‘Keep on punching Malcolm’ is what his father advised. Malcolm Turnbull’s doggedness is legend, but so is his intelligence. Someone as intelligent as all his reviewers insist, must be smart enough to know when to throw in the towel, how to avoid a humiliating knockout. The key is to know when the knockout is imminent.
Many pieces have been written about Turnbull’s jousts with his back bench, and last week’s were the talk of the town. I shall not add to what you already know. But I thought it might be illuminating to canvass your opinion about what Turnbull is likely to do now. [more]
Notwithstanding any undermining of his authority at the weekend over his failure to convince the pre-selection team in McPherson to select Peter Dutton, clearly the severest test of his leadership has been and still is the ETS issue. It has dogged him for months. It came to a head last week. He has a mixed bag of opinion in the Coalition’s ranks to manage. As far as I can see, he has four disparate groups:
First, those convinced about anthropogenic global warming, the need for an ETS, and the political need to negotiate amendments to the Government’s CPRS to avoid electoral oblivion should a double-dissolution election be called. Turnbull, Greg Hunt and Andrew Robb belong here. Maybe many in the shadow front bench do too.
Second, those not convinced by the AGW science, but see a political need for an ETS and for negotiating with the Government. Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin belong here by their own admission. Ian Macfarlane may belong here too.
Third, those who don’t believe in AGW, who see the CPRS as just another tax, a job and industry wrecker and useless environmentally, but who are willing for political reasons to negotiate with the Government. We don’t know how many Liberals fall into this category, but marginal seat holders might be amongst them.
Finally, the climate change deniers who want to have nothing to do with an ETS and who will vote it down. This likely includes most of the Nationals lead by Barnaby Joyce, Julian McGauran, Wilson Tuckey, Mitch Fifield, Cory Bernardi and Dennis Jensen, and who knows how many others.
How does Turnbull manage these disparate souls? What will he do?
So far, his political judgement has failed him again. He has cruelled his authority still further by publically dressing down his backbenchers, calling them 'irresponsible, reckless and lazy' if they don’t fall in with his plans to present amendments to the Government, and the labelling as ‘anonymous smart-arses’ those who have been sniping at him, even although they weren’t anonymous at all. So he starts well behind the eight-ball, whereas he could have saved all that abuse for the party room where there is at least a semblance of privacy. And far from pulling into line the likes of Tuckey, he has made them more truculent and for Tuckey anyway has heightened his desire for another leader – ‘he’s put a noose around his neck and is standing on a chair; all we need to do is kick out the chair’ says Tuckey.
So let’s try to deduce the likely outcomes.
I expect the most likely will be that enough of the Coalition will back Turnbull’s amendments and he will take them to the Government. This will be hailed by some Coalition members and supportive journalists as a triumph for Turnbull.
But what amendments will Turnbull be able to engineer? Will the party room allow him amendments that the Government would be able seriously to consider, ones that could lead to the CPRS being passed? Or will they push him to present changes that would very likely be unacceptable to the Government, which in turn could lead to the Coalition voting down an unamended CPRS? The latter strategy might appeal to the renegades because it would put the ball back into the Government’s court, where it would have to suffer defeat and go to Copenhagen empty-handed, or bend to amendments it does not like to get the CPRS through. Turnbull would like to put Rudd on the back foot, but how far would he be prepared to sacrifice his stated beliefs about climate change and the need to do something? If he went too far, those that admire his ‘principled stand’ on this issue may feel that he has ‘sold out’ on his principles. It’s a tightrope he walks.
But what if he can’t get his amendments, any amendments, through the party room at all? That would be terminal for his leadership. If a leader can’t command the support of his party over a matter to which he is so personally committed, how can he lead at all? What would/could he do then?
Miranda Devine made a plausible suggestion in a piece in Friday’s National Times, Fine feathered factional friends, which deals in part with the Dutton affair, but in which she insists that Turnbull’s threat: ''I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am'' was “...a brave move, considering a survey of all 59 Liberal Party backbenchers this week showed two-thirds oppose Turnbull's plan to negotiate an ETS with the Government before Copenhagen's climate summit in December.” She adds that Turnbull’s threat, “... as a get-out-of-jail-free card for someone not disposed to enduring long arid years of opposition ...would be inspired. Turnbull could go out in a blaze of glory, not as a failed leader who conducted a scorched earth policy to take control the minute he arrived in Parliament, but as a noble hero whose party wasn't worthy of him. He would be the martyr who sacrificed his ambition for a cause bigger than us all - the future of the planet.”
Has Turnbull enough commonsense and political nous to see that all that lies ahead is more dissent, more corrosive comments from Tuckey and Co, more desire for another leader if only there was one around and even the remote chance of being extruded by his party, more media speculation about leadership, its favourite sport, more ridicule from Rudd and his ministers pointing to the rabble he’s trying to lead but can’t, something already well underway, more poor polls, and almost certain electoral defeat and loss of seats? I suspect he has. His doggedness may well be tempered by an intense desire to ease the pain and call it quits. And if he can do that in a spectacular and relatively face-saving way, he might choose that out.
Turnbull has lost battles before. When he lost the battle for a Republic, he said John Howard was ‘the Prime Minister that broke the nation’s heart’. This time he could proudly proclaim that by not acting on climate change when at least two thirds of the people wanted action, he is abandoning ‘the Liberal Party that broke the nation’s heart’.
What do you think he will do?