As a result of the last few days of confusing manoeuvres over the already complex National Energy Guarantee, the threat to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is now out in the open. Assorted figures on the party’s right have called for home affairs minister Peter Dutton to challenge for the leadership, and Dutton himself has cautiously signalled his availability.
So it’s time for a short history lesson to remind us of the eerie parallels of 2009-10.
In November 2009, Turnbull, then opposition leader, thought he had done a deal with prime minister Kevin Rudd to support a modified version of the government’s legislation for an emissions trading scheme.
It turned out that he did not have his party locked in to the idea, and a campaign was quickly mounted against him, spearheaded by News Corp, on the basis of denial of the urgency or even the reality of climate change.
The details were murky, including at one point the improbable use of Kevin Andrews as a stalking-horse, but the upshot was a leadership spill on 1 December, in which Tony Abbott defeated Turnbull by one vote.
The second leadership change came a little over six months later. With a deal with the opposition off the table, Rudd could have tried to negotiate with the Greens to agree on a plan that might (with one or two Liberal defectors) have been able to get through the Senate, and failing that – or maybe instead – to call a double dissolution.
But Rudd felt that talking to the Greens was beneath him, and despite having once inadvertently called climate change “the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation,” he was never the crusading type. Instead his conservative temperament asserted itself, and in April 2010 he abandoned the emissions trading scheme entirely.
That led to a steep fall in Labor’s opinion polling, and the power-brokers in caucus – who had never trusted Rudd in the first place – panicked. A hastily-organised coup produced Rudd’s resignation on 24 June and his replacement by his former deputy, Julia Gillard.
Each case has obvious parallels with the current situation. So is Turnbull another Kevin Rudd, or is he, well, another Malcolm Turnbull?
In support of the December 2009 analogy is the identity of party and (some) personnel, plus the fact that climate denialism is still driving – or at least covering – the rebels. In support of the June 2010 comparison is the fact that Turnbull is now in government, not opposition, and he seems to be repeating Rudd’s mistake of dropping a once-cherished policy, and paying the price in the polls.
Gillard was not a successful leader, but at the time she was highly regarded, even by those who opposed the removal of Rudd. The prospect of Abbott as leader, however, appalled many Liberal supporters, and Dutton now elicits a similar reaction.
There is a difference, though. Abbott was himself an ideological warrior, a prime mover in the war against science and rationality. No-one thinks of Dutton as a prime mover in anything; he is too obviously a tool of the hard right, who would never have risen on his merits beyond the lower ranks of the Queensland police service.
Abbott, although he made many mistakes, was at least interesting. The media focused on him, mostly uncritically, in a way that was of huge benefit in the 2010 election. (Donald Trump later repeated the trick on a larger scale.) It’s not clear that anyone much will show the same interest in Dutton, although no doubt News Corp will do its best.
A common theme in both cases is arrogance: Turnbull Mark I and Rudd were both disliked by their colleagues for their failure to conceal their belief in their own intellectual superiority. That made it hard for them to build a band of supporters.
Rudd never learned the lesson. Turnbull did, at least to the extent of allowing colleagues to walk all over him in policy terms. But the public seems to find that, if anything, an even less attractive trait.
The coup of June 2010, and the subsequent three years of leadership turmoil in the ALP, were fundamentally just about power. Ideological or policy differences between Rudd and Gillard, or their respective supporters, were very hard to find.
But in the Liberal Party, although Turnbull Mark II eschews any mention of it, there is a real ideological conflict going on. It runs deeper than just one issue: if it wasn’t climate
change, it would be something else. Even in 2009, it wasn’t just willingness to believe
in science that Turnbull was demonised for, it was also his willingness to negotiate with Labor, his commitment to good policy at the expense of politics, his emphasis on the party’s pledged word – and behind it all, the fear that he might actually try to make the Liberal Party live up to its name.
It’s hard to imagine that fear as real any more, but the tribal hatreds within the party are as strong as ever. For Abbott, Dutton and News Corp, Turnbull will always be associated with liberalism, however much he betrays it, and therefore will always be on the “wrong” side.
That doesn’t mean his leadership is doomed. After all, he only lost it by one vote last time, and deposing a prime minister is a more serious business than replacing an opposition leader. And Dutton as an alternative is sufficiently unattractive to give pause to even the most determined ideologue.
But the price Turnbull is paying for holding on keeps increasing. At some point, he must start to wonder whether it is worth it.