What will Malcolm Turnbull do if he loses tomorrow, as seems likely?
The conventional wisdom is he’d pull the pin, resigning from Parliament and exiting politics. The ensuing by-election would be extremely difficult for a divided and disrupted Liberal Party to win. Wentworth voters would see the Liberals as the climate denialists who forced their bloke out.
You can bet Labor would definitely stand a candidate this time.
But not so fast.
Yesterday Christopher Joye offered an intriguing take on the Turnbull leadership and his problems. This morning, Joye floated a fascinating thought bubble on what Turnbull might do: establish his own political party, freed from the encumbrance and historic problems of the Liberal Party.
The idea has apparently occurred to others. David Speers tweeted this morning that the idea of Turnbull establishing a new party was being discussed amongst Liberal MPs. It is not coming from Turnbull or his camp. You can bet Turnbull is focused entirely on the challenge of defeating Nick Minchin and whatever candidate the conservatives throw at him.
New parties have not had a great track record in Australia of late. Putting aside the death of the Democrats, One Nation, Meg Lees’s Australian Progressive Alliance and Family First are (with apologies to our friends at the Australian S-x Party) the most significant new parties in the last decade. One National flamed out, Meg Lees’s cranky reaction to being turfed from the Democrat leadership never got off the ground, and Steve Fielding, who regularly shames the Senate with his asinine and offensive comments, is only there because of Stephen Conroy’s lunatic preference deals.
But Turnbull has several things going for him that others don’t have. He has a huge profile, he has the financial resources to start things rolling, and a capacity to tap into the business sector for financial support.
A Turnbull party – possibly the Australian Republican Party – would be committed to action on climate change, an Australian republic, a low-tax, small-government economic philosophy and a progressive social policy. “Warm and dry”, to use Nick Greiner’s classic self-description.
The target would clearly be the moderate wing of the Liberal Party. The first task would be to retain Wentworth next year. His main opponent there would be Labor, not his Liberal successor, but he would pick up preferences from both and if he outpolled the Liberal candidate would have a strong chance of getting over the line on preferences, keeping the seat he spent so much treasure on snatching from Peter King six years ago.
Labor might even run dead to keep him in Parliament, making life difficult for the Liberals.
The next challenge would be to build a membership base. The goal would be to lure moderate Liberal members, hostile to the Minchin-led party’s climate change denialism and Tony Abbott’s monarchism – wealthy and leafy suburban seats.
The biggest problem would be perceptions that the party was entirely a vehicle for Turnbull’s ego and fury at his former party. He would need to recruit substantial figures to provide a counterweight to the image of it being all about Malcolm. The business community would be first port of call. With Joe Hockey as Nick Minchin’s puppet leading the Liberal Party, business might not be as enthusiastic about donating to the Liberals as they are under Turnbull.
Turnbull is not a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal, although he married into the Hughes clan. He flirted with joining Labor. In truth, he does not entirely belong in either party. And while we know Turnbull is politically-motivated by his own ego, he is also genuinely committed to public life, and passionately wants to change and improve his country. His record on the republic demonstrates that. Setting up a new party, without the baggage and conservative deadweight of the Liberals, could yet allow him to make a major contribution.
Becoming Prime Minister is the highest achievement in Australian politics. But successfully establishing a new party? Who has really done that since Robert Menzies? That’s a challenge big enough to intrigue Turnbull.