After Turnbull, who?
With three weeks to the election, and the government still labouring despite what should have been a lay down misère, Del-Cons need to consider the Liberal Party leadership post-election. Indeed, not only Del-Cons: beginning with a Troy Bramston article (‘Abbott Ready if Turnbull Fails’, the Australian, 24 May), several journalists have speculated on the topic.
Obviously, I have no special insight into the outcome. Both major parties agree that the published polls, with their nationwide primary vote counts and two-party preference predictions, are misleading guides. The result, they say, will be determined in 25-30 marginal seats on which both sides are focusing. For Labor to increase majorities in already safe Labor seats, or render safe Liberal seats merely less safe by reducing their still large majorities, will be little use.
Let me therefore recap the figuring from my 14 May Spectator Australia article postulating five possible outcomes: ‘the Coalition returned with an overall majority little less than its current one (26 post-redistributions); returned with a net loss of (say) eight seats (regaining Fairfax but losing nine others) and overall majority 10; returned with a net loss of (say) 12 seats and bare overall majority of 2; Coalition losing (say) a net 14 seats, with a hung Parliament and Labor doing a Gillard-style deal to form government; or an outright loss to Labor’.
So crushing was Tony Abbott’s 2013 victory that even Labor-affiliated observers regard the last of these as beyond achievement. As I write, however, the second, third or even fourth are seen as possible. But as that earlier article concluded, any of those outcomes ‘would imply the need for a new Liberal leader to replace the one who had once again’ (as in 2009) ‘led them to near, or actual, defeat’. So the precautionary principle suggests we should think about who that might be.
In doing so, bear in mind that, were Abbott still leading the Liberal’s election campaign, it would already be over. But for Malcolm Turnbull’s successful conspiracy last September, the anxieties now pervading Coalition ranks would barely exist. A hapless Bill Shorten, whose growth in stature over the past six months has chiefly resulted from Turnbull’s policy dithering and persistent failure to pursue him over anything that looked like ‘a Tony Abbott policy’, would long since have been despatched over the square leg boundary.
Replacing Turnbull with anyone else associated with that September debacle must therefore be out of the question. Julie Bishop – best known nowadays as the Liberal Party’s own Lady Macbeth – has as much assassin’s blood on her hands as Turnbull has on his. When the Liberal party room meets post-election, she too should be sacked as deputy leader.
Scott Morrison’s case is similar. Although formally voting for Abbott last September (and making an ostentatiously duplicitous show of doing so), it is an open secret that he swung his half-dozen or so NSW ‘mates’ behind the Turnbull plotters – without whose support, indeed, the latter may not have felt confident enough to proceed. It is not as though Morrison has performed outstandingly as Treasurer; so there should be no question of rewarding him with the leadership.
With Turnbull sacked, and Bishop and Morrison set aside, who then remains to lead the Liberal Party (and hence the Coalition) into what threaten to be three more difficulty-ridden years? Who, among its parliamentary ranks, possesses the national and international stature, the energy, the self-deprecating sense of national duty and the solid set of Liberal community values, required for that role?
If we set aside Senators and focus on the House of Reps, the party is not without talent. Peter Dutton, for example, has done extremely well as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and some have recently seen him as a future Prime Minister. But without seeking to denigrate him, that seems a bridge too far.
Among the younger members, Josh Frydenberg, now Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia, Christian Porter, now Minister for Social Services, and Angus Taylor, now Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation, stand out. Frydenberg, with degrees from Oxford and Harvard, and having worked as a lawyer and in the finance industry, is well-informed, well-spoken and obviously highly competent. Before entering federal Parliament, Porter served in the WA Barnett government, first as Attorney-General, then (in addition) as Treasurer. He is in command of his portfolio’s complex detail, and highly articulate (as befits a former WA Crown Prosecutor) in prosecuting his case. Taylor, a NSW Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford MPhil in economics, has been a management consultant, first as a partner with McKinseys, then with Port Jackson Partners, focusing on agriculture, infrastructure and resources. All three men, however, are relatively young (44, 45 and 49, respectively), and only recently entered federal Parliament. Their time will come, but not yet.
With no other ministerial names worth considering, we are left with one name only – Tony Abbott. As previously acknowledged here, as PM he made many mistakes, the most important being his misplaced sense of loyalty towards colleagues who were letting him down (e.g., former Treasurer Joe Hockey) or actively, and even blatantly, working to undermine him (Turnbull being the outstanding, but by no means only, example). Notwithstanding her obvious abilities, as evidenced in her recent Sky News appearances, his degree of delegation of authority to his former chief of staff was also a major error. He has, however, clearly learned from those mistakes.
Abbott has said that political parties do not back-track on their decisions. The record shows, however, that they have often done so. Most notably, John Howard did not for nothing name his autobiographical memoir Lazarus Rising. The truth is that, within the Liberal Party’s post-election parliamentary ranks, Abbott (and only he) will possess those previously listed qualities required to lead Australia. They (and their National Party partners) will need him back even more than he’ll need them.