THERE WERE NEVER IN THE WORLD TWO OPINIONS ALIKE

A Turnbull Turnstile for the Coalition
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A Turnbull Turnstile for the Coalition

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A Turnbull Turnstile for the Coalition

Rudd-Gillard-Rudd. Turnbull-Abbott-Turn… Wait. Surely not. Must be some mistake. We’ve been here before.
A week is a long time in politics. Now we’re in week two of Tony Abbott’s leadership turmoil. Anyone who is even slightly worried about the future of our country keeps turning on their morning tele with increasing dismay that Tony’s woes have not gone away. Because while Tony is in trouble, the coalition is in trouble. And if the coalition is in trouble, Bill Shorten is looking good for the lodge. Then Australia can kiss its economic prosperity goodbye for at least the next decade.

The stakes are high and MPs are panicking. Abbott has never been popular with voters and it was a resounding rejection of Labor’s chaos that got him over the line, not his personal popularity. Now, a dodgy senate, a tough but necessary budget, mixed messages to the public, the state elections and the, er, knighthood fiasco have all made the public soundly reject Abbott.

Not all of this has been Abbott’s fault, but the escalation of this turmoil from Australia Day onward shows his colleagues don’t think he has grasped the gravity of the situation or his role in worsening it. So they’ve called a spill and are ready to roll Abbott.

This must not happen. This is Labor-esque self-destruction for the coalition, and anyone who looks further than the next opinion poll or even past the next election will see that.

Any change of leadership at federal level is bad for confidence, direction and stability. You are fundamentally changing the direction and face of the nation without a general election, and people simply don’t like it. The electorate is very tuned into what the PM is doing and they look to the PM for an indication of where our country is headed. In fact, the PM and the Opposition Leader are the ones who shape the identity of their respective parties.

Therefore, we cannot under-estimate the effect of changing leaders. It’s not just the direction of the party that changes, but the way the electorate interprets the image of that party.

This is why the coalition is in very dangerous territory. In opposition they had good solutions to the nation’s woes on the carbon tax, boat arrivals and out of control spending. But it was their solution of stability, their unfailing image of unity, particularly on the front bench, that was their defining trait from the Labor party. That was the best thing they had to offer the Australian people and they attacked Labor’s disunity mercilessly. For that same team to now be turning on themselves and allowing tensions to flare to the point where Abbott could be rolled next week is book material. To backflip so dramatically on stability, when that was the biggest thing they offered at the 2013 election, is lying to the electorate. Rolling Abbott is the coalition’s equivalent of ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.’

If it happens this week, then the coalition has joined the ranks of Labor. Rudd-Gillard-Rudd succeeded by Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull chills the blood. We are repeating one of the worst periods in our political history and demonstrating that there really is no difference between politicians from both parties, except half of them happen to be better with money. We will enter a new level of disillusionment amongst voters, especially coalition supporters.

But it will be worse than that.

Malcolm Turnbull has been very quiet this weekend and you can bet your bottom dollar that the ambitious Turnbull will seize the moment if it presents itself in a spill next week. Someone needs to remind coalition MPs that we’ve been here before. Malcolm Turnbull had his chance to lead the Liberals five years ago and it was a nightmare.
Malcolm Turnbull is a republican, a committed climate change evangelist, supports gay marriage and it admired by many Labor/swing voters. He is also a successful businessman with real experience in dollars, so is admired by many conservative supporters. While this looks like an attractive best-of-both-worlds option, Turnbull’s leftist tendencies will cause even more divisions in the coalition than we are seeing now. It is the leader determines the image and character of the party, and Turnbull will inevitably take the coalition more to the centre, advocating progressive causes that Q&A audiences like and alienating staunch conservatives. He already did this last time around, when he supported Rudd’s ETS. The Nationals decided to oppose it as did many Liberal backbenchers. Yet Turnbull persistently pursued a policy that was obviously divisive for his own political credibility. It fractured the coalition and ultimately ended his leadership.

We’ve been here before. Well, not us exactly, but Britain has. To end the long regime of the Labour Party the Conservatives brought in the young David Cameron, who described himself as a ‘moderate, compassionate conservative.’ The opinion polls rose favourably and the Conservatives won minority government. But the movement of the Conservatives to the centre has divided the party and its supporters, particularly on the issue of EU membership and immigration. MPs and voters have defected to UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), the only party truly represents a Eurosceptic. UKIP and other minor parties have eroded the existing political landscape to the point where the election in May will be the most unpredictable in memory, with neither major party likely to form majority government, which means more cross party deals and more fractured politics.

The lesson is clear. If you put in a ‘moderate’ conservative with left-wing tendencies as the leader of the coalition there will be splintering. Sorry to tell you this, but conservatives are not dying out; they exist, they are voting and they want representation. While Malcolm will get plenty of applause from his buddies in the Q&A audience, it is very unlikely to turn into real votes; he will not be enough to cause the middle ground to defect. Conversely, he is more likely to lose votes the minute a credible alternative (i.e. the rise of a UKIP equivalent). Until then, conservatives will need to endure an age of frustration where they are fed up with Malcolm in the Middle but would rather sell their soul than vote Shorten. However, already the Nationals are talking of breaking away from the Liberals, as they don’t remember their previous dealings with Malcolm fondly. The simple point is that you can’t so obviously diverge from what your voter base expects of its party and making Turnbull leader will do just that. He’ll impress all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.

MPs who are pushing for Turnbull only want him there to be popular and win the next election. While he will boost the polls there is nothing substantial to suggest that he will perform better than Abbott. He will still have a disastrous senate, unpopular budget reforms to sell and a ballooning debt. The popularity will soon wear off when he enters battlefield on these issues. Despite mistakes, Abbott has delivered plenty of substance; free trade deals, brilliant management of international affairs, scrapping unpopular taxes and stopping the boats. Yet the past week’s events have preferred surface over substance. Malcolm Turnbull will not be immune to this.
Turnbull is too much of a risk. Under his leadership, the coalition may as well be Labor on a cash diet. Neither the voter base nor the Nationals will not tolerate ‘Labor-Lite’ and they will look for other alternatives. A fractured coalition will pave the way for a rise of a UKIP equivalent and other minor parties. His leadership will fundamentally change the nature of the conservative movement and will see us enter a period of volatility where Rudd-Gillard-Rudd followed by Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull is the new norm.

As I heard someone put it earlier this week, ‘maybe Abbott is an idiot, but even then he can’t go.’ Let’s hope MPs see it that way next week.

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