Thursday, August 06, 2009

What next for Malcolm

In the wash-up of the "fake e-mail affair" I had a conversation with an acute political observer yesterday. He was particularly gob-smacked at Turbull's unwillingness to suggest that he handled the matter badly or any sense of contrition - instead blaming the whole exercise on being duped by the public servant.

We were both gob-smacked at how he released the e-mail correspondence from the public servant that showed how delusional the public servant was - what one journalist has described as red flags.

It brings to mind the Keating assessment of Turnbull that I've referred to before; that he is brilliant, that he is fearless and that he has no judgement. He has demonstrated the latter point both in his original handling and in its follow-up.

In reality it might be that Turnbull is not so much "unwilling" to suggest he handled the matter badly as "unable" to do so. Something in the personna he described on Australian Story of needing to achieve in the hope of inducing his mother to return seems to create this impenetrable veneer of infallibility.

My friend and I went on to discuss what happens next for Turnbull. It seems that he has no hope of winning the next election, but the Liberals might be well advised to leave him there (as Turnbull might have been advised to leave Nelson) on the grounds that losing leaders tend to be permanently damaged. We agreed that Turnbull himself doesn't yet accept the idea that he won't win, nor that not winning will result in him being dropped post election.

Our conclusion was that Turnbull will hang on until the day here he decides that he can't become Prime Minister - and that at that point he will walk away. When he walks away he will blame the party (they would not follow me) rather than himself (I could not lead them). (Note, if he does make it to the election and lose I wonder if he will match the "this is the Priome Minister who has broken Australia's heart" line of blaming defeat on the victor as he did with the republic).

That leads to a comment about this morning's speculation that Liberals are now considering Andrew Robb as last man standing as an alternative leader. This is based on the "we can't win but we'll lose less badly" theory - the same the ALP used in the move from Crean to Latham. It is a bad theory on two grounds - firstly, there is no evidence it works, and secondly, it just results in damaging another talent.

The article itself reflects that Tony Abbott is now out of contention because his own conservative base opposes him because of the support he has been providing to Turbull, especially on the Emissions Trading Scheme. This is bizarre - that loyalty is repaid by loss of support.

In fact, it provides some credence for the theory that Turnbull will ultimately pursue - that he could not lead because the party would not follow. The turmoil between Peacock and Howard was not just personalities but the same conservative/moderate divide. That experience showed the party oscillating then choosing a couple of inadequate leaders before suppressing the philosophical concern and jointly focussing on the pragmatic objective.

The ALP has gone through something similar, even though they notionally limit themselves to choices from the right. But the Rudd/Gillard partnership was a break from the mould. (There was a thought that the Crean/Macklin ticket looked like this but that was a case in which the Right picked its own Left Deputy and used it to stare down any real leadership challenge from the Left - the deal was back Crean/Macklin or the right would choose a right deputy and had the numbers to deliver. Macklin was carefully chosen as a Deputy who would never threaten the leader - a bit like Julie Bishop).

Is there any hope of the heaving mass of internal contradictions that is the Liberal party focussing on the task of winning Government or are they determined to fight out philosophical points. If the latter Turnbull might not only be wise to leave but justified in giving up because they will not follow. Or alternatively, his measure as a leader will be on how well he can make the party behave as the former.

This introduces the possibility that there was method in his madness of an over-the-top assault on Government - that the best way to get your own troops bound is to identify the enemy. It just wasn't executed well.

In conclusion - I suspect we have plenty of interesting times ahead of us.

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