A corner has been turned, a bridge has been crossed, a line has been drawn. Australian politics has changed: the idea that Malcolm Turnbull could be replaced as Liberal leader is no longer unthinkable.
Of course this does not mean that it is inevitable, or that it is likely to happen soon; Turnbull is still a strong favourite to head his party into the next election. But the mere fact that some who still regard themselves as Turnbull’s supporters are prepared to talk about it signals a new paradigm for the debate.
Quite suddenly it is no longer just the Delcons, the Monkey Pod Group, The Deplorables – however they brand themselves according to the fashion of the moment, they are basically the same bunch of recalcitrants – who are talking regime change. They always do and they always will, seeking what they regard as vindication but what more normal people know simply as revenge.
But now apparently sober commentators are now discussing the possible candidates if, just if, it becomes necessary to throw Turnbull under a bus. And, as always, the Turnbull group seem paralysed with indecision, blinded by the glare of a real, rather than a confected, threat.
Last week’s polling did not help, obviously, and nor did Turnbull’s lame and lawyerly response to the Fair Work Commission on penalty rates. But paradoxically the trigger for the new direction came not from anything Turnbull did or did not do, but from his pretended nemesis, Tony Abbott.
Abbott’s outburst (for once Turnbull named it correctly) last week was not just unhelpful – that, obviously, is Abbott’s preferred stance, and has been from the moment he was deposed. His declaration of war was an ultimatum from which there could be no turning back.
Turnbull’s claim that it was designed to coincide with a disastrous Newspoll was conspiratorial in the extreme – Abbott seldom if ever has a considered strategy, he just says what ever he wants to, whenever he can grab an opportunity, which last week’s book launch fortuitously provided. But whatever Abbott’s immediate motives, the party room has finally cried enough.
When Matthias Corman called time, so did any right wing waverers who now realised that the Abbott crusade was now dead, buried and cremated. This does not mean that a handful of zealots – Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, and no doubt Cory Bernardi and George Christensen will give up their dream. But it does mean that the party as a whole will move on.
The question, of course, is move on to whom? Initially, the usual suspects – Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison – were back on the list, but the consensus was that they were both too damaged by the last coup and could not be forgiven or trusted by the hard line conservatives.
This may well be true, although Bishop is still popular with many of the rank and file. But it is clear that no-one else currently in the mainstream could command a respectable majority between the warring factions.
So, said the pundits, bugger the factions – what about Peter Dutton? Well, what about him? Divisive, gaffe-prone, unwilling to compromise and as thick as two short planks. But, say his boosters, he would take it up to Bill Shorten, you just see. And he can speak in short, easily understood, words – indeed, he can’t speak in any other kind of words. Surely he is worth a try?
This plaintive appeal is the silliest leadership suggestion since a few nutters in the media were spruiking the credentials of Bronwyn Bishop to replace the hopeless Alexander Downer as leader back in 1995. It was never going to happen; even at their most desperate, those in the party room would never have voted for the mad woman of Mackellar. And it is almost as unlikely that a majority would coalesce behind the unlovable ex-drug cop attempting, vainly, to reposition himself as some kind of conservative statesman.
But the problem is that there does not seem to be anyone else. The approved wisdom is that to rescue the government, the party has to move decisively to the right. This may or may not be true – the sole evidence we can glean is that when in 2015 Turnbull took over the leadership from Abbott, the voters actually liked the idea of a move to the left – the polls suddenly shot up, for a while.
Now the idea seems to be that because of the threat of extremists melting away in the direction of One Nation, the way to bring them back to the fold is to promote a Hanson lookalike – hence Dutton. Of course, it may drive moderates away in droves, but for many Liberals they are never more than time servers anyway – what matters is securing the base, meaning the formerly rusted on right.
Perhaps fortunately, for what is left of our sanity, none of this is serious yet – apart from anything else, there is an acknowledgement that dumping still another leader is hugely risky, that what is delicately called “the transactional cost” would be too high a price to pay to regain the lost votes. And there are those in the party room who can not regard Dutton as having the needed range of knowledge, gravitas or even simple brains to endorse him as even a possibility, let alone a front-runner.
But in the absence of anyone else – and what an indictment that is of the Liberal Party – he retains the star billing. This may well be the best thing Turnbull has going for him. As long as there is not even a marginally credible challenger, he will remain leader by default; it will simply not be worth the effort and the angst of toppling him unless the polling can show that this is the only way to save the furniture, if not the government.
So for the moment Turnbull still has breathing space, even the chance of returning to the glory that was once his. But it has to be said that this is now a remote and dwindling possibility. The world has changed for Malcolm Bligh Turnbull – and not for the better.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who was a senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery for many years.