Has Turnbull Landed A Killer Punch?

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For those of us lucky — or unlucky — enough to get paid to cover politics, it’s been a fascinating and compelling couple of days watching the Liberal Party.

Fascinating like a train wreck. Compelling like a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. For the professionals like David Speers and Tony Jones trying to cover it, the last two days have marked one of those rare periods of high drama where the blood is in the water and political events are shifting by the hour. Adjectives like "crazy", "chaotic" and "surreal" have been the standard descriptors.

It all started yesterday morning with the conclusion of the negotiations between Liberal climate change spokesman Ian Macfarlane and the Government’s Penny Wong. As we noted at the time, the upshot of the deal cut by the Rudd Government with Macfarlane was an agreement by Shadow Cabinet to pass Labor’s CPRS bill — albeit with major concessions for big polluters.

For Rudd and his backroom tacticians, it was a dream result. No sooner had the Prime Minister and his climate change lieutenant closed their press conference, than the blood-letting in the Liberal Party began.

To help understand today’s events, you need to know that the deal between Labor and Turnbull was only ever a provisional deal, agreed to by Turnbull and the shadow cabinet — but not the rest of the party. In the disciplined Liberal party room of John Howard, that would have been that. But in today’s deeply divided Liberal Party, the subsequent meeting was the scene for a marathon test of the leader’s credentials.

Yesterday, the party room was split almost evenly on the issue of passing the CPRS, apparently deciding to pass it by only a few votes. Then, today, we saw a leadership spill against Malcolm Turnbull, seemingly organised in a couple of hours, which still managed to attract 35 votes against the current leader. That’s 35 votes for "Anyone but Malcolm".

As I’ve explored in detail throughout this year, climate change has become a litmus test for the soul of the modern conservative. Many Australian conservatives and libertarians see climate change through the left-right prism of the culture wars, allowing themselves to be seduced by the junk science of the sceptics and denialists. Applying their usual hard-headed scrutiny to what Nick Minchin sees as a campaign by the "extreme left" to "deindustrialise" the rich world, they have concluded that climate change is not a real problem. Once the arm of the party that took pride in facing up to reality, the right wing of the Liberal Party is now splintering on a wedge of scientific fantasy.

The genuine policy division over climate change is compounded by the difficulties of opposition. Despite more than a year of bad polls in the run-up to Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election victory, the Liberal Party was breathtakingly unprepared for opposition when the shoe finally dropped. Unable to back Malcolm Turnbull in the immediate wake of defeat, the party turned to the supposedly safe pair of hands in Brendan Nelson. Nelson proved genuine, even likable — but singularly unelectable. Turnbull duly assumed the party’s leadership and Nelson rode off on his motorbike for the last time.

But this meant that Turnbull inherited a divided party. The cleavage between conservatives and "small-l" liberals, already tested by issues like the Apology to the Stolen Generations, then widened around the issue of climate change. And Turnbull has not found it easy going against Kevin Rudd’s juggernaut. Indeed, one of the roots of the current troubles is that Turnbull’s poll figures have scarcely bettered Brendan Nelson’s.

In a disastrous feat of misjudgment, Turnbull made his fatal error in the Godwin Grech fake-email scandal. With exquisite timing, the chickens of that debacle are coming home to roost this week, with the release of the Parliamentary privileges inquiry into the affair. Any examination of the non-scandal can only further damage the Opposition Leader.

The most recent opinion polls show Labor would comfortably win around 100 seats in an election. They were taken before the events of this week. Who knows how many seats Rudd would win if an election were held this weekend? 110? 120? Rock-solid, jewel-in-the-crown Liberal seats would be in play.

The events of today therefore represent the culmination of a long year of dissatisfaction in the Liberal Party. Part of this dissatisfaction stems from an obvious unhappiness with Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership style, part of it from conservative discomfort with Turnbull’s politics, so far to the left of many in his back-bench. And part of the malaise is genuine opposition to any action on climate change, which for many Liberals doesn’t actually exist.

Turnbull probably thought today’s spill would clear up the division and stop the bleeding. After all, does anyone seriously believe Kevin Andrews could lead the Opposition to the next election? Did Kevin Andrews even believe that? Most in the press gallery view Andrews as a stalking horse for those wishing to express their unhappiness with the present leadership. Another possible explanation is simply that Andrews thought he’d give it a whirl.

But the spill motion, conducted by secret ballot, demonstrated that there are at least 35 Liberal parliamentarians who don’t support Turnbull. Only seven votes were required to change hands to toss Turnbull out which is hardly an overwhelming show of support.

It’s hard to see how Turnbull can recover in the long term from the events of this week. While he can purge his shadow cabinet of plotters and detractors, he can hardly sack back-benchers or recruit new supporters to shore up his position. The only question is whether Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott — the realistic alternative candidates — move to seriously destabilise Turnbull over the summer. If they do, Turnbull is toast.

Even if they don’t, the Opposition will still limp into an election year. You can take your pick of the likely phrases to be favoured by the commentariat: "laughing stock", "rabble", "unelectable mob". If the polls don’t tighten up by February next year, and they almost certainly won’t, the leadership speculation will be back on.

The Liberal Party seems fundamentally split on this issue, and split for the long-term. Political parties, however, rarely break up in modern history: it takes more than disputes over day-to-day tactics or the pragmatic mechanics of power. But really big global events can sometimes provide intellectual detonators powerful enough to explode the unity of political movements.

In the 1950s in Australia, the issue of communism split the ALP in two and ensured a generation of conservative rule. Climate change now looms as a similar threat to the conservative parties, with the potential to award Kevin Rudd power for the next decade.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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