On the rather chilly walk up to the hill this morning, I thought Iâ€™d encounter lines about Peter Costello â€˜holding his manhood cheapâ€™ on yesterdayâ€™s Liberal Party room equivalent of St. Crispinâ€™s Day. Alas, no Kenneth Branagh-related metaphors or intertextuality, as I looked longingly at the Manuka Starbucks en route to a much anticipated rendezvous with a Sausage McMuffin around the corner. A shame, really. Quite a rich vein, although the Shakespearean narrative is already well developed with Costello, albeit with respect to a rather less upbeat play. Alternatively, the headline of â€˜no use crying over spilt leaderâ€™ sprung to mind . There is nothing more I want to do in life than devise headlines. Sadly, itâ€™s not to be- except at the Canberra Times, although Iâ€™d sooner join the Greens.
Notwithstanding Costelloâ€™s insistence at the ill-timed National Press Club lunch for the launch of the â€˜first volumeâ€™ of his memoirs, when pressed, that he had not gone to any lengths to shore up support for Brendan Nelson- he denied calling any colleagues and pressing them to support Nelson- itâ€™s quite obvious that the coterie (Vexnews: We prefer the â€˜cabalâ€™ epithet) of Costello-ites busied themselves rounding up a diminishing herd of Libs to vote for anyone but Malcolm. Colleagues of mine were getting the hard word put on them as the parliamentary and staffing coterie- from the Everest-like heights of Tony Smith to the lows of Luke Tobin- reportedly mimicked the persistence of Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses, with the accompanying degree of personality and subtlety, I expect.
Itâ€™s an interesting strategy for the Tony Smiths and Chrissy Pynes of this world to prosecute on pious Peterâ€™s behalf. The timing of Malcolmâ€™s ascension to the leadership may suit Peter brilliantly if (as many of his interlocutors particularly the Herald Sunâ€™s talented Gerard McManus observed) with the absence of a commitment to not contest Higgins once more, and with Victorian Liberal pre-selections likely as early as April next year, Costello decides to stay on and by extension be the leadership contender should the â€˜Malcolm experimentâ€™ fail.
The main problem for Peter, however, is that his hand is effectively forced the instant he formalises his intention to remain as the Liberal candidate for Higgins. That said, Peter is reported, ironically, to subscribe to the Victorian Liberal leader Baillieu view of how to win an election: wait until the next one. While heâ€™s right that it is rare first term PMs to find themselves out on their arses at the cessation of their first consulship, these are uncertain times economically, and a number of factors count against Labor, from the train wreck that awaits the party in NSW with a federal poll due prior to the next state one, to the broader issue of a wafer thin swing being required to turf them out. His strategy of waiting until the time is right to take the leadership- his first opportunity being at Downerâ€™s demise- has been one that has been going on since I was in primary school. Time to rethink the strategy, Peter. Might be time for a Petraeus-esque surge, albeit one of testosterone. If only there was a Viagra pill for courage.
The other potential hiccup for Peter is if Malcolm doesnâ€™t go supernova like that faded, jaded Latham star. In that case, Costello simply looks what he is, rather than a potential saviour from Brendan which he was prior to yesterday, he looks like a destabilising dilettante who lacked the testicular fortitude to take the leadership when it was first given, then a second time, for months on end, clearly his for the taking.
Itâ€™s all well and good for Costello and Coleman to say that he wasnâ€™t a coward, that he was thinking of the party but as Dennis Shanahan pithily observed at the Press Club, Prime Ministers Hawke, Keating, Howard and Rudd all got there by making hard decisions, in retrospect in the interests of their party, to challenge.
Costelloâ€™s assertion that Howard had to go but he was noble not to challenge lacks any internal logic when he thus tries to paint Howard as death, the destroyer of Liberal Government worlds. There is a Chopper catchphrase from the delightful Ronnie Johns half hour that Pious Peter would do well to learn.
Nelsonâ€™s decision- one that showed a greater degree of spine than I and, indeed, most others, had thought he possessed- merely drew a line under his own leadership, rather than the leadership issues in the party in the near term. All the comparisons to the instability the federal party had in the 80s are fairly general, and more often than not, not overly useful, accurate, or applicable to the current set of circumstances facing the Liberal party. But it is eminently possible, however, that if Turnbull turns out to be more very naughty boy than Messiah, that the musical leadership chairs game that typified the first five or six years of Opposition in the Hawke years, could be back en vogue, not unlike the current penchant for 80s songs remakes and the continued and vile re-emergence of the Ugg boot, a pair of which Malcolm, preaching to the outer-suburban Liberal MP choir, would do well to acquire.
Prior to Mondayâ€™s nightâ€™s political football sadly not telecast on NBC, I was dining on one of those heavenly Parly burgers at the aptly named Trough, having an unusually early dinner. Politicos of all hues will tell you that this is the best burger in Canberra, not least because it is. Iâ€™d thought Iâ€™d cut the computer, cable TV (devoted to an entertaining and eclectic mix of the Senate, Al Jazeera, and Fox News- left wing, in descending order) and CrackberryÂ® umbilical cords, until the aforementioned PDA started to inch its way across the table, signalling a call from a colleague, informing me of the imminent iteration of the short-lived Nelson leadership doctrine. While thereâ€™s no rest for the wicked, thereâ€™s always a burger with the lot, vinegar-drenched chips, and a coke. For everything else, thereâ€™s Malcolmcardâ„¢.
There was a small degree of tactical brilliance in Brendanâ€™s decision to call a spill as Malcolm emerged from under the Tuscan Sun, no-doubt completely exhausted after hours of sleep in a first class suite on his way back to his multi-million dollar waterfront home. While it was always going to be an uphill battle for Brendan, effectively catching Malcolm on the hop would have been a massive blow to the aspiring Labor Senator and now Liberal leader, and would have put him in his place for some time to come. More importantly, it would have had the effect of focusing Liberal minds on the support of the party- as Peter Costello has suddenly discovered while spruiking his memoirs- as opposed to the cult of the leader. Upon his election as Leader, Malcolmâ€™s speech descended into increasingly slow, deliberately drawn-out drawl, as though he was imitating Jim Hacker imitating Winston Churchill. It was a delight to behold, and bought merriment to our office for hours to come. The only Australian leader his speaking style can be compared to is that of Gough, and even then only with respect to the self-assured haughtiness; itâ€™ll be fun seeing Malcolm at that wan Woolies in Werribee, at the cosy Coles in Cranbourne, attempting to sound empathetic as the cost of everything soars. Like Rudd, he came from struggle street, sure. But Rudd doesnâ€™t talk up his success so much (that and his wife is by at least one measure more successful) and however stiff he may seem, is in many way
s better able to engage with ordinary folk than Malcolm, however lacking in ostentation his wealth may be. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with being rich; more power to entrepreneurial Malcolm. But in politics, the perception of being out of touch is death, sooner or later. Cue the youtube of â€˜working families have never been better offâ€™.
One thing the Liberals need to consider is that, notwithstanding Malcolmâ€™s many and varied experiences in the legal and business world, his relative Parliamentary inexperience has a downside. Yes, Malcolm has been a Minister of the Crown. Yes, he knows how the internal dynamics of the party work, having manipulated them to get himself elected. A tick in every box thus far, in addition to his obvious charisma and ability. But the box marked â€˜no skeletons in closetâ€™ must surely remain unchecked, at least for the time being. Take Rudd as an example. Heâ€™d been a fairly high-profile frontbencher, courtesy of Sunrise and his media-training-induced savvy, for a good couple of years before successfully knocking off Bomber Beazley. Prior to this righteous regicide, heâ€™d been touted, along with his now Deputy, as a Pretender on more than one occasion.
To make an omelette, youâ€™ve got to crack a few eggs, for certs. Malcolmâ€™s uncanny timing with the sale of Ozemail, his role as a former Packer consigliore, Goldman Sachs gig, Republic cheerleader-in-chief (Vexnews: $10,000 for anyone who has the photos of him in a tight-fitting sweater and netball skirt, replete with pom poms), are all feathers in his no doubt considerable cap. I
n different ways, Rudd also had a successful career prior to his assumption of green leather posterior support. The minute he became leader though, all sorts of stories started coming out. Various decisions made during his tenure as the head of the Queensland Public Service. Debate as to how hard he did it as a kid. Most cutting of all were claims over the staged dawn service. Thatâ€™s the type of pressure youâ€™re subjected to when you stick your head above the parapet, and thatâ€™s as it should be, our leaders should be subject to scrutiny of their integrity. It will be interesting to see what emerges from Malcolmâ€™s former life- these things take on a far greater degree of interest when the protagonist goes from being a mere Shadow Minister to an alternative Head of Government. Some Sydneysider colleagues of mine have hinted that Four Corners were sniffing around for a story on Malcolmâ€™s (non-HIH) business dealings in recent years, but didnâ€™t go through with it on account of mere rumour and innuendo. That might not always be the case.
The best case scenario for Malcolm- possibly the leadership of Malcolm, Mk1- is for the economy to continue to deteriorate or tank outright, and for him to do much better in the polls than his predecessor did. He then needs to campaign constantly in Laborâ€™s countless marginal seats, of which the return to the Liberal fold is required for him to sit in Kevinâ€™s chair. He needs to build a narrative- although, being an Opposition Leader, really only needs to do this in the lead-up to the next election- something that will be difficult in view of confused Coalition stances as popular as compulsory rabies injections on core issues such as industrial relations which Labor will continue to exploit with aplomb. He also needs to improve his relationships with the more conservative members of the Liberal Party, who strangely find themselves in Costelloâ€™s camp, given the ideological chasm between their spiritual leader, John Howard, and their Parliamentary Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, is probably of an order of magnitude similar to that between Menzies and Whitlam. Costelloâ€™s identification of Brendanâ€™s bedside manner, of his strength at listening, or at least appearing to listen to the concerns of his colleagues, is something that would serve Malcolm immensely well. It need not be mutually exclusive of his capacity to be decisive in the right circumstances, or to be aggressive in taking the fight to the Labor Party.
The worst case scenario for Malcolm is that, as Leader, his capacity to talk about the economy is necessarily curtailed- as Leader, he must be all things to all people in a sense, and must speak to the issues of the day, not solely focus on attacking Rudd and Swan over the economy, which doesnâ€™t require a whole lot of work. This was one of the biggest strengths for the Coalition, and however able his successor as Shadow Treasurer will or wonâ€™t be, the only individual with the panache to prosecute that task effectively and to â€˜cut throughâ€™ is, unsurprisingly, the former Treasurer. It robs him of his ability to talk about his core policy strength all the time- an arguably excessive focus on foreign affairs for someone so new to the premiership plagues Rudd, in much the same was as an arguably excessive, compensating focus on social issues plagued the early period of Paul Keatingâ€™s term. The fact that so many of his own colleagues dubbed his ascension to the leadership the Turnbull experiment is also something that should concern him. It suggests a Hail Mary, a wish for success vested in his leadership on the part of the party that is reminiscent of Hewsonâ€™s leadership. Take Malcolmâ€™s hand, weâ€™ll make it he swears. Ironically, this is in contrast to the comparative stability and attraction of being a known quantity in a number of contexts that Costello offers; he may well be the Howard to Turnbullâ€™s Hewson.
If Malcolm tries to change too much, too quickly, he can be as popular as he likes, but his party-remaining substantially Conservative to his Liberal (Costello, while in that boat too, has been around the traps a bit longer, and would like Howard be more inclined to give the mob what they want) -will not back him.
He needs to take the fight to Rudd, not rock the boat, and ensure that heâ€™s doing a hell of a lot better by the time of the Victorian federal pre-selections, lest Peter break with fifteen years of tradition and challenge for the leadership at exactly the right time- likely to be a year to eighteen months out from the next election.
Unfortunately, I believe the phrase â€˜game onâ€™ is taken.