The Liberal Party’s extraordinary leadership turmoil, and the likelihood that yet another Prime Minister is cut down before serving out their full term, has many wondering if the political system is broken.
There is no doubt that the slavish attention now paid to opinion polls, which have assumed oracular status, has made party politics highly volatile, and the position of leaders more precarious.
But what is playing out in gory detail before the eyes of the country at the moment isn’t the breakdown of political machinery, but a fight for the soul of the Liberal Party.
Abbott, Dutton and co. hold the delusion that they are representative of a mythical ‘silent majority’ that ascribes to their vision of a white-bred country. In their world, Turnbull has too much in common with the Left and is leading the country to Gomorrah and the Coalition to oblivion.
There is no doubt that many people, probably the majority, are not particularly thrilled about the current state of affairs. No period is without its challenges, but the sense of uncertainty and apprehension about the future appears heightened at the moment.
Yet relatively few, I suspect, think that the solution is just to shut the eyes and pretend none of it is happening, which is essentially the policy prescription of Abbott and Dutton.
Which brings us to today’s tussle over where the Liberal Party sits, and where it is going.
For years the Coalition has been slowly abandoning the political centre, something the wiser heads in Labor have spied and are trying to exploit.
The politics of migration to one side (bipartisanship on the treatment of refugees has largely neutralised the issue), the Coalition has sought to wind back action on carbon emissions, undermine Medicare, derail public education reforms, narrow Australia’s engagement with the world, drag the feet on child care and pander to the interests of older voters over those of the young.
Turnbull, who was chosen by his colleagues to replace Abbott and stem this rightward drift, has proved himself an inept politician. By pandering to the maddies like Abbott and Christensen rather than staring them down, he undercut his own authority and emboldened them. The dynamic this set in train was always going to end up in tears.
A Liberal split?
The compulsory voting system means that the weight of the national vote is in the centre – only on rare occasions, and in particular electorates, do the extremes gain much traction. Howard understood this. So did Keating, hence his success in beating Hewson by painting him as an economic ideologue and a risk.
If Abbott, Dutton and co. seize the leadership today and try to drag the Coalition even more to the right, they will increase the strain on a party whose unity is already under severe pressure from trying to span such a wide political spectrum.
An outcome of this episode is that the Liberal Party could splinter. In the early 70s, the success of Whitlam-led Labor revealed a shift in the nation’s political centre over the previous decade or so that had been disguised by the dominance of Menzies and the Liberal Party. As the Coalition recalibrated its position, Don Chipp spied a gap in the political centre and formed the Democrats.
If Abbott and co prevail today, some current Coalition MPs may take a leaf out of the same playbook and quit. The Liberal Party could become a rump based in regional Queensland and parts of WA and NSW.
If Bishop ends up succeeding Turnbull, as I suspect is more likely, it would signal that the bulk of Liberal MPs understand that their political future lies in a contest for the centre.
Abbott, Dutton, Christensen and their fellow travellers would then face the stark choice of sucking it up, or finally having the gumption to leave the supportive cocoon of the Coalition and putting the extent of the their electoral appeal to a real test by forming their own party.
My guess is some might follow Bernardi and do the crazy-brave thing, but most are too timid (and smart) and will stay put, because in their heart of hearts they know that their political relevance is likely to be much reduced once they step outside the shelter of the Liberal Party.
If anything, this episode will show the strength of our political system and, in particular, the virtue of compulsory voting.