Today’s reading on Australian politics is from George Megalogenis in the Monthly, on the topic of recent leadership instability – or as he (or the headline writer) puts it, “Blowing up the government to save it.”
Even if you think you’ve already read enough on the subject, Megalogenis is well worth a look. But his approach, to my mind, is marred by a basic flaw: having committed himself to an analogy, he fails to notice critical differences between his cases. I call this the curse of parallelism.
Of course there are real parallels between the party coups against Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard on one hand, and Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull on the other (I’ve talked about some of them myself). But there’s also a very important difference.
Rudd and Gillard were not fighting over policy or ideas; they were just fighting for power. Labor MPs deserted Rudd, and then re-embraced him three years later, because in each case they thought that offered the better chance of holding their seats. There was never any issue of principle involved.
But the warfare of the last eight years in the Liberal Party has been an ideological battle, between, roughly, the defenders and the enemies of modernity. Turnbull was brought down twice because he offended his party’s ideological crusaders, and when he was returned to the leadership in 2015 it was only on the explicit promise that he would respect their prejudices. (A promise that he kept, although it did him no good.)
The Labor Party’s problem is that its MPs don’t believe in anything. The Liberal Party’s problem is that its MPs believe in things that the electorate regards as batshit crazy.
Now, you can argue that those two predicaments are not as different as they might seem, and that they both stem from underlying structural problems in modern politics. But Megalogenis doesn’t make that argument; he just ignores the ideological dimension completely.
Some pundits, mostly from News Corp, have tried to tell us that the deposition of Turnbull proceeded from the same motives as in Labor’s instances: MPs worried about losing their seats. I don’t think Megalogenis is consciously advancing that agenda, but he risks giving it added credibility.
It is, of course, nonsense – or rather it’s true only in the sense that some MPs could be so blinded by ideology that they could really convince themselves that Peter Dutton would be a better electoral prospect than Turnbull. But in the wise words of the Duke of Wellington, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.
It may be the grip of his analogy, or it may just be the subconscious self-interest of the pundit, that leads Megalogenis to fervently embrace the cause of early elections. “The lesson each time is that the caretaker prime minister is best served by going straight to the people.”
It’s amazing that such an intelligent man can be so blind to what the public has so often expressed. Voters hate early elections with a passion. Gillard, the only leader who took Megalogenis’s advice, suffered a catastrophic loss of seats, from which many of the subsequent problems stem.
Turnbull also went to the polls early (although not as early as Megalogenis thinks he should have), and also did badly out of it. And even Megalogenis has to concede that Scott Morrison would lose if he went now; serving out a full term at least gives him a chance.
Might Turnbull have done better if he had held the election straight away, in his honeymoon period? He might, but it’s also possible that voters, being annoyed about an election three months early, would have been even more annoyed about one nine months early. And they would have had plenty of opportunity to vent their disapproval, because there would then have had to be a separate half-Senate election a year or two later.
More to the point, an election would only have helped to the extent that it allowed Turnbull to deal with his ideological problem. If he had sought, and got, a mandate to defy his party’s troglodytes, things might have been different. But his whole subsequent career illustrates his judgement (correct or not) that that was a fight he could not win.
Instead he chose not to have it, to govern on Abbott’s terms, and it ended badly anyway. As Tim Colebatch wrote a year and a half ago, “by forcing Turnbull to govern like Abbott,” Coalition MPs drove the government “towards the same cliff they faced under Abbott.”