For weeks and months I’ve thought Malcolm Turnbull was a disaster as Liberal leader. Definitely since the Godwin Grech business, and probably before then, back when he declared opposition to the second stimulus package.
It should never have been thus. Putting aside my professional role for a moment, I had high hopes for Turnbull. I knew the electoral timing was all wrong for him. But I thought he could build on the unappreciated work of Brendan Nelson in moving the Liberals back to the centre ground and set the Liberals up to be a viable force in 2013, a healthy union of conservatives and progressives, with perhaps a dash of libertarianism (my own personal creed) thrown in. And Turnbull fitted the bill perfectly – progressive, but with a strong belief in the core Liberal philosophy of personal freedom, immensely intelligent, a self-made man, charming, utterly ruthless. If anyone was going to break the rule that Oppositions don’t defeat first-term governments, it would be him.
It didn’t play out that way, mostly because Kevin Rudd expertly responded to the global financial crisis and recession, and Turnbull took the disastrous decision to oppose him on the stimulus early this year. At the time, I thought the Liberals were committing suicide, and the opinion polls ever since have confirmed that.
There are senior Liberals who also believe that was a mistake, but it’s all too late now.
And other, equally senior, Liberals have repeatedly pointed out Turnbull’s glaring failure as a leader: his inability to understand that he must bring his colleagues with him, not treat them like idiots.
The default Turnbull response to disagreement is to demolish whoever it is that’s unfortunate enough to disagree with him. He can dish it out with a ferocity probably not seen in political life since Paul Keating. He has no concept that someone treated that way may not forget about it, may be genuinely aggrieved by their treatment, may not be inclined to forgive the bloke who dished it out and get on with it.
That tendency was on display again on Tuesday when he unilaterally declared victory in the partyroom meeting and walked out.
Since Thursday night, we’ve seen the other side of that unwillingness to suffer fools. Turnbull has been at his best. Regardless of your politics, there’s something stirring about a leader who, facing overwhelming odds, simply grins and counter-attacks. Turnbull also – separately – has what Civil War historian Shelby Foote, describing US Grant, called “four o’clock in the morning courage”, an ability to be told the worst and not merely stay calm but respond effectively, even seeing disaster as an opportunity as well as a threat. The best military and political minds all have it. Patton, for example, when faced with the looming disaster of the Battle of the Bulge, instinctively saw it not as threat but as a vast opportunity to end the war quickly by trapping much of the Wermacht in the salient.
Still, as journalists we’re paid to look beyond the bravado and self-belief and see what is reality and what is pure invention. One man’s bravery in the face of overwhelming odds is another’s last days of the Third Reich.
And the reality is this: there really isn’t anyone other than Turnbull to lead this party.
Joe Hockey is regarded as a buffoon by the business community, allegedly key supporters of the Liberals. His ministerial track record – as demonstrated expertly by Peter Martin on his blog – was awful. His efforts as shadow Treasurer have been little short of embarrassing. And about his putative deputy, the current and, if the polls are anything to go by, soon-to-be ex-Member for Dickson Peter Dutton, the less said the better.
As for Tony Abbott, well, when he called himself a divisive figure as recently as Friday, he was right on the money. And as Turnbull has pointed out, he has held pretty much every position on the CPRS that it is possible to hold.
In any event, either way, a victory for anyone other than Turnbull on Tuesday morning will be a win for Nick Minchin, and it will be Minchin who will be leading the party, just like Barnaby Joyce effectively leads the Nationals.
Any option other than Turnbull at this point will be an electoral calamity for the Liberals. Forget the nonsense about a Sunrise election between Hockey and Rudd. The Rudd machine will devour Hockey, who in any event will stumble and bumble his way to polling day so badly there’s a risk his party will want to replace him even before then. Abbott will reduce the party to a reactionary rump struggling to accept the 20th, let alone the 21st, century.
A vote to dispose of Turnbull on Tuesday will be an act of lunacy from the Liberals. It will condemn Australia to a one-party government for much of the next decade. It will give the Rudd Government a virtual free hand, without effective scrutiny. And it won’t solve a damn thing.
Anyone who wants a semblance of an effective Opposition should fervently hope for a Turnbull win.