A short while ago Joe Hockey went to Malcolm Turnbull’s office in Parliament House. Despite repeatedly saying that he would not challenge his leader, he is expected to announce this afternoon that he will be challenging Turnbull for the leadership of their party tomorrow.
There’s an outside chance Turnbull will stand aside, but don’t bet on it. The Liberals have nothing Turnbull wants except the leadership. He won’t have any interest in being Hockey’s foreign affairs minister.
And in that case, Hockey will win the ballot comfortably, bringing Malcolm Turnbull’s tumultuous period as leader to an end.
But he will get no honeymoon. There will be a bounce in the polls for the Coalition, but Hockey enters his leadership as damaged goods – and not because he breached his commitment to his leader.
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Hockey will be exactly what Nick Greiner and Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday – a puppet of Nick Minchin and the party’s conservatives. Hockey lacks the intellectual heft and political nous to be anything but a figurehead in what will assuredly be a Minchin Regency.
But it’s more than that. Minchin and the party’s conservative wing have sent a powerful signal. While accusing Turnbull of wrecking the party, they themselves have demonstrated that they will inflict any amount of damage on the party, its leader and its brand if they don’t like a decision. They lost the debate last week, refused to accept the result, tried to move a spill, lost that too, then resorted to mass resignations to get their way.
Malcolm Turnbull has been lashed for hitting back hard at them yesterday but he’s a model of decorum compared to a number of rightwingers in the party. These are men and women who plainly think the rules only apply when it’s convenient for them.
Hockey will not be their leader, he will be their hostage. Anything statement short of a repeat of Hockey’s statements last week that the CPRS will be passed will be like one of those dreadful hostage videos, in which captives are forced to say whatever those holding them insist on. Hockey may as well be holding up a newspaper.
The only catch is that Hockey himself may not make it to the election, to the dismay of his captors. He is undoubtedly popular with punters, much more so than Abbott. But his indiscipline, his inability to master a detailed brief, his tendency to resort to bullying when he doesn’t like what someone says, all will be the object of a concerted attack from the Labor machine over the next twelve months, starting the very day he gets the leadership.
While he’s not the goose that Alexander Downer was in 1994, the possibility of a Downer-style flame-out can’t be ignored. That would leave the party to turn to Abbott, which is what Minchin and the conservatives may want in the long term, but it would also leave them a laughing-stock. Well, more so than they currently are.
Turnbull has alienated friend and foe alike with his arrogance, high-handedness and inability to engage constructively and consultatively with his backbench. But he’s a genuine leader, committed to taking the Liberal Party forward and making it competitive. Hockey will lead them to a disaster far worse than Turnbull would have managed.