WTF! A secret deal that sees Abbott replace Turnbull in the Lodge?

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Have Abbott and his cohorts stitched up a secret deal with Turnbull to hand back the baton after the election? Margaret Simons once told deputy editor Sandi Keane she had a nose for news. Has it gone to her head? You be the judge!

WHEN Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, rumours keep circulating about a secret deal hatched by Abbott’s Monkey Pod conspirators that would see their neoliberal warrior back in the Lodge. "On yer bike, Tony… in yer dreams," I thought — at first…

Then, in February this year, Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher’s media radar registered a supersonic blip when Clive Palmer came out with a “WTF” jaw-dropper in Question Time.

He asked the Prime Minister if he were just a “seat warmer" — a "switcheroo" no less:

"As Australia's third-oldest prime minister, if you are still prime minister after the election, will you serve a full term in parliament or will you retire to your unit in New York and do a switcheroo with the member for Warringah [Tony Abbott], sustaining yourself with innovation and growth opportunities your investments have provided for the people of the Cayman Islands? It has never been a more exciting time to be a Cayman Islander! Are you a seat warmer?"

“Buffoonery or brilliant insight”, asks Hartcher as he ponders how else to explain the change of prime minister from an extreme right ideologue to the only “progressive” in the party — but with no accompanying change in policy. Could there be a secret deal? Turnbull realizes his life’s ambition to be PM. Having ticked that box then hands over to Abbott, say, 12 months after the election? A win-win, then?

Well, Peter, you’re not the only one who’s struggled to make sense of the mysterious incarnation of Malcolm Turnbull into Tony Abbott. The commentariat is awash with such questions and many column inches gobbled up on his unlikely conversion. Twitter hashtags search for answers with: #malfunction, #malsplain, #maladaptive, #malcontent. But to no avail. The reality is, the only thing Turnbull ditched of Abbott’s was the “blue tie”.

Mark David’s cartoons of Turnbull show an orange tie above the jacket lapel with a blue one hidden below. But the hats nail it.

Hartcher goes on to list the top ten areas of Abbott’s policies (aka IPA’s, aka Big Biz’s ... Big Anything really) where Turnbull – if he wins the election – will deliver for Abbott in spades. (Check Peter Hartcher’s list and the IPA’s manifesto here and here.)

So, did Clive Palmer have inside intel? Did Turnbull let it slip at one of those secret dinners he was wont to have with Clive?

Let’s humour the big man with a hypothetical scenario. Malcolm wins the election. A year down the track, he steps down and, horror of horrors, Tony wins the leadership ballot.

After we’ve picked up our collective jaws off the floor and that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs known as buyer’s remorse sets in, we ask:

“What the hell did we miss?”

Up and down the country, Australia’s pundits, commentators, psephology wonks, desk jockeys, political tragics and history buffs – heads down and bums up – would sift frantically through the clues.

Well, I actually had my own possible explanations on first hearing the rumours. So, given that forewarned is forearmed, let’s add these four (five if you include the postscript) additional clues to Hartcher’s list, as follows:

1. Turnbull's ambition was to be PM, not the other way around — an MP

Turnbull never wanted to be an ordinary MP. He’s far too laid back, easily bored and egotistic for that. Evidence? Tell me what he achieved as environment minister, other than be taken to court for breaching environmental laws, or as communications minister saddling us with his third-rate #fraudband in place of Labor's world-class broadband system. No, the Lodge was his goal. So driven was he, he was once prepared to even join the Labor Party.

Glenn Milne reported in The Daily Telegraph on 23 August, 2009:

Former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson revealed in October, 2003, that Mr Turnbull had sought a safe Senate seat from him. Mr Turnbull, seeking Liberal pre-slection for the seat of Wentworth at the time, labeled the claim a “lie”.

However, Mr Richardson this week told The Sunday Telegraph he stood by the claim. He said there were “a string of witnesses” to the half-hour meeting with Mr Turnbull, which took place in his office.

The Age’s Peter Martin, in an earlier article dated 24 January 2007, explained why Turnbull didn’t take up the offer:

‘I’ve thought about it but the Labor Party would never accept a multi-millionaire as its leader.’

2. At 62 this year, Turnbull won’t be hanging around

At age 62 this year and already the third oldest prime minister on taking office, does anyone seriously think Turnbull will hang around for long after the election?

If he loses, he’ll be off nursing a bruised ego. If he wins, think about it … committing to a three-year term will make him 65 by the 2019 election. The choice would be leaving halfway through that term to give a new leader time to settle in before the election, or staying on for another term — until he’s 68. Does that sound likely?

So, if retiring during the 2016-2019 term was part of the secret deal, he'd have no problem sucking that up. As I said, a win-win. 

But what will historians make of it? Allowing his legacy to be eclipsed by the boneheads in his party would surely render the realization of his life's dream a pyrrhic victory. But then ... judgement was never Malcolm's strong point.

3. As PM, he fails to convince

Turnbull is no Robert Menzies or John Howard. He might have the style but lacks the drive and substance of a true leader. Described variously as wishy-washy, flaky, unfocussed, easily irritated by pesky interviewers and, at times looking completely lost, it’s clear his heart isn’t in the job.

Nailing the difference between Malcolm and Paul Keating, one of IA’s readers observed on our comments thread:

‘Malcolm Turnbull is the Placebo Domingo of Australian politics.’

One of the disurbing signs that Turnbull's mind is elsewhere is the telling interview with David Speers of Sky News. He came across like a pompous but dithery old duffer who'd wandered onto the set by mistake from a neighbouring North Shore garden party.

You can check Turnbull's trainwreck interview out below (video now mysteriously missing from web):

Clearly embarrassed by the interview, Turnbull deliberately omitted the interview on his media site, as tweeted by Tom Connoll:

The truth is, Turnbull just doesn’t look convincing in the job. His failure to engage has invoked similar observations from other commentators.

On ABC Insiders last Sunday, David Marr said of the first public forum on Sky News when Shorten was declared the winner:

“Turnbull didn’t look like he was part of the debate. Looked like a visitor. Didn’t belong there. Whereas Shorten look part of the debate.”

Annabel Crabb, whose new book on Turnbull, ‘Stop at Nothing’, is also clearly puzzled:

‘Is there a chance that he just isn’t that into politics? I mean: obviously he’s interested in politics. But he never seems very attracted to the to the elements of the political process that are grim, grinding….’

When the Huffington Post asked the “million dollar question”— if we’d see a more progressive Turnbull once he was elected, Marr said:

"The idea he will have a mandate to be more himself after the election, I'm very sceptical of, because he's not campaigning to be more himself."

If Turnbull has made a Faustian pact to sell his soul for the keys to the Lodge, then “Placebo” rather than “Placido” certainly fits. Why bust a gut and plan for the future if you’re not going to stick around?

More comments this week indicate the rumour is continuing to grow legs.

Tony Jones on Monday’s Q&A to Christopher Pyne:

“If you go backwards and you lost 9-11 seats, would Mr Turnbull’s leadership be in question? That very scenario was put to me by a very senior Liberal colleague of yours. If it gets to a hung parliament, will Malcolm Turnbull's leadership be safe?”

Do you thinketh Pyne protesteth too much when he answered:

“He looks like a prime minister, Sounds like a prime minister, acts like a prime minister"

Then Leigh Sales on Tuesday’s 7.30 to Scott Morrison:

“Could Tony Abbott ever again be Liberal leader? Could Tony Abbott ever make a comeback?”

4. Electing Turnbull as leader served but one purpose: to save the Libs' skins at the election

Had the Liberal Party not been staring down defeat at the election, they’d never have elected Turnbull as leader. Most loathe him.

Given the bad polls, it wasn’t a case of “if” they’d oust Abbott for Turnbull but “when” — and they dragged it out as long as possible praying for a turnaround.

5. Why Turnbull could win the election and still lose (Postscript (added 29 May) 

This analysis in The New Daily ('Why Turnbull could win the election and still lose') might explain why the person who passed on the rumour to me was right about the RWNJs holding power after the election — and why a leadership ballot would see Abbott win. 

The seats most likely to go in the swing are those of the Turnbull loyalists. As The New Daily reported, Turnbull could win the election but still lose by finding himself

“... at the mercy of the Abbott loyalists."

In conclusion

Unless you’re living on Mars, you now know it’s Abbott’s policies Turnbull is selling to the electorate — along with the unpassed budget cut nasties still on the books. As Abbott’s cohorts keep saying, Abbott would have swung public opinion his way had the public only listened (oh, all right, had he been a better communicator then).

If Turnbull wins, the public will have given Abbott their imprimatur. Ipso facto: a win for Turnbull becomes a win for Abbott. Is that what you want? Is that what you bought? Is this also why the party’s "right" is getting preferenced on Senate tickets?

Why contest his former seat of Warringah only to languish on the back bench? Is Abbott deluded or are we? 

And, finally, wouldn’t it be just like Clive, having bowed out of politics, to have the last laugh?

You can follow Sandi Keane on Twitter @Jarrapin. If you think Clive's sold her a PUP, feel free to tweet her! But stay tuned to her on Twitter. The plot is definitely thickening!

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Interesting Tweet from the 2013 election. 

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