The word disruption has become so common a usage it seems destined for cliche status. Yet real disruptions do happen. Most recently, it seems, under the Coalition.
After succeeding Tony Abbott as Prime Minister in September, Malcolm Turnbull made two decisions that had unintended consequences of the disruptive kind. He sacked northern Queensland Liberal Ian Macfarlane (born 1955) from the cabinet and he promoted southern Queensland Liberal Mal Brough (born 1961) into the cabinet. Then, as now, Brough was the subject of a police investigation concerning former Speaker Peter Slipper’s diary.
It as an unusual pick. In view of the closeness in age between Macfarlane and Brough, this was not a generational change. Nor was the decision a case of “jobs for the boys” since Macfarlane was a strong supporter of Turnbull. As was Brough.
It seems the Prime Minister misread Macfarlane’s response. Turnbull anticipated that Macfarlane would accept his fate.
This was a serious misjudgment, as became apparent last week when Macfarlane announced his intention to quit the Liberal Party and join the Nationals. He has high hopes of winning back a seat in cabinet on the Nationals’ ticket following an increase in the Nationals’ ministerial quota as a consequence of the fact it has one extra representative in the parliament.
Brough’s position can be readily resolved, one way or another. He will survive as a minister or be forced to stand down.
But Macfarlane’s decision goes to the heart of cabinet government in Australia.
Especially as his attempt to join the Nationals was supported by the party’s leadership team — Nationals’ leader and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and his deputy, Barnaby Joyce.
The most successful Liberal Party leaders are those who led their party into government from opposition; namely Robert Menzies in 1949, Malcolm Fraser in 1975, John Howard in 1996 and Tony Abbott in 2013. All four recognised the importance of the junior party (initially called the Country Party, now the Nationals) to the Coalition and its success in government.
The Country Party had significant, perhaps too much, influence on the economic policies of the Menzies and Fraser governments.
The Nationals were influential in, but did not dominate the economic agenda of, the Howard and Abbott governments.
All four governments were notable for the fact there was scant tension between the main and the junior parties.
Indeed, Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott presided over united oppositions before they became prime minister. Menzies had experienced disunity with the Country Party during the final years of the United Australia Party, which he led in government between April 1939 and August 1941.
When Menzies presided over the formation of the Liberal Party of Australia in late 1944-early 1945, he was determined to ensure that this new party, which succeeded the UAP, would have a good relationship with the Country Party. When Fraser became Liberal Party leader in March 1975 he had to rebuild the Coalition relationship, which deteriorated during the period of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government.
Likewise Howard. When he returned to the Liberal Party leadership in January 1995, the Coalition was still experiencing the aftershocks of the “Joh Bjelke-Petersen for prime minister” campaign. Namely, the disastrous attempt by the Queensland Nationals premier to enter federal politics in 1987. Howard built a good relationship with the Nationals, which continued in government.
On becoming Liberal Party leader in December 2009, Abbott had to repair the Liberal-Nationals relationship, which had all but collapsed under Turnbull’s leadership of the opposition.
The Nationals were close to quitting the Coalition in 2009 because of the party’s opposition to Turnbull’s support for Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme.
One of Abbott’s finest political achievements was to lead a united Coalition to near victory in 2010 and a substantial win in 2013.
Turnbull’s difficulty with the Nationals does not turn on the fact most of the party’s parliamentarians prefer Abbott to Turnbull.
Rather, the current problems were sparked by a decision of a long-time Turnbull supporter to junk the Liberal Party and join the Nationals. It is unclear as to where the Macfarlane matter will go in coming months.
But there are signs that Turnbull is running into problems with the politically conservative section of the Coalition.
If Turnbull creates a political vacuum among traditional conservatives, then it is likely someone will try to fill it.
Meanwhile, last Saturday’s North Sydney by-election suggests Turnbull may not be as popular in the electorate as the opinion polls indicate. The attempt by some commentators to suggest there was a 13 per cent swing against the Liberal Party’s Trent Zimmerman is unfair. That’s the primary vote swing and there were 13 candidates on the ballot paper in North Sydney compared with six at the previous election.
However, after all the preferences were distributed, 61 per cent of the electorate wanted Zimmerman to win. This compares with 66 per cent support for the Liberal Party’s Joe Hockey in 2013.
Yet the Liberal Party ran a very expensive campaign with at least four letters from Turnbull plus numerous flyers and many robo-calls.
Moreover, the polling booth fences were draped in large colour photos of the Prime Minister.
The swing against the Liberal Party in North Sydney was much the same in the Canning by-election in September. On that occasion the early vote for the Liberal Party (lodged when Abbott was prime minister) was much the same as the vote on polling day (lodged when Turnbull was Prime Minister).
Certainly there were local issues in North Sydney and Hockey had a personal following in the electorate.
The point is that the Liberal Party’s decision to present its campaign as focusing on “Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Team” could not prevent a solid swing against the Prime Minister’s candidate — despite the fact Labor did not contest the by-election.
By-elections come and go. Nevertheless, the results from Canning in Perth and North Sydney indicate that Turnbull cannot afford to preside over disunity within the Liberal Party ranks or between the Coalition partners. Voters don’t much like disruption.