The Turnbull Twist

Asked by a viewer last Sunday on Channel Ten’s Meet The Press why the Government and the Opposition could not work together collaboratively to manage the nation’s response to the GFC, Agriculture Minister Tony Burke responded by pointing out that “Mr Turnbull changes his position almost every day”, presumably rendering cooperation out of the question. Government ministers express the same sentiment repeatedly; in Question Time today Kevin Rudd accused the Coalition of rank inconsistency and flip-flopping.  Malcolm Turnbull’s changeability was addressed also on the previous Sunday by Laurie Oakes on Channel Nine. He presented him with a catalogue of changed positions over the last year or two.  Turnbull blustered and fumbled his answers; some of his explanations lacked plausibility.  While all politicians are entitled to change their positions as circumstances change, there seems to be little doubt that Turnbull does often change his position.  Why?

This piece proposes that it is because forces within his party regularly pull and push him away from his own considered opinion.  As he dances to others’ tune, we see him sometimes gyrating violently, sometimes swaying gently, and sometimes lurching precipitously – this is the ‘Turnbull Twist’. [more]

Turnbull lacks nothing in self confidence.  It was he who said at the Federal Liberal Party Council meeting at the weekend “I am the man to lead Australia”.  So why does he twist and turn so often?  The answer seems to be that despite his unassailable self-confidence, he has less than supreme confidence in the loyalty and support of his party room.  Persistently poor polls since his election to leadership six months ago, his disinclination to seek the views of the party room (Wilson Tuckey had a crack at him about that this morning), and being unable to land many blows on Rudd and his ministers despite his splendid oratory, are among the factors that have eroded party room support.  The weekend ‘poll’ in The Sunday Telegraph shows that of the 49 Liberal party members (there are 87) who gave an opinion, 21 supported Turnbull, while 28 indicated support for Peter Costello.  Another 6 were undecided and 11 refused to reveal their intentions.  There have been previous leaks by Costello supporters that he ‘has the numbers’.  All this must concern even the most self-confident.

So is the Turnbull Twist a sign of leadership insecurity and a desire to garner party room support?

What are the internal forces in the Coalition party room?  It is possible to identify some groupings, if not officially called factions?  There seems to be a core group of what might be termed ‘Howardites’, conservatives who still believe in the correctness of most of the Howard era decisions, and who wish to preserve the ‘Howard legacy’, or should it be the ‘Howard-Costello legacy'.  That Rudd has set about eroding it has intensified determination to preserve it.  Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin have been among the most vocal Howardites, but recently Peter Costello has joined them.  He’s always felt this way as the back cover of his book The Costello Memoirs attests.  It carries the words: “How did it come to this?  How did a Government that had created such an Age of Prosperity, such a proud and prosperous country, now find itself in the wilderness?”  This echoes Abbott’s pre-election lament: “The polls are so bad yet we’ve been such a good government.”  This group, which no doubt has other adherents, Wilson Tuckey for one, still believes in the Howard-Costello era, and in particular that WorkChoices was unreasonably demonized, that the reality of climate change is still debatable and the need for action uncertain.  Several Nationals, such as Barnaby Joyce and Ron Boswell, are of similar view.  This group pull Turnbull away from his original position that WorkChoices is dead, that the Government has a mandate to implement its Fair Work Australia changes, and that Australia needs an ETS, albeit not before 2011 or 2012.  As a result Turnbull has turned on IR several times, and it’s still not clear even today what the Coalition intends to do in the Senate.  It wants to avoid the label of being wedded to WorkChoices, because that is electoral poison, yet Costello doesn’t want the party to budge on IR.  Although advocating an ETS in campaigning for leadership against Brendan Nelson’s hard line, Turnbull's position on the Government’s ETS is today one of opposition, but support for his own scheme.  What twists he will execute later in the week is anyone’s guess.

Another group, which might be called the ‘moderates’, are not so intent on preserving the Howard-Costello legacy.  Turnbull would prefer to reside with them, as would Joe Hockey.  He loudly proclaimed WorkChoices dead early after the election, but is not so loud now.  After his elevation to Shadow Treasurer, he’s probably keeping an eye on what Turnbull is saying, a constant vigil.  He has not had much to say about the ETS.  He seems to have aligned himself solidly with Turnbull, as indicated by his labelling of Costello as "a weapon of mass distraction".  Who else is in that group is hard to be certain about, but Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt and maybe Andrew Robb would likely be there.  This group is the one most likely to be supportive of Turnbull, but with him twisting and turning to the pressure of the Howardites, it must be hard for them to decide which way to dance.

Another group, which would probably be labelled by the party as ‘bleeding hearts’ comprises the likes of Petro Georgiou, Judi Moylan and Russell Broadbent, all of whom have shown concern for human rights and were opposed to the Howard government immigration and detention policies.  As these issues are not so prominent now, their influence seems to be minimal. Their position on other issues probably varies with the issue.

There are likely other groupings and sub-groupings, some of which might change depending on the matters in hand. But it looks as if for the current issues the two main groupings are the Howardites – the conservatives, and the moderates – sometimes called small ‘l’ liberals. 

The tension and the struggle for supremacy is not just about the issues, it’s about leadership.  Because every time Costello speaks up to take a position different from Turnbull, it is seen as a challenge by the media, and one suspects by some party room colleagues.  A recent example was the so-called party room ‘faceoff’ over IR.  Were his leadership secure in the long term, Turnbull could afford to come down with a heavy hand, as did Howard, on anyone dissenting from his strongly held positions. 

Despite his reiteration at the weekend of the Turnbull family slogan: Don’t look back.  Never take a backward step and keep punching, with his hold on leadership so tenuous, with the Costello spectre ever-looming while remaining mute about a leadership challenge, he will continue, albeit unwillingly and uncomfortably, to dance the Turnbull Twist, to his and the party’s detriment, until Costello summons the courage to challenge, or calls it quits.

UPDATE 17 March

There was further evidence yesterday that there is a reversion to Howardism in Liberal ranks.  On ABC TV’s Lateline last night, Leigh Sales interviewed Tony Abbott about the ETS.  Leigh, who must now rate as one of the ABC’s best interviewers, said:

“Kevin Rudd's popularity remains stubbornly high. You warned before the 2007 election that voters were sleepwalking, do you think they're still sleepwalking?

"TONY ABBOTT: I think they're certainly giving Kevin Rudd a long honeymoon, but I think anyone who watches parliament regularly would conclude that this is a guy who's making it up as he goes along. He does not look very convincing. There is a fundamental lack of authenticity about our Prime Minister, I'm sorry to say, and whenever he gets a hard question, he buries it in words, and when you analyse the words, what do they really mean? Now, I think sooner or later the public will wake up to this, but we haven't quite got there yet.

LEIGH SALES: And how do you explain that, why are they giving him such a long honeymoon?

“TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, the Australian people don't lightly change Government. They're going to back their own judgment until such time as the results indicate that it's time to think again. So far Kevin Rudd has been insulated, largely insulated, from his own amateurishness by the terrific financial position that he inherited from John Howard and Peter Costello.

“Now, he still has not really made a tough decision, spending a surplus, spending funds that others have accumulated, that's not tough decision making. And when he does have to make some tough decisions, well, I think that's when people will quickly and harshly re-evaluate him.”

So Abbott thinks the electorate is indeed still sleep walking.  That he believes it could be in that state of half-consciousness from the time when Rudd first became Labor leader over two years ago to the present day is amazing.  It portrays Abbott’s cynical view of the voters, whom he must believe are so stupid that they still cannot see through this phoney PM and his appalling government as clearly as he can.  It also shows that Abbott continues to believe that the Howard Government was a good government, which left the country in a "terrific financial position" and that Rudd is simply "spending funds that others have accumulated."   He still seems unable to comprehend why, to use his own words, 'such a good government' was voted out in favour of Rudd and his new 'amateurist' government.  With such beliefs and attitudes, his reversion to Howardism is understandable.

Then Wilson Tuckey, renowned for foot-in-mouth disease, let slip yesterday what sounds like another festering party room view, that the Coalition was “too quick to pronounce WorkChoices dead”.  Was this a crack at Malcolm Turnbull, or an attempt to revive support for WorkChoices, or both?

These are two more instances of the Howardites again flexing their political and ideological muscles, and in so doing reasserting their influence on party room thinking and decision making.  The more they do this, the more they revert to Howardism, the more we will see the Turnbull Twist as they jerk him away from his preferred trajectory.  Will he ever have the courage to resist?  Or will he eventually topple?

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