Malcolm in the middle

The trouble with Malcolm Turnbull, said an old and wise friend of mine, is that he’s in the wrong party. Well, apparently; but the real trouble is that there is no right party for him to join.

My friend’s implication was that Turnbull really belonged in the ALP, and it is true that he agrees with much of what Kevin Rudd is trying to do. Apart from the ETS, Turnbull is an environmental activist, a nationalist impatient with the general incompetence of state governments, a strong advocate for Australia’s involvement in international issues and, last but definitely not least, a staunch republican. Last week he even described himself as a progressive. From a policy point of view he would not be out of place in today’s ALP.

But on a personal level he would find it intolerable. He has shown himself incapable of massaging the fuzzy and largely impotent factions within the Liberal Party; his attempts at domination have proved totally ineffective, and finally counterproductive. Obviously he would find the far more robust democratic traditions and the intractable stubbornness of Labor’s heavyweights too much for his notoriously low tolerance level. After all, they induce the odd brain snap in Rudd, and he has been virtually brought up in the culture. Turnbull would self-destruct in about a week and a half.

But more importantly, he could never achieve his ambition, which was and is the top job. Turnbull is in politics to be prime minister; no lesser post will suffice. But the party elects the leader, and even the modern, non-socialist ALP has not got to the point where it would contemplate placing its future in the hands of a millionaire merchant banker from Vaucluse. For Turnbull, the Libs were always his only chance and he knew it.

But he has always been an uncomfortable fit, and not only on policy grounds, although as the above list shows, his wish list – and particularly his republicanism – is hardly designed to appeal to a party which over the last 15 years has been moving slowly but remorselessly to the right hand edge of the political spectrum.

To achieve his avowed aim of modernising his party and dragging the Libs into the 21st century was always going to be a tough job, and one requiring immense reserves of tact and patience. It needs hardly be said that neither quality is among Turnbull’s many strengths. Thus the schism, part policy, part personality.

Some breathless commentators have described it as a “battle for the soul of the Liberal Party,” which is frankly hogwash. The Liberal Party is a purely pragmatic body formed with just one purpose in mind: to oppose the Labor Party.

Until 1909 the conservative forces in Australia were split into two warring groups: the Free Traders and the Protectionists. But with a vigorous Labor Party on the rise, the sworn enemies united in a pact against the common threat. The recriminations were so severe, even violent, that they killed the speaker, Sir Frederick Holder, who fell from his chair with a cry of “Dreadful! Dreadful!” This was the inauspicious start of the Liberal Party Mark I, whose centenary was celebrated a few weeks ago.

When the first of the great Labor rats, Billy Hughes, joined them in 1916, the name was changed to the National Party. When the second of the great Labor rats, Joseph Lyons, came aboard in 1931 the name changed again, this time to the United Australia Party. Hughes and Lyons were both given the post of Prime Minister; rewarding treachery is a longstanding tradition in the anti-Labor ranks, proving yet again that power trumps policy every time, with “soul” finishing nowhere.

The UAP became both impotent and irrelevant during the war years but in 1945 Robert Menzies cobbled together a motley group of anti-Labor leftovers to form the Liberal Party Mark II, which endured in its current incarnation until last week. Like all its predecessors, its sole purpose is to keep Labor out of power, or at least unable to implement its policies. Where it has policies of its own (the GST, WorkChoices) these are more often that not arrived at by looking at what Labor would do and then proposing the reverse.

Turnbull, a genuine liberal (as opposed to Liberal) is an exception, and it is not surprising that he has been targetted by some of the most unpleasant relics of his party. Nick Minchin, the sinister minister, the conspirator senator, is an ageing factional warlord who has long since abandoned his party’s interests for those of himself and his cronies. Kevin Andrews, the sea green inconceivable, is more concerned with the welfare of the Vatican than of Australia. His fellow Catholic Tony Abbott has taken as his model the Vicar of Bray, elevating political pragmatism to a total lack of principle.

And on the sidelines they are egged on by the likes of Wilson Tuckey and Alby Schultz, both barking mad. This is supposed to be a contest about the soul of the Liberal Party? The arsehole, perhaps. In retrospect, Malcolm Turnbull must be wondering why he ever bothered.

However, there was some cheering news last week with the release of the Senate privileges committee report on the capers of Godwin Gretch. Emails from his time in Treasury reveal that he saw himself as the centre of a vast secret network which included not only Turnbull and other active politicians, but background figures such as the Liberals’ bagman John O’Sullivan of Credit Suisse, who received special, and possibly corrupt, favours from the Gretch.

But best of all, he was an endless font of ideas for O’Sullivan’s wife, Janet Albrechtsen. How pleasing to find that The Australian’s resident dominatrix is actually Godwin Gretch’s ghost writer. Of course, with her inspiration and source now “undergoing treatment,” as it has been euphemistically described, the Libs might have to send round the hat to buy her a new set of alphabet blocks. They need all the help they can get.


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