As I write this, Malcolm Turnbull is still Prime Minister of Australia. As you read it, it could be someone else. But the political crisis that’s beset Turnbull since he himself rolled a party predecessor to seize the leadership will remain unresolved. It’s not going to matter if it’s the authoritarian Peter Dutton, the hectoring Scott Morrison, consummate socialite Julie Bishop or a resurrected Argos-like beached hulk of what used to be Turnbull. It’s not going to matter which faction, state, or centre-right tendency. If it’s a Liberal, it will be the same.
The problem, despite much public rambunction, has nothing to do with the party’s internal ideological differences, either.
The present ructions were supposedly spawned in a conflict between whatever now passes for a Liberal moderate and the caucus hard right, a dispute that contested the reality of climate change, what Australia’s role in it is, and whatever we can, should or simply won’t do about it.
But this is a McGuffin. Spaghetti-like contortions of Liberal MPs demanding consumer cost reductions without price controls, nationalisation without undoing privatisation, and the extraordinary insistence of Tony Abbott that Australia withdraw from the Paris climate target to which he himself committed the nation, are colourful and entertaining and have been discussed with enervated frustration elsewhere. But to believe that they are what mired the Liberals in this madness would be wrong.
To think it’s Turnbull that’s the problem — his leadership, or lack of it, his personality and/or character — well ... that’s a McGuffin, too.
One requires the idealism of an undergraduate to believe leadership challenges in a party of government are ever about policy, ideology, principles or ideas. Contests of virtue are only ever the preserve of powerless purists who never get near government. Yet, for the major parties — and this was as true about Rudd-Gillard-Rudd as it is Abbott-Turnbull- (insert name here), leadership conflagrations are about two variations on the same theme; what’s required to get into government, and what’s required to stay there. It’s why the challenges put to Turnbull have not fallen along neat factional lines. The backbenchers are as nervous as cattle, and light glints on the abattoir.
Tremble they should. As Turnbull necked Abbott on the grounds of 30 losing Newspolls, so Turnbull’s own neck has been exposed by his losing streak of 38. It was an extraordinarily unearned confidence with which Turnbull led his two-party-unpreferred team into their rout on super Saturday. It took more than chutzpah for him to believe that a national energy guarantee that no one beyond Parliament House could really understand and no one within his own party could confidently defend would turn it all around.
We’ve arrived here due to a fundamental refusal of his party to face the fact that it’s not what divides them that underlies their ongoing unpopularity with the Australian people. It’s what unites them — a demonstrated, consistent anathema to any mechanism that will increase the wages of working people. Super Saturday was a bloodbath and the Liberals are Newspoll’s walking dead because households are feeling the economic squeeze.
It’s why any possible boost to the Liberal’s fortunes in the wake of this week of malarkey are destined to be temporary. The Liberal fixation on electricity prices is the equivalent of patching up the hole in the Titanic with Band-Aids. It’s a bait and switch, and the bait may be gold-plated and overpriced, but it’s still just bait. Yes, electricity is overpriced — the result of decades of privatisation for which the Liberals campaigned and legislated. Patch one hole and leaks will spring elsewhere — we know that wages are not keeping pace with inflation. The ABS cost of living index went up 2.3 per cent last year — but an ACTU study determined 80 per cent of working Australians did not receive a wage rise, and the wage price index is only rising 0.6 per cent.
What needs to be done, the Liberals — free market, neoliberal zealots to the last, raised on Milton Friedman mantras of deregulation and labour exploitation — will not do. No modern government has ever held Australian wage earners in such proactive contempt. All of these Liberals presided over the cut to penalty rates — they were no neutral players here, their members advocated for it, just as they articulated their beliefs against maintaining minimum wages. They’ve capped the wages of their public servants. They’ve enhanced and expanded the punishment of the unemployed. They have lauded subcontracting and casualisation as “labour market flexibility” and they’ve blithely repeated mantras of getta-betta-jobbism even when structural employment crises like their own closure of the car industry have hit communities.
And they’ve fought an ongoing legislative war against the means by which workers win wages — the unions. There was the trade union royal commission. The reinstatement of the ABCC. The abolition of the road safety remuneration tribunal that maintained “safe rates” of transport pay. The “registered organisations” obligations. Anti-union appointments to the Fair Work commission. Philip Lowe, the head of the Reserve Bank, has implored that wage rises now are necessary for economic stability into the future. The Liberals do not care.
And the result of all of this loyalty to the politics of economic inequality, of denied enfranchisement, have come to bite. Yes, the Liberals can dogwhistle to racism in the electorate, scapegoat immigrants, whip up a confected frenzy of some national security variation. It may salve a wound — but it won’t heal it. It’s Bill Shorten that’s speaking to the concerns of the voters who will determine the next government. 38 Newspolls know it, the Liberals’ enemies know it, and the voters of Longman and Braddon know it, even if the Liberals dare not face themselves, and speak its name.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist.