So Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership ended up where, frankly, it looked like heading for a long time, in a flaming wreck.
At least he went down on an issue of principle, on an issue he believes wholeheartedly in, even if the CPRS will ultimately do nothing about climate change. And he did it with style. We admired his bravado, his typically Turnbullian refusal to be bowed by his opponents, by enthusiasm for a fight against seemingly impossible odds. You couldn’t but watch him on Thursday night, or yesterday, when his ebullience seemed to border on eccentricity, without marvelling at him.
But nevertheless we all wrote him off, we all said he’d struggle to get many votes, that he was finished. It was all front, bravado, or perhaps Hitlerian delusion. And yet he came within two votes – maybe Fran Bailey’s and the thus-far anonymous informal voters of victory. Just two votes away from one the most amazing victories of his career.
Yet another lesson in why it’s always dangerous to write Malcolm Turnbull off.
Is it the end?
Well he’s not going anywhere yet, just to the backbench, to sit and watch and wait to see how the Minchin-led reactionaries run the party, in a Back To The Future re-run of the early, unfunny Howard years. He hasn’t ruled out staying in Parliament beyond next year, merely says it’s a fair question whether hell contest Wentworth again, and hell discuss it with his wife and closest adviser, Lucy Turnbull.
His very presence will be destabilizing. He’ll do to Abbott and Minchin — for it is Nick Minchin who is now in charge of the Liberal Party – what Costello did to him; simply sit there, watching, a threat by his mere existence, carefully scrutinised by a Press Gallery who might think he’s a dud leader but know he’s magnificent copy.
Turnbull, ideologically, was never a perfect fit for the Liberals, and his style wasn’t, either. His arrogant, back-me-or-I’ll-rip-your-throat-out style might have been acceptable in a Prime Minister wielding supreme power, but in an Opposition Leader, of a party that had got jack of being ignored throughout the Howard years, it was never going to work, and Turnbull must have understood that.
He must have known that every time he upset a backbencher, or tore strips off one or, as Ian Macfarlane – the ever more splendid Ian Macfarlane – said last night to Kerry O’Brien, failed to stroke people’s egos, that he was hurting his prospects, but he couldn’t help it. It’s in his DNA, it has served him well throughout his life, why change now?
Even so, he’s only been in the game five years and yet he has come such a long way. It is only the fact that he is Malcolm Turnbull that we consider his political career a failure, because he is judged by a different standard to everyone else.
It was Neville Cardus I think who called Keith Miller the Australian in exelcis, but I’d give that description to Turnbull, the Turnbull of Spycatcher, catching Thatcher’s ministers out, the Turnbull who took on Big Kerry and won, the Turnbull of the Republican movement, damning John Howard for breaking Australia’s heart, the Turnbull of Wentworth, the bloke who decided that was the seat he wanted and he was going to damn well take it, regardless of who wanted to stop him.
Even the Turnbull of the backbench, who arrived in Canberra uninterested in wasting time, and immediately became a thorn in the lazy, complacent backside of Peter Costello, a bloke who never had a hundredth of Turnbull’s self-belief, ambition and intellect.
That he came a cropper in so spectacular fashion is somehow typical of him as well. He’s not a bloke to ever do things by halves, or any other fraction for that matter.
Maybe we shan’t look upon his like again, but he isn’t going anywhere just yet. Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin better not relax for a moment. “I’m not a hater, I don’t bear grudges,” Turnbull said on the ABC this morning. Maybe. But he won’t forget what they’ve done to him, and he’s a dangerous man to get on the wrong side of.