Malcolm Turnbull: Life support?

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Something smells! Malcolm Turnbull at the Port Lincoln 'Tunarama' festival (Image via @TurnbullMalcolm)

Malcolm Turnbull might be fatally weakened, but there is little prospect of him being replaced as prime minister any time soon, writes Andrew Elder.

MALCOLM TURNBULL might be “on life support” as Prime Minister, as Peta Credlin says, but that’s only because the Liberal Right can’t get it together and knock him off.

To move against a leader, you need one opponent who already has a sizeable base and can win over waverers. Turnbull had this in 2008 when he knocked off Brendan Nelson. Abbott had this in 2009 when he knocked off Turnbull, with enough momentum to outwit Joe Hockey too. In 2015, Turnbull was the only alternative to Abbott — the Right knew Abbott was terminal in 2015, but they couldn’t get their act together then to unite against Turnbull. Since then, things have gotten worse for them: they just can’t coalesce around an alternative leader and propel him at Turnbull like a Lodge-seeking missile.

Tony Abbott is damaged goods: even the dimmest lights in the Liberal Right know this. Turnbull’s noisy, half-baked jihad against renewables convinces no-one, because Abbott tried the cheaper-power ruse when he knocked over carbon pricing (I haven’t got my $550 cheque, have you?) Her appearances on rightwing community television remind Liberal MPs that they don’t want Peta Credlin back and you don’t get him without her.

The media was wrong to simply quote Abbott’s speech and take him at his word. Why not abolish the RET? Gee Tony, let’s ask the PM who negotiated it into being in the first place. It’s one thing to float ideas like that to a room full of rightwing fools, but when your words are reported more widely to people with the memories and knowledge that press gallery journalism clearly lacks, your deficiencies become obvious. Abbott has, unlike Turnbull in 2015, learned nothing from his previous stint as leader. Abbott carries the wounds that Turnbull had set aside. Abbott’s speech was not only timed to coincide with Newspoll, it aimed to reassert his own position as a credible rival to Turnbull.

Peter Dutton is the prime example of political-class delusion: a big man in Canberra, a nobody beyond it. He isn’t quick on his feet, in Parliament or in public, like Turnbull is. He doesn’t appear warm, or friendly, or intelligent; people who insist he is say more about their political insider status than they say about Dutton. In interviews (even friendly ones, like Sydney shockjocks) he appears only to stonewall the interviewer rather than win over the public.

In his political career, he hasn’t needed to win over a public beyond his (marginal) electorate. Last year, Michelle Grattan ticked him off for being a poor minister, but when has he had a good example? He won his seat in 2001, in the fever of Tampa and September 11, from Cheryl Kernot. He was understudy to Costello for years and then watched/contributed to the withering away of the Howard Government. He shadowed Nicola Roxon as health minister and learnt nothing from her, playing a passive rope-a-dope strategy without being able to undo her achievements. Dutton couldn’t be a good minister if his life depended on it. There is no evidence of any leadership skills: no school captaincy, no rapid promotions at work. He’s rightwing and not Abbott — that’s it.

The clearest evidence of Dutton’s unsuitability to become prime minister is in the political basket case that is his home state of Queensland.

The Liberal and National Parties in Queensland formed the LNP to maximise their chances of winning state government. They only managed to do so for one term and plenty of current and recent LNP MPs don’t have the stomach to rebuild — or even wait until Palaszczuk and Labor burn out. If Dutton was a big time political operator, he should be working behind the scenes to select winning candidates and keep the incumbent government off balance.

Federally, Queensland is where the marginals are now. Labor won the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, and the Queensland election of 2015 showed that state’s ALP machine has what it takes to win Federal government. The Coalition needs someone to hold the ramparts in Queensland; Turnbull or Abbott can’t do it. 

Brandis has no base beyond inner Brisbane and every other Coalition politician from Queensland has little reach beyond their own electorate. If Dutton is to save this government – if he is to lead it – he must secure Queensland.

Much has been written about why PMs used to be more secure in their jobs than those in recent years. Menzies crawled from the wreckage of the UAP and largely built the Liberal Party organisation by hand. Whitlam took years to reshape Labor, if not in his image, then to the point where it would tolerate him. Keating helped build the Labor Right in NSW and worked with Hawke to take it national, in alliance with the soft left. These men became prime ministers with a defined base, which stuck by them as fortune ebbed and flowed.

When Howard became Liberal leader in 1995 he rebuilt the NSW Liberals from the ground up, knowing he would have one chance: Abbott witnessed that but he could not replicate it. He still can’t; Abbott’s closest allies, like Ross Cameron or Ian McDonald, can’t even stay as party members. Similarly, Rudd became PM without having Queensland Labor under his thumb (Swan held sway there), and Gillard became PM without a secure base in Victoria (Shorten and Conroy ran Victorian Labor). Turnbull hasn’t secured the NSW Liberals either — not with money, nor personnel, nor the deep knowledge of the party from the ground up that lifer Howard had. A solid, long-term leader needs a powerbase.

Dutton should be The Man in conservative Queensland, but he isn’t. Apparently he has a nice home by the beach — but so does Sussan Ley, another former health minister, and she won’t become prime minister either. You can’t build a massive powerbase in a few months while also winning over wavering backbenchers with your radiant personality and calm reassurance that you can hold government, stem the losses and put Labor on the back foot. Oh, and holding a marginal seat.

George Christensen’s worst nightmare is the LNP dumping him for being disloyal while One Nation shuns him for not being loyal enough. Dutton should play to those fears. He should get the fat bastard in a headlock to demonstrate that he owns Christensen, and that he, alone, will ensure he stays with the Government. This would show he had political skills and qualities Turnbull lacks, a necessary precondition to knocking him off.

Look at the maiden speeches of Queensland’s LNP MPs and Senators: some mention Dutton in passing, but few are effusive. Every LNP MP and Senator should be able to nominate a time both when Dutton gave them a career-saving favour and a career-threatening fright; he should be the man party donors want to see, the man LNP office-holders need to keep on side.

Dutton should be pointing the loose cannons of One Nation against Labor, not sitting back while gangrenous chunks drop off the LNP. Abbott established leadership credentials by sending Hanson to prison; Dutton may not be able to beat her, but he does need to play her — to salvage what remains of Clive Palmer’s machine and to outfox Bob Katter. He should be sorting out the fundraising mess on the Gold Coast created by Stuart Robert and Steve Ciobo. He is doing none of these things. Peter Dutton is not ready for prime time.

Speaking of which, I haven’t mentioned Scott Morrison. He hasn’t reshaped the NSW Liberals in his image either. Old treasurers drop out (Kerin, Dawkins, Willis, Costello and Hockey) or bide their time (Howard, Keating and Swan); they do not fail upwards, as Morrison seeks to do. The Liberal Right don’t trust him and waverers find him less convincing than Turnbull. If he is seen to take his eyes off the job in front of him, he’s finished. Thank goodness he has so many friends in the press gallery to keep him warm at night.

I also haven’t mentioned Dutton’s and Morrison’s efforts in immigration and border protection. For everyone who’s impressed by their “toughness” there’s someone who’s appalled by their brutality.

For all Australia’s successes as a nation of immigrants, no immigration minister has become prime minister since Holt. It’s hard and dirty work, and everyone leaves that portfolio with mixed results.

Haven’t mentioned Julie Bishop either ... oh well! Like Morrison, she has her work cut out for her right now, and her indulgences with polo and VIP flights will be tolerated only so long as she sticks to foreign policy – in a world where old certainties fail fast, and nobody knows what’s coming from left field. She’s had her chances, and like Morrison draws comfort from the gallery.

Turnbull might well be failing as Prime Minister, the Liberal Party itself might crumble and Shorten might well have Labor united behind him ... but internally, Turnbull only has to beat the rivals he has.

Abbott is less even than he was in September 2015; he has the helpless, pitiful anger and shame of someone whose wheelchair has fallen over. Abbott’s enabler insists he has a right to speak — but so did every Liberal who leaked and backgrounded against the Abbott Government. Dutton is a nobody and Morrison is less than that. Bishop never wanted the leadership. Turnbull could well have the guile to keep them disunited and hurt for a while yet.

You can read more by Andrew on his blog Press Gallery Reform and follow him on Twitter @awelder.

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