“Malcolm Turnbull shows the strain”, as a caption on a front-page photo of The Australian had it last Friday, showing the chairman seated at the disptach box, rubbing his eyes, glasses off. It was the day Liberal Ian Macfarlane announced he was a defective, and therefore moving to the National Party. KABOOM!

So maybe the chairman was having a meltdown live to air or, more likely, his eyes were a little itchy in the time it took to snap a shot. That would have made for a terrible headline though, as would “News Corp shows the strain as Turnbull’s centrist approach proves wildly popular with voters”.

It’s a great example of the particular nature of the “honeymoon is over” bit the meeja love. Yes, the honeymoon is over, when your ex’s menacing friend is following you around and trying to ram your car, etc. News Corp has decided to destabilise Malcolm and used the relatively minor matter of Macfarlane’s departure to do it.

You could say Macfarlane’s departure represents a crisis of confidence in Turnbull’s Liberals as a big-tent party. But it’s pretty obviously the Nats and Macfarlane angling for a ministry. One suspects that if Macca were still in the ministry, Turnbull could nationalise the 120 largest companies and he wouldn’t turn a hair.

If this were a real crisis of liberal politics, several others would have moved with Macfarlane, without the lure of a ministry. If they do, then there really will have been a shift in Australian politics. The Nationals will lose their last vestige of being a regional party choosing their politics on regional advantage. They’ll become a genuine social-conservative party, with a nationwide ambit. That would change the whole structure of Australian politics.

More on that below, but the crucial point at the moment is that if the forces of the right do manage to undermine Turnbull’s leadership, we will enter a very interesting period of Australian politics, in which no one with the possibility of leadership has a claim to general legitimacy, and no one with a claim to general legitimacy, a clear and consistent representation of their position, is in a position to lead.

Should Turnbull be hobbled — supported by the public, but at war with large sections of his party supported by the right, Murdochian and otherwise — then Australian politics simply collapses in the middle. Turnbull would lack a platform from which to govern boldly, Abbott would lurk as an old pretender, a real toad in an imaginary garden*, Shorten has no legitimacy but cannot be removed.

The only party remaining with a unity of purpose, and a solid relationship with their class base would be the Greens. Their leader, Richard Di Natale, is, together with Turnbull, the only major pollie the public regards as a real human being. But, of course, the Greens do not have the votes to be contenders for government. Yet if Turnbull were to be monstered, Di Natale’s profile would rise, simply because everyone else’s would fall through the floor.

That situation — a complete soggy middle — seems to me one that would make it impossible for Australian politics not to change. We have spent the post-Howard decade cycling through op-shop messiahs hoping that each would provide some sort of answer. They all martyred themselves, as messiahs do. When a competent and dynamic administrator and reformer like Gillard came along, she had to be destroyed, lest competency and solid progressivism prove contagious, and render the system less easily manipulated by the right-wing meeja. But all that will look like FDR’s first hundred days, if Gillard’s opposite — a centre-right competent PM — is torn down, too.

Then we really have nowhere to go within the existing system, and some sort of recombination has to occur. One would hope that the Nationals did become a genuine conservative party — not least because it would be possible to challenge free-market policies within the party — just as one would hope that a network of rural independent candidates, a la Cathy McGowan, would develop, to turn a blowtorch to the Nats’ arse, and grab three, four, five seats, at which point they could form a network and claim party status.

You’d hope that a “Party of the Poor” would develop — low-waged workers, the precarious, benefits-dependent — to represent people that Labor and the Greens can now only represent out of altruism (because the bulk of their supporters are more prosperous), and grab a couple of Senate seats. You’d hope that Labor, from this, might have a bit of a think about what it is in 2015 and will be in 2025, if it still is in 2025, and try to define a progressive politics for an atomised era.

You would hope. Mostly in vain.

The four-lock Australian political system (compulsory voting, compulsory preferences, matched public funding of parties, closed preselection processes) creates a political caste capable of reproducing itself no matter the level of public dissatisfaction — which is why we have this seemingly permanent stalemate and dissatisfaction now.

There is no elasticity in the system to register demands for change from below. So the system will continue until it is so absurd, the disconnect so total, that a form of political-cultural collapse occurs. When it changes — as with the rise of the Greens — the system then allows for that change to be made lasting, and a new politics to develop. But there’s a lot of soggy middle to wade through before we get to that. And while we do, the country’s institutions will continue to remain unreformed, unrenovated, undebated, as the initiatives and announceables pile high on the rising. Malcolm’s not the only one rubbing his eyes with weariness.

*the garden is the right’s hopes of him becoming PM again. Keep up.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey