Malcolm Turnbull is primarily responsible for the present turmoil in the Liberal Party. It was Turnbull who destroyed his own leadership when, on August 21, he called a leadership spill without consulting the vast majority of his parliamentary supporters.
When, virtually without notice, Peter Dutton scored 35 out of 83 votes, it was obvious that the days of Australia’s 29th prime minister were numbered.
Following that, Turnbull refused Dutton’s request to call another partyroom meeting to resolve the matter of the leadership. The Liberal Party tradition is that two members can call a spill. Alternatively, the leader can agree to hold a meeting at the request of a challenger.
That’s what happened in September 2015, when Turnbull prevailed over Tony Abbott.
Turnbull’s insistence that the Dutton camp obtain the names of 43 parliamentarians to hold a special partyroom meeting abandoned the secret ballot. This has never happened in the Liberal Party before.
The effective introduction of a show-and-tell ballot created considerable unnecessary tension as Dutton’s supporters worked to get the required names before the partyroom meeting on August 24.
Having lost the spill motion, Turnbull did not contest the ballot, in which Scott Morrison prevailed by 45 to 40 over Dutton.
Turnbull soon resigned as the member for Wentworth, initiating an unnecessary by-election. This decision deprived the Coalition of its majority in the House of Representatives — pending the result in his old seat.
And now, from New York City, Turnbull is urging his former colleagues to cross the floor and vote with Labor and the Greens to refer Dutton’s eligibility to sit in the House of Representatives to the High Court.
If such an eventuality were to transpire, it could possibly lead to a by-election in Dutton’s seat of Dickson near Brisbane.
All this against the background of Turnbull’s dreadful performance in the 2016 election, in which he blew the comfortable majority he inherited from Abbott’s near victory in 2010 and big win in 2013 — losing 14 seats in the process. Turnbull made the disastrous decision to call an eight-week campaign and neglected to take the fight up to Bill Shorten and Labor.
In the history of the Liberal Party, only Turnbull has lost the leadership twice, first as opposition leader in 2009 and then as prime minister this year. Both occasions witnessed the resignation first of junior frontbenchers and then senior frontbenchers.
In 2009 as well as in 2018, Turnbull was unable to unite his party and lost the support of many of his colleagues.
The truth is that, while successful in business, Turnbull was not very good at politics.
This was demonstrated in the recent Super Saturday by-elections when he fell into the trap of saying that the outcome would be a test of leadership between him and the Opposition Leader.
Since a government has not won a seat from the opposition in a century of by-elections, this was a silly thing to say.
After Labor’s victory in Longman in southern Queensland, Turnbull was close to being mortally wounded.
The problem was that Shorten and Labor had successfully framed Turnbull as a multi-millionaire who lived in a harbourside mansion and was out of touch with average Australians. One example illustrates the point.
Almost all Australians would like to live in the official residence, Kirribilli House on Sydney Harbour. However, when he became prime minister Turnbull declared that he had a better house at Point Piper. This made possible the “Mr Harbourside Mansion” refrain that proved so damaging.
If Turnbull had called an election soon after becoming prime minister in September 2015, he probably would have led the Coalition to a substantial victory. But he didn’t. In the August 2016 election, Turnbull lost seats where Abbott had his greatest appeal — Queensland, northern NSW and western Sydney.
The Liberal Party’s only gain was by Julia Banks in Chisholm in eastern Melbourne, where there was strong opposition to the state Labor government among sections of the electorate.
The 2016 election demonstrated that Turnbull was not a vote winner. Moreover, he was a weak campaigner.
It is true that Abbott caused Turnbull considerable problems in recent times. However, Abbott behaved professionally between being deposed as prime minister and the 2016 election, and campaigned effectively for his colleagues in some seats.
Turnbull’s decision to have a double-dissolution election also led to a situation where more minor party candidates and independents won Senate seats than otherwise would have been the case. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation obtained four seats as opposed to what probably would have been just one in a normal half-Senate election. This put pressure on the Liberal Party and Nationals parliamentarians, particularly in Queensland, NSW and Western Australia.
And then there was a deeper problem. Many Liberals believed that, to cite Margaret Thatcher’s term, Turnbull was not “one of us”.
Those who knew Turnbull were aware of his fondness for Labor heroes such as Gough Whitlam and Neville Wran.
Moreover, former Labor senator Graham Richardson commented occasionally about how Turnbull had approached him a quarter-century ago or so ago with a view to becoming a Labor Party senator.
In April 2010, I wrote a column supporting Turnbull’s decision to resign from parliament at the election later that year. He changed his mind.
My position was that on climate policy Turnbull was closer to Labor than to his Coalition colleagues. And I argued that on social policy Turnbull was being outflanked by Labor.
For example, in 2008 then prime minister Kevin Rudd criticised the showing of photographer Bill Henson’s depiction of naked prepubescent children.
Turnbull backed Henson and was praised by journalist David Marr for doing so. It seemed to me that Rudd’s position had greater support in suburban and regional Australia, where most marginal seats are located, than that of the (then) Liberal leader.
What John Howard and Abbott have in common is that they always want the Coalition to be in government and Labor to be on the opposition benches.
Turnbull’s lobbying from New York raises the question as to whether he has a similar loyalty to the Liberal Party that made him prime minister.