The initial big political story last Sunday focused on Joe Hockey’s two-hour conversation the previous day at the home of the former prime minister John Howard – presumably about the Liberal Party leadership.
But by 9am, this was overtaken by Malcolm Turnbull’s extraordinary attack on his parliamentary colleagues – in particular Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott – on the Channel 9 Sunday program. No Australian leader had so publicly criticised his fellow MPs since Bert Evatt’s attack in October 1954 on the Victorian branch of the ALP, which initiated the Labor Split of the mid 1950s. Both incidents help explain the Liberal Party’s present crisis.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Hockey tried to ward off a photographer from depicting him with Howard. But the snapshooter got the picture. Last Thursday, Katharine Murphy reported in The Age that Turnbull had called Howard on his BlackBerry to seek advice about how to manage the evident threats to his leadership.
It is not clear why either Hockey or Turnbull or any other influential Liberals would seek advice on leadership issues from Howard. In fact, Howard is primarily responsible for the Liberal Party’s present leadership problems. In October 2001, Howard told The Australian’s Paul Kelly that he was critical of the way Labor failed to manage an orderly handover from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Howard specifically praised the way in which the Liberal Party’s founder, Robert Menzies, had handed over the prime ministership to Harold Holt in early 1966.
In other words, Howard well understood the need for a long-serving prime minister to pass on his or her office. It was Howard’s unwillingness to arrange a leadership succession midway through his fourth term that has left the Liberals all but leaderless today. The former prime minister claims he had intended retiring sometime in 2006, but refrained from doing so lest he seemed to be responding to pressure from Costello and his supporters. In fact, Howard never made an unambiguous decision to leave the top job.
If Howard had handed over to Costello in March 2006 – on the 10th anniversary of the Coalition winning office – it is unclear what would have been the political outcome. Kim Beazley was Labor leader at the time and the ambitious Kevin Rudd was not popular with many of his colleagues. Who knows? Costello may have contested the 2007 election against Beazley, in which case the outcome would have been uncertain. Even if Costello had lost to Labor, led by Beazley or Rudd, as a still relatively young leader he would have been expected to stay around and lead the Liberals in the early years of opposition.
Costello’s decision to bail out of politics, which was announced immediately after the 2007 election defeat, took some Liberals by surprise. This should not have been the case. Costello was smart enough to know the Coalition’s chance of dislodging Labor after one term was extremely low. He did not see why he should spend three years on the opposition benches and then lose an election.
Howard was one of Australia’s most influential post-war prime ministers – along with Menzies, Hawke and Keating. But he should not be regarded as the “go-to” Liberal when counsel is being sought on leadership matters.
When Brendan Nelson defeated Turnbull in the ballot to succeed Howard, it was evident to many he was not up to the job. Nelson was a successful cabinet minister but he was never likely to succeed in the extremely difficult role of Opposition Leader. And Nelson’s background as an ALP member and voter, before he joined the Liberals, confused Coalition supporters and swinging voters alike.
Late last year, it was evident Costello was still the best equipped to lead the Opposition – but he did not want the job. When Turnbull prevailed over Nelson in a party room ballot, it was an open question as to whether he could overcome his political inexperience. Turnbull only entered politics in late 2004 and before that he had no real roots in the Liberal Party.
It was always in the Opposition’s interest to delay a firm position on an emissions trading scheme until after the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Turnbull’s lack of understanding of the Liberal Party – and its roots in small business – led him to seriously misread the situation.
Turnbull’s plight has been made worse by his decision to campaign for the votes of fewer than a hundred Liberal MPs in the media. Last Friday, the Opposition Leader cancelled a Liberal Party fund-raising commitment in order to appear on the 7.30 Report. He used the occasion to criticise Senator Nick Minchin and his supporters. This was in spite of the fact that some 42 per cent of Liberal MPs had voted for a leadership spill the previous Wednesday when Kevin Andrews initiated a leadership challenge.
Then on the Sunday program, Turnbull comprehensibly bagged Minchin and Abbott while making potentially damaging statements about Joe Hockey, which could be used by Labor against the Coalition in the future. It is as if Turnbull does not realise that a leader has to be able to manage all his colleagues, or as many as possible. It is unlikely Rudd would have been as critical of Minchin and Abbott as Turnbull was on Sunday.
Whatever the Liberal Party decides on the leadership, victory in 2010 seems most unlikely.
There is a plausible case for leadership change. But there is scant reason to dump the West Australian Julie Bishop for Queenslander Peter Dutton, who is on record as regarding his seat as unwinnable. There is enough Liberal leadership instability already without going down this track.