Funny how politicians change their tune when it comes to internal matters.

The Liberals — the party of rugged individualism, competition and the animal spirits of the market place — have decided that the “delegitimisation” narrative they want to pursue against the government is best served by not appearing divided. The party of competition would prefer no competition at the moment, thanks. Thus Andrew Robb’s speculative tilt at the deputy leadership has been nixed to preserve the appearance of harmony on the conservative side.

It’s a long way from the days after the 1993 election when John Howard stood against John Hewson purely, he said, in the interests of having a contest.

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Robb certainly has leadership ambitions and, after his strong performance during the election campaign as spokesman and principal attack dog, why shouldn’t he have a tilt? And, yes, he was never happy about Malcolm Turnbull giving Joe Hockey the gig as shadow Treasurer, and rightly so. Robb as shadow Treasurer and deputy might help to turn around the Liberals’ dire fortunes in Victoria, a state where the only positive thing to say about the Liberals’ election performance is that it wasn’t as bad as in Tasmania — although, admittedly, losing Julian McGauran will lift the average IQ of the Victorian Liberal contingent by quite a few points.

There have been a few quibbles about Robb’s performance on the costings, but his task was to get to election day with the Opposition’s economic credibility intact and he managed that task. It’s not his fault it had a possibly disastrous consequence during negotiations over minority government.  And in any event he still achieved a better bottom-line Budget outcome than Labor.

But the maintenance of the existing Liberal economic team would simply continue the problem — which, who knows, may have played a role in keeping them from winning — that their best economic assets, Robb and Malcolm Turnbull, aren’t used at all effectively. And putting Turnbull into communications just because, you know, he’s into all that tech stuff, won’t fix that.

The Turnbull situation complicates things for Robb enormously because, to put it mildly, there’s no love lost between the two men, certainly not since Robb’s Rebellion in the partyroom on climate change and, I’d suggest, well before that. If thrust into close proximity, they’ll struggle to work effectively together, although both are professional enough to manage.

But the problem for Robb was also that he was unlikely to knock off Bishop. Having spent the campaign in the HQ bunker in Melbourne, he may not have been quite aware of what Julie Bishop was up to during the election. She visited 46 electorates over the course of the campaign, and not just marginals (like, for example, Longman, where she looked like she was walking Wyatt Roy to school), but safer seats whose incumbents normally have to make do without too much in the way of support from high-profile party figures. It’s the sort of thing Brendan Nelson was good at, and one of the reasons why Nelson secured the leadership over Malcolm Turnbull back in 2007, because backbenchers remember that sort of effort. Robb would have struggled to get close to Bishop.

The Liberals like to boast they’re a more democratic party than Labor. Not for them the tyranny of the Whip — they’re free to cross the floor and vote how they like. But Joe Hockey was boasting this morning of something quite different — the Coalition leader’s “unfettered right” to pick his ministry — presumably in contrast to Labor’s tradition, abrogated by Kevin Rudd, of the factions selecting a ministry.

The latter seems somewhat more democratic, you’d think, but in the interests of serving the delegitimisation narrative, it’s stability all the way for the Liberals. None of this dangerous allocation of portfolios based on faction.

Nor, for the moment, allocating portfolios to the people who’d be best in them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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