Richardson: A coup not to unite a party, but to entrench its divisions

The blood-dimmed tide is again loosed in the nation’s capital, yet another brutal circus of mayhem and megalomania.

Aug 24, 2018, updated Aug 27, 2018
Liberal challenger Scott Morrison watches as Premier Steven Marshall speaks to the SA Liberal Party's AGM earlier this month. Photo: David Mariuz / AAP

Liberal challenger Scott Morrison watches as Premier Steven Marshall speaks to the SA Liberal Party's AGM earlier this month. Photo: David Mariuz / AAP

But there is a distinction between the Liberal travails and those of their Labor predecessors.

Labor, since the days of Hawke, have generally paid lip-service to egalitarianism while effectively being a party of administrators with a penchant for political power.

Even when, during the Howard era, they weren’t actually capable of grasping it, their decisions were generally more driven by pragmatism than principle.

Their leadership tussles since that era were driven, in part, by personality – those traditional human frailties such as ambition, power and revenge – but in greater part by a clear-eyed focus on electoral reality.

That’s where the Liberal power-plays are different.

The successive squabbles we have seen since the Coalition re-took power in 2013 have been less about salvaging electoral prospects than about reclaiming the very soul of the party.

If there is a contemporary comparison with the Left, it is perhaps with British Labour’s elevation of Jeremy Corbyn, a decision that few – even of those who supported him – would have expected to pay electoral dividends.

Instead, it was driven by an ideological wave of discontent, a howl of protest against a party many activists felt had lost its way.

And yet, it did yield electoral dividends – to a point, at least – as Corbyn’s unadorned political authenticity struck a chord with significant pockets of a jaded electorate.

Turnbull’s initial popularity has been blunted because of his intrinsic lack of authenticity, but – counter-intuitively from a political standpoint – that has been relentlessly exposed by the Right-wing of his own party.

We can blame poll-driven politics, but a truly poll-driven party would take heed of successive surveys that suggest Peter Dutton has all the popular appeal of Lord Voldemort, or that ScoMo is an electoral no-no.

Thus, this is not a coup fundamentally driven by a quest for power, but for purity.

This might be the new normal – the status quo for the goldfish-bowl generation

For many in the Liberal Right, the spectre of rolling Turnbull only to end up with Julie Bishop is like appealing a fine and winding up getting sent to jail.

The fact she may be more electable than the conservative alternatives is not a consideration for those members. Why should it be, when she represents an ideology utterly repudiated by the Liberal Right-wing, many of whom genuinely see no fundamental difference between a moderate-run Liberal Government and a Labor one?

Bronwyn Bishop: I thought it was the most selfish and cowardly speech I've ever heard from a leader of a political party. The reason he wants those 43 names is for vindictive pursuit. He has dragged the party into the socialist gutter.

MORE: #pmlive

— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) August 23, 2018

And that’s why today’s bloody finale is, in a broader sense, neither here nor there.

This ballot is not about uniting a divided party, but entrenching its divisions

It merely represents another lunge in the to-and-fro ideological tug of war that has taken place in the Liberal ranks for the past decade.

Put simply, this ballot is not about uniting a divided party, but entrenching its divisions.

Of course, there is something more to it all – the prevalence of political uncertainty and the ever-revolving door of the Prime Ministerial office in recent years that makes one despondently conclude that this might be the new normal.

The status quo for the goldfish-bowl generation, whose attention spans don’t stretch much beyond the latest weekly opinion poll.

Stagnant wage growth and rapid social upheaval have combined with a new technological revolution to enforce a fragmented political culture.

A friend of mine put it to me well this week, suggesting that the fabled “forgotten majority” doesn’t really exist anymore: rather, the electorate is little more than “a lot of minority views stuck in their own echo chambers”.

And all of it must be uneasy viewing for the holidaying SA Premier Steven Marshall, whose own branch of the Liberal asylum has well understood the ravages of internecine warfare.

Everything about the recent goings-on in Canberra should be sounding alarm bells for the still-fledgling SA Liberal Government, which seems to have settled into a fairly lackadaisical pace of reform. The general outlook seems to be: ‘it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen’ – a motto first coined by Kiwi Rachel Hunter in an early-‘90s shampoo commercial. Which is appropriate, given Marshall’s obsession with importing New Zealand-spun political philosophies.

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It’s an unofficial mantra reminiscent of the halcyon days of the early-Abbott government – if indeed, there was ever such a thing as the late-Abbott government, given the whole shebang only lasted two years.

Like Marshall’s administration, Abbott’s was then in cruise control, keeping internal ructions in check as the party collectively basked in a hard-won election victory.

And yet, we’re now seeing our second leadership transition in the life of a federal Liberal-led government – that has only been in power for five years.

You can be in no doubt that the ideological tug of war now playing out in Canberra remains latent in the state Liberal branch.

Those who as recently as last year were privately proclaiming that their aim was to make the Liberal Party a truly ‘Conservative’ Party haven’t simply abandoned their crusade merely because they’re sitting on the other side of the House of Assembly chamber.

The state Libs have exuded undeniable public discipline and unity of purpose in the months since their March victory. Election victories tend to do that; to cauterise wounds and galvanise troops.

But as I wrote last year, discipline is ephemeral; division is fundamental.

And the Liberal Party in Australia has not been so fundamentally riven, so unsure of what it is and for whom it stands, since the days of the breakaway Liberal Movement.

The values and worldviews of small-L Liberal moderates contrast so sharply with those of genuine conservatives that it’s hard to conceive of a church broad enough to contain them all.

Those moderates, incidentally, include Christopher Pyne, a key player both federally and in the state party, who has facilitated the ascent of many major players – not least Marshall himself.

And right now, as the recent state AGM suggested, the ruling hegemony is finely balanced.

A five-candidate ballot for four vice-presidency positions saw three right-wingers and two moderates face off. Arch-conservative Stephen Blacketer – who, as InDaily revealed, has been none too shy about publicly expressing his controversial views on party policy and personalities, including Turnbull himself – missed out.

Which suggests the tug of war is in something of a stalemate.

But Marshall and his moderate colleagues cannot assume that that is how things will stay, merely because the party is basking in the afterglow of its long-awaited electoral success.

If re-election was all the Liberals craved, Turnbull would not have been dragged from pillar to post on policy, repeatedly publicly embarrassed, belittled and laid bare as the archetypal emperor who had no clothes.

If re-election was all the Liberals craved, none of this undeniable madness would be playing out in the gaze of a disbelieving public.

The W.B. Yeats poem that I referenced in my opening line, The Second Coming, is an apt reflection on this diabolical week of national governance: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Turnbull was doomed because, as Yeats warned, he lacked all conviction – while his opponents, they were “full of passionate intensity”.

And indeed, the conservatives’ second coming is at hand.

These debates can’t be resolved by a change of leader, for they are not debates about salesmanship, but about political soul.

The question, then, for Marshall is, can he hold the uneasy truce that Turnbull failed to maintain?

Or, in time, will his ideological opponents within his own party – and Government – start to more fervently question exactly what their party stands for, and whom it represents?

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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