Turnbull: great tactician, poor strategist

by on August 24, 2018

IF YOU cannot fulfill the voters’ hopes you end up having to pander to their fears. Malcolm Turnbull, barrister tactician to the end, failed because almost from Day One his political strategy was wrong.

The enormous support he got in polls the month or two after becoming to Prime Ministers was on the expectation that he would move the government away from punishing refugees; blocking marriage equality; dog-whistling on Muslims; bashing up people on welfare; pandering to big business; cutting health and education; doing nothing on climate change and renewables; nothing on constitutional change; nothing on rising inequality and wage stagnation; and nothing on tax breaks for the wealthy.

But his strategy with dealing with the right of his party was to concede to them on policy. That way, he thought, they would continue to support him.

Wrong, The three As – Abbott, Andrews and Abetz – were angry and embittered and were always going to undermine him. And they did so, slowly gaining helpers in the party room and in the right-wing media.

A better strategy would have been to have reneged on whatever policy agreement he had made with the right and pursued the policies that the voters were hoping for and which had given him such high approval ratings.

If he had done that, the Coalition would have remained ahead of Labor in the polls, and in those circumstances the Liberal Party would not have contemplated a leadership change. After all, they are in it for the power.

There is nothing like the prospect of losing one’s seat to jolt a back-bencher to question the leadership. There is nothing like a lead in the polls for back-benchers to remain contented with the leader.

The reason the Coalition has been trailing in the polls is right-wing policy, not Turnbull’s leadership. In poll after poll he has been more popular than his party which kept dragging him to the right and dragging the party away from the hopes of the people.

The voters wanted Turnbull to be himself, to occupy the centre ground. And that centre ground has moved to the progressive side on a lot of issues, as the marriage equality vote so starkly showed.

Three of the four longest-serving Prime Ministers – Menzies, Hawke and Fraser – were for the most part centrists in their time and political environment. Even the long-serving Howard looked decidedly centrist when his polices were compared to Hewson’s Fightback! program.

Menzies reputedly said when accused by colleagues of adopting Labor Party policies: “50 per cent of the people voted for the Labor Party”.

Turnbull’s strategic error in conceding to the conservatives on policy was coupled with a strategic error in not conceding to them on personnel. Once it was clear that Abbott was not leaving Parliament he should have publicly offered him any portfolio he wanted other than the portfolio chosen by the Deputy Leader.

Too often generals fight the present war on the basis of what happened in the previous war. Turnbull presumably saw a danger of having Abbott in Cabinet with access to everything because he thought Kevin Rudd’s position as Julia Gillard’s Foreign Minister gave him more ammunition with which to whiteant her.

In all, the undermining and destruction of Turnbull’s leadership this week by the conservative wing of the party and their media cheer squad in News Ltd, Sky and 2GB has undermined the Liberal brand even if it does not destroy it.

This is because their stated willingness not to accept defeat but to keep the threat of leadership challenges and disruption alive was in effect a form of blackmail to backbenchers: end Turnbull’s leadership or go down in flames.

It was personal vendetta, not national interest.

Well, they are going down in flames anyway. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing worse than not getting what you want, and that is getting it.

The result is that the only thing the Liberal Party has left to fight an election on is fear: African gangs, welfare cheats, high taxes under Labor, high electricity bills and loss of sovereignty because of the Paris accord on climate change.

As Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last bastion of a scoundrel”.

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The loss of sovereignty argument used by the Coalition conservatives against legislating an emissions reduction target is an insular denial of more than half a century of increased international cooperation.

For example, Australia has been a party to the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation since it began in 1947. It is not a loss of sovereignty to come to agreements with other nations for the good of all.

There are hundreds of treaties to which Australia is a party. Rather than diluting our sovereignty, they enhance it. Without them we could hardly function as a nation.

Even John Howard’s statement that “Australia is the best country in the world but we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” has to be tempered by the fact that part of that decision-making was made back in the 1950s when a Coalition Government ratified the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

International cooperation is an essential part of good government.

Let us hope that somehow Scott Morrison can ensure Australia can avoid the dangerous lurch to the nationalistic, populist right which is infecting so many other democracies around the world.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 25 August 2019.

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