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Malcolm on the outer

The Liberals have displaced Labor as Australia’s tribal political force, writes Norman Abjorensen, and that makes Malcolm Turnbull an odd person out

Norman Abjorensen 5 April 2012 1856 words

Not really part of the tribe. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

ONE of the most curious things about the Liberal Party is the extent to which it so readily adjusts to the persona of a strong leader – curious because this is a party that so champions liberal individualism. Built by Robert Menzies (with a bit of help), the party was in many ways not much more than Menzies writ large, until the great man bowed out two decades later. His anointed successor, Harold Holt, the patient crown prince, promptly set about abandoning some of the Menzies tenets – including the White Australia Policy and the idea that Asia was nothing more than a bunch of uppity former colonies – and the party, with some minor grumbling, fell into line.

After Holt’s untimely death in 1967, his successor, John Gorton, enjoyed markedly less emulation, if only because he was an erratic leader unmindful of such Liberal sacred cows as states’ rights. When Gorton was deposed in 1971, both government and party were tired and seemingly inured to looming defeat, and few took Billy McMahon’s leadership sufficiently seriously to think much about him.

In opposition after 1972, the hapless Billy Snedden mostly failed to inspire, but with his overthrow by Malcolm Fraser in 1975 the party once again had a titan at the helm who would shape it in his own uncompromising image. Fraser, who won government later the same year, stamped his seal on the Liberal Party even more forcefully than Menzies ever had and, like its founder, was not only the public face of the party, but also its mind, body and soul.

Nothing more exemplified Fraser’s dominance than the abrupt and unannounced policy shift after the Liberals’ 1983 election loss. When Fraser quit as leader, his party’s tough stand on the minority white regime in South Africa – an abiding passion of his that chafed against the views of those within the party who supported apartheid – simply vanished from the radar.

Neither Andrew Peacock, who succeeded Fraser, nor John Howard, who succeeded Peacock, quite managed to achieve the stature and authority to reshape what had become a party at war with itself. But with the arrival of the circuit-breaker, John Hewson, after a fourth successive election defeat in 1990, the party miraculously converted en masse to the new leader’s brand of aggressive liberalism.

Ironically, the same party blamed Hewson and his Fightback! doctrine for the failure to win the 1993 election, and turned to the “dream team” of Alexander Downer and Peter Costello. Downer lacked the gravitas to impose his will, and was persuaded to step aside in favour of a recycled John Howard who, with the eclipse of Peacock, had assumed elder statesman status.

Howard was very much a creature not just of the Liberal Party, but also of the party’s distinctive NSW division, with its old free trade tradition, in contradistinction to Victoria’s social liberal and protectionist tradition. He was to stamp the federal party with his own persona even more emphatically than had Menzies or Fraser.

Howard’s own political fetishes – labour market deregulation and the primacy of the small business ethos – quickly became Liberal orthodoxy. He also tightened his control over the entire party in a way that neither Fraser nor Menzies had, effectively taking personal charge of the once staunchly independent, and nominally autonomous, state divisions through a centripetal shift of resources to the federal secretariat and a de facto veto over appointments of state officials. It was Howard’s party in a far more proprietorial sense than it had ever been Menzies’s: the party was Howard and Howard was the party, in very much the same sense that Louis XIV could say, reputedly, l’état, c’est moi.

Paul Keating was fond of saying, and John Howard concurred, that when you change the government you change the country. So it is with leaders, and most especially in the Liberal Party. We saw the party of Menzies quickly adapt to Holt’s new direction, and the party without Fraser instantly forgetting about apartheid. But losing both office and Howard in 2007, and with Peter Costello declining the proffered crown, the party had an immediate and unexpected identity crisis: it was an orchestra without a conductor.

The challenge was to protect the Howard legacy – essentially the existential core of the present-day Liberal Party – and start planning a comeback, while at the same time healing the wounds and avoiding the kind of damaging public recriminations that were aired in 1972 and 1983. A decisive break with the past was offered by Malcolm Turnbull, but the party preferred the anodyne Brendan Nelson, essentially a stop-gap, with whom the Howard legacy was safe.

Nelson struggled for nine months to make any headway against a popular Kevin Rudd, eventually falling to Turnbull’s challenge. Just enough Liberals had already tired of opposition after tasting power for eleven years and reckoned that Turnbull was a better bet than Nelson; but there was no great enthusiasm, with Turnbull defeating Nelson by just four votes (Nelson had beaten him at the previous ballot by three). The immediate challenge for Turnbull, a forceful personality, was to take charge and quickly make the party his.

Impeccably connected, married to the daughter of a former attorney-general, a highly successful lawyer, banker and businessman, and possessed of a formidable intellect and an even more formidable self-belief, Turnbull should have had the party, smarting in opposition, for the taking.

For a party that traditionally regards business as its core constituency, the Liberal Party has produced surprisingly few, if any, leaders who have had business careers as successful as Turnbull’s. Corporate leadership and entrepreneurial flair are of course qualitatively very different from political leadership, but these are the virtues and values ostensibly most admired by the party. Abbott was a political staffer and journalist, Nelson was a medical practitioner, Howard a solicitor, Downer a diplomat, Hewson an academic economist, Peacock a lawyer, Fraser a grazier, Snedden, McMahon and Holt all lawyers, Gorton an orchardist and Menzies an eminent barrister. Why did Turnbull, with such impressive qualifications, singularly fail to take the party and make it his?

THE answer, even assuming there is one, is as complex as it is elusive, and lies, in all probability, in the changing landscape of Australian conservatism, in which this independent-thinking, self-made multimillionaire cuts a most unlikely figure.

Not only did John Howard stamp the Liberal Party with his imprint and persona, he also radically transformed its culture: the party of Howard and after is profoundly tribal in a way that it had never been before. Political tribalism was always a characteristic attributed to the once collectivist Labor Party, with its machines, union bosses and organised factions, but today’s Liberal Party is every bit as tribal, albeit in its own way.

Howard, it needs to be remembered, grew up in a state that, for the first quarter century of his life, was governed by Labor in an unbroken stretch from 1941 to 1965. The patronage the NSW Labor Party built up over that time extended into every area of civil society; Howard, imbued with the small business and Protestant ethos of his family, always saw Labor and its union base as the collectivist enemy of the dominant values of his self-reliant and individualistic world.

This world view – clannish, suburban and narrow – permeated the Howard era. Howard’s long-nurtured antipathy towards Labor and its culture was a key element in his political and social persona – perhaps even the key element. Under his leadership it quickly took root as Liberal orthodoxy. It was – and conservatives bristle at this – a revival of class war, usually associated with the left, but class war with a difference: while Howard wanted to crush Labor by destroying its union base, he also sought to woo, with some success, traditional Labor voters by means of a cultural offensive.

The Liberal Party’s dislike of Labor under Howard went from the political to the visceral; not a single appointment under Howard had the slightest tinge of bipartisanship about it – a striking contrast with the Rudd–Gillard government’s appointment of former Liberal politicians, including Nelson, Downer and Bruce Baird, to various posts.

The recent unprecedented interjection in parliament directed at the prime minister from the advisers’ boxes by Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, is simply a manifestation of the new Liberal tribalism; it is anger, resentment and frustration all rolled into one, underpinned by an intense loathing, verging on hatred. As one veteran Liberal MP lamented, “We are constantly exhorted now to see Labor not as a political adversary but as a hated enemy. That does not go down well in the electorate.”

Of course, Australia and the Liberal Party are not alone in bringing a virulent tribalism into the once placid waters of conservative politics. The trials of the contemporary Republican Party in the United States also represent a new-found conservative tribalism that brooks no compromise and sneers at the concept of the middle ground, and for which any hint of bipartisanship is akin to treason.

Malcolm Turnbull, it has to be said, does not fit this picture; he is a man out of time, out of place and, barring a political disaster for Abbott, all but out of contention to return to the leadership of what is still essentially Howard’s party. Turnbull is everything the tribal Liberal Party decries, short of being a Labor member: a cosmopolitan in an increasingly nationalistic party, a social liberal in a social conservative party, a republican in a largely monarchist party, and an internationalist in a party that sees the American alliance as everything that matters. The most puzzling question is not so much how he can engineer a comeback but rather how he became leader in the first place.

While Turnbull’s style will always ruffle feathers (and there is more than a touch of Rudd in this regard), it was not so much his style that cost him the leadership after just fifteen months as his willingness to trade with the enemy over the doomed emissions trading scheme. Almost as bad was his tacit acceptance of the reality of climate change in the first place, when many, perhaps even most, of his colleagues agreed with former minister Nick Minchin that climate change was nothing but a leftist plot to de­industrialise the Western world.

This was the tribal orthodoxy, but Turnbull chose to disregard it: he was not really part of the tribe. His pragmatic views on the reality of China’s role in the region, expounded in a speech in London late last year, were further evidence of the independent thinking that set him apart. For all Malcolm Turnbull’s un­doubted electoral appeal, he might be just too individualistic for the party of individualism gone tribal – a party that Tony Abbott has yet to make his own. •

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Tailspin: prime minister Tony Abbott speaks to the media on Tuesday after a conscience vote for Coalition MPs was debated and rejected in a party-room meeting. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

Tailspin: prime minister Tony Abbott speaks to the media on Tuesday after a conscience vote for Coalition MPs was debated and rejected in a party-room meeting. Lukas Coch/AAP Image