the basic act of generational renewal that Labor routinely achieved. We saw how badly they handled the end of John Howard, whose political skills had plainly deserted him, along with much of the electorate, in 2007. So incompetent was the party that even when John Howard offered his own head on a platter they refused to accept it.
So, given that, why on earth would Malcolm Turnbull resign? He knows what Howard knew, that the Liberals struggle to kill even bad leaders. They wait for them to quit, or do a deal. They hope that they’ll see the writing on the wall, like Alexander Downer did, and negotiate an honourable exit. Or they hope they’ll roll the dice and lose, like Brenden Nelson did.
Turnbull instead is doing what any politician with a killer instinct does: he is calling the bluff of his enemies and giving them no alternative but to fight. He has already outsmarted them once this week, bringing on the leadership spill on Wednesday, 20 hours ahead of the intended meeting. He’ll be trying to work out a way to do it again.
Fighting comes naturally to Malcolm Turnbull. He enjoys it. He’s been doing it for most of his life. The higher the stakes, the better. His enemies – the likes of Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin – may talk tough. Tony Abbott likes to swagger around with a prize-fighter’s shoulder roll, looking like he’d take on all comers. But conflict is foreign to them. They’re on Turnbull’s ground now. They appear to have expected Turnbull to roll over at the first serious blow, to have seen Abbott and Minchin threatening to walk and either caved in on the ETS or resigned. Instead, he counter-attacked. The reason why Tony Abbott gave such a terrible press conference on Thursday afternoon when he announced his resignation may well have been because he never expected to have to do what he did.
Indeed, the reaction of his opponents has been one of confusion. They talked of tickets, they suggested Turnbull was going mad, they tried to keep up a steady trickle of resignations, they even spread the rumour that Julie Bishop had told him his number was up. Nothing doing, was Turnbull’s response. You’ll have to kill me in the partyroom.
Efforts to get him to do the right thing “by the party” will be to no avail. John Howard, a man who gave his life to the Liberal Party, was quite happy to tear it apart in his quest for the Prime Ministership. Malcolm Turnbull, who toyed with joining Labor and has virtually none of Howard’s devotion to the Liberal cause, is unlikely to be any different. In any event, the party is already tearing itself apart even without him.
As of tonight, the odds favour a Hockey succession. But Turnbull is accustomed to fighting against the odds. If any of the climate denialists and conservatives in the Liberal Party thought he was going to simply roll over, they have wholly misunderstood the man who leads them.