What will Turnbull do now?

‘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?


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5/10/2009The key thing here that I've lost track of is who the dissidents voted for in the narrow leadership ballot that saw Turnbull elected. So long as those who publicly criticize him only fall into the Nelson camp (that is, those who voted for the latter in 2008) I suspect Turnbull will feel less threatened. It is, of course, less newsworthy to report that someone who voted for the other bloke still doesn't like Turnbull, which perhaps explains why I haven't seen it written anywhere. Does anyone else know? Is Fifield a Turnbull backer from last year? Turnbull has always, to me, had the look about him that suggests he could throw a proper dummy spit if pushed to the edge. I guess that's what makes the 'blaze of acrimony' outcome so enticing - here's a guy who you suspect secretly wants to tip a bucket on all and sundry. However I also think (based on all I've read online and elsewhere) he's a guy with a sense for history yet to be written. In that book, I don't think he sees himself as a failed Opposition Leader, no matter how noble the failure might be. Perhaps what he needs to do is a reverse Deakin: instead of merging two parties to create a bipartisan majoritarian House, split two parties and form a new Government of the Centre. Maybe he could call it the Republican Party. Oh, hang on, that one's taken.

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5/10/2009Rewi With Newspoll tonight giving a TPP of 58/42, a Coalition slide of six points in two weeks, and a PPM 67/18, and with more party members defying him (e.g. Mitch Fifield today), Turnbull's 'sense for history' may persuade him that getting out before he's ejected might look better on his CV.

Bushfire Bill

6/10/2009My well-known bet is that Turnbull will finally spit the dummy and quit. Who wouldn't in his position? He has no hope of winning the election. He'll get bounced when he loses it anyway. There's no way the trogs in the Liberal Party will change their minds. They're in lemming mode and would rather committ political suicide than concede a point or admit they are wrong. Turnbull is rich. He has a life after Parliament and politics. My prediction: he'll quit as leader and leave politics before the next election. It's either that or he'll be pushed.


6/10/2009There is another option; that taken by Menzies and Don Chip, of splitting the party, and creating a new central conservative force. The biggest problem with this is how many existing members would be inclined to follow Malcolm, in light of Malcolm's toxic public approval. But if handled right, this could work, and a revamp of the conservative message could get results. The Queensland Liberal Party has collapsed and been taken over by the very rightwing Nationals. In other states, the conservative forces are constantly feuding with each other, which has kept them mostly out of state governments; even in WA where the Liberals surprising won power, shortly before the election they were at each others throats, and the tensions must still be there. A new modern conservative political party, that embraces the middle ground on environmental and social issues, while being business friendly could kick-start the revival of the rightwing side of politics. Certainly Malcolm seems to have the self-confidence to attempt this. Its success will mainly depend on money; but with this Malcolm has the advantage since he has plenty himself, and is well connected to the business community, and to the media which is the other requirement for establishing a new political party. Since the next election is written off for the conservatives anyway, a split around a year before the election, perhaps over populist issues such as ETS could reestablish Malcolm as a brave and principled leader, along with new branches in every state. A middle ground conservative party would immediately gain a lot of support in Queensland among the old Liberal voters there, and in NSW where their likely success at the next state election is being endangered by extreme rightwing faction disruptions which could be jettisoned in a new party. Even a partial success could work, as everyone is comfortable with conservative coalitions. What do others think of this scenario?


6/10/2009The problem with Cavitation's scenario is spelt GG, or if you prefer, UteGate. I doubt Turnbull will ever convince voters that he is anything but a main-chancer. An heroic effort to start a new party, even if it were successfully organised, and gallons of sweat, litres of tears, the occasional spot of blood, expended in doing so, is that there would still be Turnbull out front. Mister No Judgement. Turnbull mistook the Liberal Party for a Rolls Royce. It is, at best, a clapped-out old... ute, allowed to run down and rust because John Howard saw himself as the only man who would ever drive the thing as long as he had breath in him. He let himself be chauffeured around in a Commonwealth car, while back in the garage, the ute sagged on its springs. I have no time at all for Malcolm Turnbull, but even someone thinking of him as I do has to sympathise with a man who (no matter how he mistook its true value) eventually inherited a party room of such a motley mangy malingering mob. To think some of them were once Ministers in our nation's government. Don't think, remember. It was terrifying then. Will he stay or will he go? I doubt even he'll know until the decision suddenly spills from his lips in a radio station somewhere. Which he'll try to water down and 'clarify' hours later. How he must long for the days when, as a barrister, he could ask for an adjournment. No such thing in politics, not for a man who could mistake an email for the key to The Lodge, anyway.


6/10/2009Cavitation, I would only suggest that to call such a party a 'conservative' party would seem a misnomer. The problem he'd have is that liberal is already taken.


6/10/2009Ad Astra, I'm not sure it's his CV he's thinking about anymore. Let's face it, he doesn't need to work for the rest of his life and Brendan Nelson has proven that abject failure as an Opposition Leader is no barrier to fulfilling work in the service of Australia. Whether the Prime Minister would be so magnanimous with Mr Turnbull is perhaps an interesting question. Yes the polls are bad, but the question still remains: have any of the Turnbull backers at the leadership spill last year deserted him? If not, then it would seem that he's pretty safe for now and possibly up to at least the election. And we all know that while there may not be a massive turn around at that time, it is 'the only poll that matters' (well, actually folks, it's more accurate to say it's the poll that matters most) and that there will be some closing of the gap at that time. The other pertinent question that we have no information about (at least that I've seen) is if anyone's doing the numbers on a potential spill. Let's assume for the moment that Turnbull wants to keep the leadership. It's unlikely that Hockey would think about splitting the Damp vote, so the only other likely candidate is Abbott as the Desiccated candidate. How does the party room line up?

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6/10/2009BB I think you’re right – I can’t see him having the patience to herd the unruly angry cats in his party much longer. Unless something unexpected occurs sooner, I think the crucial time for Turnbull will be the party meeting to decide strategy on the ETS. If he can’t get party room agreement to put amendments to the Government about its CPRS, I believe his leadership will be mortally wounded and he will have reached the point of no return. He would then ask himself whether it’s worth the candle, probably decide it wasn’t, and then leave the Liberal Party with a flourish, rather than trying to wrestle them back into order. Leaving on his own terms would be vastly preferable to the ignominy of being thrown out, or even eased out. Cavitation The ‘conservative’ side of politics may need revamping, but the problem is that there are deep divisions there. The ‘conservatives’ have a different ideology from the ‘liberals’, which we see in today’s battles. The Nationals are mainly conservative, as are many Liberals such as Abbott and Minchin; while Turnbull and other Liberals are truly ‘liberal’. The two ideologies have been kept together by the iron will of John Howard, who brought them electoral victory time and again. Success is a strong welding device. But now in opposition the weld has fractured, and Turnbull does not have the capacity to exert an iron will on his troops, all the less as his ratings slip. So I doubt if Turnbull has the capacity, or for that matter the motivation to create a new centre party, if indeed it is possible for anyone to achieve this. Michael I agree. The ‘clapped out old ute’ is falling apart as the conservative engine struggles to drive the liberal transmission, which thinks it’s in a racing car, when it’s really just a ute, with its brakes partly seized up. It’s beyond Turnbull to fix. And he can’t ask for an ‘adjournment’ to do so. Trouble is the ute was hitched to the debt truck, whose brakes have now completely seized and wrecked the ute in the process. Rewi Both ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have become soiled. Perhaps Turnbull might prefer ‘Republican’, after the US party, and in fond memory of his dream.


6/10/2009Ad Astra A 'Republican Party' was established around the time of the 1998 Constitutional Convention elections. I'm not sure if they will have been able to sustain the membership required to still be a party, but this may be a barrier to future use of the name. I agree with you, by the way, that such a scenario is unlikely. That's why I suggested the most unlikely of scenarios in this vein: trying to simultaneously split off the centre/right sections of the Labor party at the same time ;)

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6/10/2009Rewi I didn't know we had a Republican Party. Whatever happens it will be akin to working with a partly disassembled Lego pile, trying to work out what different structure could be built. Folks, here's another take on this issue: In a piece on [i]Crikey, A new Liberal climate position: the Minchin line[/i] http://www.crikey.com.au/2009/10/06/a-new-liberal-climate-position-the-minchin-line/ Bernard Keane writes: [i]"So now there’s another Coalition position on the Government’s ETS bill: Nick Minchin told 2UE this morning that the bill is unlikely to be passed by the Senate because of all the amendments that the Coalition, Greens and independents will want the Senate to consider. Minchin ruled out "filibustering" on the bill but he made it clear the Coalition would not support the bill coming on for a vote before Parliament rises for summer on 26 November... "Minchin - and Wilson Tuckey, who is backing the tactic too - is in effect saying that the Coalition will allow the Government to go on wedging it for three months longer, well into an election year. Delaying the vote until next year just means the same shenanigans that have been going on for a week and longer will continue over summer - another long, hot, fiery summer, most likely - continually reinforcing in voters’ minds how uncommitted to addressing climate change the Coalition is, and how deeply divided they are. "Remember, this issue won’t go away if the Liberals change leaders. The Liberals almost seem on the verge of flying apart. Minchin is the first shadow Cabinet minister to break ranks. Who’ll be next? It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Malcolm Turnbull suddenly called a press conference and announced he was jack of the whole damn lot of them and was leaving. But that legislation will still be coming on whether Tony Abbott, or Joe Hockey, or Rowan Ramsey leads them. The dilemma, the wedge, the painful choice will still be there, waiting. Turnbull is the one offering the least painful resolution."[/i] And so on.


6/10/2009AA, I suspect Malcolm will go on doing just as he has been doing, all along. As long as there is no one else to lead them, the Liberal Party are stuck with him, and he needs the Liberal Party as his vehicle to The Lodge. It looks to me like mutually assured destruction, like a death grip each have on the other. Delusional, as well, as if the polls continue to be in the smashing the Libs. into oblivion territory, they will panic even more. The whole party, I mean, and they will become even more fractious and unable to think rationally. Besides I think, as I've said before, he's not very good at this politics business, and doesn't know how else to behave either strategically or tactically. Eventually, he'll be forced from his position by events beyond his control.


6/10/2009I would love to be a fly on the wall in that litle villa in Sydney when John and Janet discuss the current coalition situation. Malcolm needs to heed the word of JC and pick up thy bed and walk. The only thing to complete his doom is the JOC/P Dwarf endorsement.


6/10/2009Cavitation - a true 'liberal' or 'progressive' party of the type Turnbull would found would probably attract strong support from small l liberal Liberal areas like the Sydney's North Shore, the East Yarra electorates in Melbourne and seats like Ryan in Brisbane, Sturt in Adelaide and Curtin in Perth. The only problem is - wasn't this the kind of party the Democrats were?


7/10/2009What will Turnbull do now? If he has any sense at all he will jump ship and swim ashore. The Nationals have always been the mistletoe on the Liberal tree slowly but surely weakening it until it dies. The only way the Liberals can save themselves is to abandon the infected tree and nurture a new seedling, and there is no better time to do this than now when they face a long stint in the wilderness. Maybe a new Liberal Party might be resurrected from the defunct Democrats plus what is left of the liberals within the present coalition.


7/10/2009Oh, and I don't think Turnbull is the one to nurture a new seedling LOL.


7/10/2009I remember at the time of his demise, John Howard professed his undying love for the Liberal Party, saying it meant everything to him. So why is he in the US right now having a cup of tea with "w" rather than trying to save his beloved party?

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7/10/2009monica I believe that if Turnbull faced the choice of being extruded or going on his own terms, he would certainly choose the latter. The question is whether the party has the guts to extrude him. At present they seem not willing or able to do so, but if there is a confrontation at the party room meeting Sunday week where Turnbull says it’s my way or else I’m out, they might summon the courage to either say no, and Turnbull quits, (or wimps out and stays), or, less likely, they vote him out or call for a spill. I agree that if he tries to hang on he can expect more dissension, more defiance to his authority. He’s like a school teacher who has irretrievably lost control of the class. His personality cannot cope for long with defiance. He looked ill on the [i]7.30 Report[/i] last night; he was testy and tired, and ready to acknowledge the difficulties he and the Coalition are in. Being used to success, being in control, this situation is anathema to him. The next two weeks will be fascinating. Bilko I doubt that Milne would have the courage to do to Turnbull what Albrechtsen did to Howard. He would be more likely to dispense the ‘kiss of death’ or as BB would put it, the ‘Curse of the Dapper Dwarf’, earnestly believing he was helping. JimmyD That would be a party in which he would feel more comfortable, but I doubt if he would have the patience to start from scratch. The last year has demonstrated how different politics is from his former pursuits, a lesson he has had difficulty learning. janice The Nationals are certainly a thorn in Turnbull’s flesh. Howard seemed better able to avoid the Nationals' mistletoe strangling the Liberal tree. Both you and JimmyD have mentioned the Democrats. It’s a pity some of the best aspects of Democrats policies have been lost. But I agree Turnbull does not have the temperament to start again, even if that were possible. oped Maybe Howard too is disillusioned with his party, and, if he’s honest with himself, disappointed that he left it in such a parlous state with no succession plan.


7/10/2009Ad astra, I think Howard helped the mistletoe to flourish on the liberal tree. He did a good job of sidelining and/or pushing out all the small l liberals in the party which is why the red neck element became strong and why the Nats were happy with Howard's leadership. The Nats never ever had it so good in any coalition government as they did in the Howard years and they will fight tooth and nail to prevent a resurgence of a strong small l faction. IMO the only hope the Libs have is to ditch the Nationals and go it alone.

Bushfire Bill

7/10/2009Costello does a disso. http://www.theage.com.au/national/costello-quits-parliament-20091007-gmmh.html That’s three leaders gone – Howard, Nelson and Vaile – one could’a-been going today – Cozzie – and one about to jump – Turnbull. Leaving one in waiting… the stuff of nightmares as to who it might be. Not a bad effort for KRudd… what with him being a oncer, phoney, hypocritical, language-mangling, toxically-boring, globe-trotting, junketeering, clueless, Manchurian Candidate nerd with no sense of politics or leadership, whose honeymoon is well and truly over.


7/10/2009Bushfire Bill - and Amen to all that and them.

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7/10/2009janice The idea of separating from the Nationals also seems to be in the minds of at least some Nationals – Barnaby Joyce is one. Separation could lead to the atrophy of the Nationals, but that would leave the Liberals still divided into conservative and small ‘l’ liberal. It really is a mess, and shows how influential Howard was in holding it all together. If only he has worked out a sensible succession plan, the situation might have been so different now. BB, bilgedigger Costello will resign on October 19 – there’s no way back now. Fran Bailey, in the most marginal seat in the country (won by 12 votes) will not contest the next election. And Joe Hockey has been approached to see if he would take over leadership. Of course he’s pledging loyalty to Turnbull, but given the fact he’s been approached, and his supporters say he has the numbers, Turnbull has only to falter and he’s gone. The strain is beginning to show and as things will steadily worsen over the next couple of weeks, I wonder how long he’s prepared to wear the ignominy of his leadership being under siege. Meanwhile Labor (with all the faults and foibles you describe BB in its leader) sits back and watches the Coalition self-immolate.

Bushfire Bill

7/10/2009[i]"Meanwhile Labor (with all the faults and foibles you describe BB in its leader) sits back and watches the Coalition self-immolate."[/i] Meanwhile, a cursory glance at the responses on Paul Kelly's blog piece this morning shows that the Deniers are puffed-up at the prospect of a public awakening on Climate Change. The tide is turning! There's "a feeling in the air"! The "Honeymoon's over"! KRudd will be exposed as the phoney we know him to be! Turnbull's got Labor where he wants them! The ETS will ruin business and agriculture! The voters will realise how they have been conned by St. Kevin, patron saint of Nerdy Hypocrites and Wannabee Ockerisms! Who is this man called Rudd? Is this yet another test from the wily Costello? No, it's "To the life boats! Women and children last (ex-Ministers first)"

Bushfire Bill

7/10/2009Actually, re-reading Paul Kelly's blog responses, methinks he must be awful embarrassed at the intellectual content of them.


7/10/2009My, maybe I was wrong, given the events of the day, about what Malcolm might do next. Despite the faux laughing off of questions from the meedja about Hockey saying he'd been approached about the leadership, by Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, you'd be forgiven for thinking Malcolm could be just about ready to snap. Possibly punch drunk even.

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7/10/2009BB The 'deniers' live in denial mode. They can deny anything with equal facility. They deny Rudd's success, his ability, his CPRS, anything at all. It's a compensatory mechanism to deaden the pain of the Coalition's current reality. As an act of compassion, I guess we shouldn't persuade them to face up to reality - that is too heart-rending, too empty, too miserable, too hopeless. monica Today’s events make Turnbull’s leadership look even more shaky. We are seeing the ‘pecked chook syndrome’, where having traumatised the chook’s neck to the point of bleeding, the rest of the brood savagely attack it until it succumbs. Turnbull’s leadership cannot recover from here; the only moot point is how long he can hang on.

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7/10/2009Folks, I've posted 'Disingenuousness resurfaces'. It's the sequel to the interest rate rise.
How many Rabbits do I have if I have 3 Oranges?