By Mungo MacCallum
After a couple of frantic weeks, Tony Abbott’s bodyguards insist that the threat to his leadership has passed – or as he himself would probably prefer to describe it, it is dead, buried and cremated.
But of course it isn’t – as even the newest member of Team Abbott, the ambitious assistant treasurer Josh Frydenberg has admitted, there will always be some in the party room who will never accept the current leader. And while that is the case, sitting comfortable and relaxed on the front bench close to Abbott, is Malcolm Turnbull, radiating availability.
On one of his regular performances on Q and A, which was somewhat desperately denigrated as an hour long job interview, the hardliners pounced – the pretender had not changed, they said: too smart, too calculating, too glib. Well, perhaps; but did they really want dumber, more reckless, more gaffe-prone – more like Tony Abbott, in fact?
Turnbull’s obvious talents are being portrayed as faults. Which is just silly. The man has enough real faults to contend with.
The most obvious is his overweening self-confidence, bordering on, indeed surpassing, arrogance; I once wrote that there were only two living organisms that could be seen from outer space, one being the great barrier reef and the other being Malcolm Turnbull’s ego.
The man is bright, but not quite as bright as he thinks he is – no one could be, and he might ponder on the remark once addressed to the Liberal Party’s founder, Robert Menzies. The doyen once scolded a colleague, Archie Cameron: ‘Cameron, I do not suffer fools gladly.’ To which the acerbic Cameron riposted: ‘And, Prime Minister, it may interest you to know that some of us bloody fools sometimes have trouble putting up with you, either.’
Turnbull has, apparently, learned a measure of patience; he does not show his contempt so often nor so overtly. But it is another question whether he has accepted more than a token measure of humility or even real tolerance for those he believes less gifted than himself.
The record speaks for itself; he lost the party leadership over his intransigence (well merited, but hardly tactless) when he persisted with an emissions trading scheme to tackle climate change. And before then he had ignored pleas for caution about the machinations of the fraudulent conspiracies of the Treasury mole Godwin Gretch – the name alone should have warned him.
But before that there was the republican campaign and John Howard’s masterfully rigged Constitutional Convention. Turnbull drove all before him to gain acceptance to his indirect republican model. In the process he split his supporters and eventually estranged them altogether: at the time I wrote that while the convention was fractious, there was one motion which would have been passed unanimously with acclamation: the proposal that Malcolm Turnbull was an arsehole.
In the end Howard played him off a break, endorsing his indirect model as the referendum question. The pro-Republican movement was now hopelessly divided and in the end the direct election proponents joined Tony Abbott’s merry monarchists to defeat it soundly. Turnbull, it appeared, remained unchastened.
But in recent times he has regrouped, if not repented. He has not, like Brer Fox, laid low and said nothing; he continues to show he is not Tony Abbott, by politely but firmly rejecting to join his leader’s jihad against Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs and dissociating himself from the sacking of Liberal elder Philip Ruddock as party whip. He has even joked about Abbott’s suppository of all wisdom, not to mention his captain’s calls.
And there are always the polls. The coalition’s unexpected boost to both Newspoll and Ipsos have clearly buoyed Abbott, even if some fanciful commentators have opined that the increased numbers for the Libs are actually a sign that the voters are eagerly anticipating a Turnbull take over, or, even more far-fetched, that it was a Labor conspiracy desperately trying to keep Abbott in the job until the next election.
But beyond the wishful thinking, one figure is undeniable: Turnbull is still hugely ahead of Abbott as preferred Prime Minister, and more significantly is closing the gap even among Liberal voters. They still do not embrace him, but it seems they accept the inevitable: Abbott is a loser.
Julie Bishop is seen as a contender, but a second-best one, and for all her virtues, she would not solve the problem. As a badly failed shadow Treasurer herself, she would have to promote Turnbull to the post to get rid of Joe Hockey, which would just lead more leadership tension. And the other hope for the right, Scott Morrison, may have finally learned how to smile but is still a long way away from the top spot.
It is Turnbull or nothing. And, as the Labor Party did in 2013 when it held its nose, closed its eyes and reincarnated Kevin Rudd, this is still the most likely scenario for the Libs in 2014, or at best, 2015.
Once again, let me return to the distant past. At the end of 1974 it was clear that the then opposition leader, Bill Snedden, was finished. His colleagues liked him, but Gough Whitlam’s dominance was such that he could never be elected. And Malcolm Fraser was looming. They did not like the crazy grazier: he was notorious as the knife man who killed off John Gorton, not natural Liberal (he was too close the Nationals) he was overly ambitious and could prove horribly erratic.
But he was, in contrast to the bumbling and failing Snedden, the clear, the only realistic, alternative. Summing up the mood of the party, I wrote as my new year prediction: ‘They hate him and distrust him; but, sooner or later, they’ll elect him.’ And a few months later they did.
Today’s circumstances are apparently very different; Abbott is less vulnerable and Turnbull less loathed. But the plus ca change. I stand by the quote.