It was known in political circles that about a quarter-century ago Malcolm Turnbull sought to gain preselection as a Labor Party candidate. As former ALP minister and operative Graham Richardson put it in The Australian on Monday, in the early 1990s Turnbull sat in his office and “begged to be placed on the Labor Senate ticket”.
It is understood that, at the time, Paul Keating wanted to have Turnbull in the ALP cart. Not so Richardson, who had reservations about his commitment to the Labor cause.
In the event, it came to naught. And in February 2004 Turnbull defeated incumbent Liberal MP Peter King in a preselection ballot and subsequently became the member for Wentworth.
Richardson has written that the fact the Liberal Party thought that a man who had expressed interest in becoming an ALP politician “could ever be a true Liberal, let alone lead the party” was beyond him.
Quite a few political conservatives held the same view.
Yet Turnbull led the Liberal Party between September 2008 and December 2009 in opposition. And between September 2015 and August 2018 after toppling Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott.
It is true that the Liberal Party’s predecessors were led on occasion by those who had left the ALP: most notably Billy Hughes, who split with Labor over conscription for overseas service in 1916; and Joseph Lyons, who split with Labor over economic policy in 1931. Both became long-serving prime ministers for the Nationalist and United Australia parties respectively, and neither was defeated at an election.
The problem that Turnbull had with the Liberal Party and its rank-and-file base turned on the fact it was never clear what he stood for.
Moreover, unlike Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard and Abbott — the only Liberal leaders to have attained office by defeating the ALP in an election — Turnbull did not appear to identify with the party’s heroes or its traditions.
This was evident even in his departure yesterday. The parliamentary Liberal Party does not operate according to a set of rules. But it does have precedents.
With respect to leadership challenges, it has always been accepted that two MPs could approach the leader and demand a spill of leadership positions. This, in turn, would result in a secret ballot for the leadership.
That was the system in place when William McMahon succeeded John Gorton in March 1971. Gorton, the incumbent prime minister, failed to attain a majority in a spill motion that followed a request by a couple of MPs. The vote was tied.
There were no rules to handle such a situation. But Gorton decided he could not lead a divided party and stepped down. It was the correct decision, but not one he was required to take.
Gorton blamed Fraser for initiating the circumstances that led to his demise and, in his final years, refused to speak to Fraser. But the handover was orderly enough and Gorton served as McMahon’s deputy for a time, until he was sacked for breaching cabinet secrecy provisions.
The only other time that a Liberal prime minister has been replaced while in office was when Turnbull prevailed over Abbott in September 2015. Consistent with precedent, Abbott agreed to a spill after receiving a request from two MPs. The leadership transition was bitter but professional.
Not so this time. Last Tuesday, Turnbull called for a surprise spill without consulting his likely challenger, Peter Dutton, or even many of his own supporters. When Turnbull won the vote 48 to 35, he insisted that any future ballot held outside a scheduled party meeting would have to follow a request by a majority of caucus members in the form of a petition.
Turnbull’s unilateral decision completely broke with Liberal Party tradition.
He effectively brought about a situation whereby its secret ballot was abandoned and replaced by a show-and-tell system.
The last time a political leader called for names to be named was more than a half-century ago. On October 13, 1954, Tasmanian Labor senator George Cole moved for a spill of the ALP leadership. Labor leader Bert Evatt managed to delay the vote for a week. When it took place on October 20 in the caucus room by means of a division, the erratic and emotional Evatt jumped on the partyroom table and demanded that the names of those hesitant about supporting him be taken down.
Labor never had another contested ballot such as that. Evatt resigned from politics in 1960, having led the ALP to successive defeats in 1954, 1955 and 1958.
In view of yesterday’s developments, it is unlikely that the new leader, Scott Morrison, or any of his successors will insist on a show-and-tell vote. It seems that the Liberal Party tradition in this area will be restored. That is, after all, the Liberal way.
Turnbull is a clever and successful man who exhibits fallible judgment. The Coalition’s current discontents turn primarily on its poor performance in the 2016 election campaign.
Turnbull’s decision to call a double-dissolution election made it possible for small parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation to increase their Senate representation — which rebounded against the Coalition.
The directionless, eight-week election campaign of 2016 amounted to the worst performance by an incumbent government in decades.
It was at least as bad as Labor’s unsuccessful campaign under Ben Chifley in 1949 and the Coalition’s unsuccessful campaign under McMahon in 1972 — even though Turnbull achieved a narrow victory.
Unlike his predecessor, Morrison has been a Liberal Party operative for most of his adult life. Moreover, he is a social conservative. Morrison will not attract the attention of a Turnbull.
He has sound judgment and is capable — with the assistance of his deputy, Josh Frydenberg — of reuniting a divided party. It’s not an easy task, since the Labor Party is a formidable political machine. But it is not impossible.