TWO YEARS AGO the Liberal Party, dazed by defeat, suddenly roused itself. A usurper had stepped forward to grasp the leadership.
With John Howard and Peter Costello both out of the equation and Tony Abbott lacking the numbers, Malcolm Turnbull was clearly the frontrunner in the confused aftermath of defeat. But there was enough anti-Turnbull sentiment to settle on a compromise candidate, the lacklustre Brendan Nelson, who managed to hold off the Turnbull challenge. The new leader ran to form, the Liberals languished in the polls, and Nelson was duly replaced by Turnbull, who had either won a few supporters or neutralised a few opponents during that unhappy period.
A year later and the anti-Turnbull forces have not only regrouped, they have recruited in earnest, and the party leader finds himself in a tiny minority faction with a burgeoning coalition of forces lined up against him. How could this happen?
Tony Abbott insists it is policy not leadership that drove him to quit the frontbench – which was just what an ambitious Robert Menzies said back in 1938 when he quit the front bench of Joe Lyons’s United Australia Party government. Lyons, a worried man, died a few months later and Menzies returned as leader of, it must be said, a divided and unsettled party.
Lyons, like Turnbull, was an outsider; there were diehards within the UAP, predecessor to the Liberal Party, who simply never accepted his legitimacy. Lyons, of course, had quit the Labor Party, ostensibly in protest at its polices to combat the Great Depression, and he and his supporters joined with the conservative Nationalists to form the UAP, which he led to victory in 1932. Once Lyons had served the conservatives’ interests by regaining power, the undermining began – a resignation here, a refusal to serve there, until Menzies delivered the coup de grace, which more than likely drove the ailing Lyons to his grave.
Turnbull, of course, is not Lyons, but there are nevertheless similarities. He could easily have been wooed to the Labor Party, and former NSW premier Neville Wran, with whom Turnbull worked in several business ventures, is said to have offered to help in this regard. But Turnbull chose his own path by joining the Liberal Party, using his corporate connections to raise funds as the party’s treasurer and finally buying his way into the seat of Wentworth by a lavishly financed branch stack of gargantuan proportions. (This was, in Liberal blueblood eyes, an outrageous display of New Money, just as Old Money in the United States never quite accepted the arriviste Kennedys.)
Forced to do a stint as parliamentary secretary before entering the ministry under John Howard, Turnbull was never a Howard acolyte; indeed, his social liberalism and early and consistent advocacy of signing the Kyoto protocol marked him as different from the Howard crowd. It was just this difference, and the perceived need to protect the Howard legacy, that stopped him at his first leadership attempt.
But there is more to the anti-Turnbull saga than this. Turnbull is, in a party of liberals and conservatives, more of a social democrat than anything else; his stance on the ETS is unambiguous testimony to this. The Liberal Party actually has a proud history of social democracy that Liberals such as Senator George Brandis trace back to Alfred Deakin, but in many respects Robert Menzies was one as well (“a socialist but too much of a snob to join the Labor Party,” was how former Country Party speaker Archie Cameron described him), as was Harold Holt, John Gorton and, to some extent, Malcolm Fraser. Each of them accepted as appropriate the role of government as an arbitrator in the economy and as an agent of more equitable redistribution of wealth. Turnbull’s firm rejection of the neo-liberal orthodoxy, or even a pale imitation of it, places him way beyond what is now the Liberal mainstream.
One legacy from Howard is that anything Labor proposes is to be opposed. Nobody played the partisan hand as ruthlessly as Howard, from policy initiatives to government appointments. That the ETS is Rudd policy, irrespective of merit, is sufficient justification to fight it all the way; if it’s Labor, it’s tainted. Even Turnbull succumbed to this in his vocal opposition to the stimulus package.
At another, more ideological level, this whole debate is about capitalism and the need for sensible regulation; it is about seeking to drive home the message that the era of limitless and unchecked growth is past if the planet is to survive. The free ride that delivered massive profits and ever-increasing dividends has come to an end and, in an exquisite irony, that regressive neo-liberal tool to thwart redistribution, user pays, has come back to thwart its progenitors (albeit with some taxpayer-funded sweeteners). Malcolm Turnbull has recognised this, as has the Business Council and several other peak bodies, but not the Liberal Party, as the Institute of Public Affairs’ John Roskam pointedly highlighted in today’s Australian Financial Review.
As articulated by Andrew Robb, the party’s thinking – for want of a better term – is that an ETS will eventually become very unpopular, imposing costs not just on business but also on households as the costs are passed on. And then, so this line goes, the Liberals will reap the backlash. Just what is the Liberals’ imagined constituency?
History will be the judge of this approach, but so might voters in next year’s elections, and even in the two crucial by-elections in December for presumably safe Liberal seats. It is a high-risk strategy indeed. •
Norman Abjorensen, of the Crawford School of Economics and Government at the ANU, is co-author of Australia: The State of Democracy.