“Liberal Party Death Spiral” — the headline was in Thursday’s Crikey, but it could have been anywhere in the media over the past few days. There’s been near unanimity that not only is Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership doomed, but the Liberal Party  is facing the prospect of fragmentation and irrelevance.

My colleague Guy Rundle, who wrote the article so headlined, correctly traces the party’s problems to the amorphous nature with which it was founded, as a philosophically disparate coalition — “at its worst,” as he puts it, “simply a cloud of atoms pointed in roughly the same direction.”

But I think Rundle underestimates the extent to which the core of the party has always been illiberal, hostile to free thought and free trade (part of the reason is that he doesn’t see these so closely connected as I do). The task of making it an even moderately liberal party, and breaking the conservative hegemony that John Howard in particular had established, was always going to be incredibly messy and against the odds.

There were times when it seemed the Liberals, perhaps under Peter Costello, could settle down as a moderate-conservative force in opposition to a more liberal, market-friendly ALP, as it was under Paul Keating and later Mark Latham. But Kevin Rudd’s conservatism, coupled with the inability of the Liberal centre to throw up a leadership contender post-Costello, has put paid to that option.

The truth is that the Liberal Party’s whole history, and particularly its past 17 years (since the silencing of John Hewson), have meant it was always likely to reach a point at which all the available options were bad. That point has now been reached.

Even so, some are worse than others. For Joe Hockey to take the leadership now would base the party directly on betrayal — his personal betrayal of Turnbull and the party’s betrayal of the ETS deal — and commit him to a position on emissions trading that, whatever its intrinsic merits, can only be seen as a surrender to the denialists.

An Abbott leadership has more potential, in that the explicitness of the right’s victory might finally force a critical mass from the centre-left to leave the party and start afresh. But the precedents are discouraging in the extreme; the party’s left has repeatedly stayed put through outrages of every sort. As Hockey’s career shows, it has horizons that never stretch beyond the next election, and rarely beyond about lunchtime.

Turnbull evidently understands that an ideological attack has to be met in kind. Abbott and Minchin at least believe in something, and believers will always outlast non-believers. The task is to give the Liberal Party a philosophical centre that provides a coherent alternative to denialism and obscurantism.

Is Malcolm Turnbull the ideal person to be attempting this? Of course not — but is there ever an “ideal person”? Revolutions are not made by saints, and historical turning points turn on whatever the available talent is at the time. Someone had to try, and Turnbull at least is someone.

If not him, who? If not now, when?

Peter Fray

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