Monday, November 30, 2009

No Winners In Liberal Leadership Battle

No matter which way you look at it, the clock is ticking on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party. It remains to be seen whether or not Joe Hockey will be convinced he should contest the leadership at 9am tomorrow, but if he doesn’t Tony Abbott most certainly will. At last weeks party meeting when Kevin Andrews mounted his tilt at the leadership, there were 35 members ready to dump Malcolm Turnbull then and there. How many more will there be tomorrow when either Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey is the candidate can only be guessed, but the indications are that it will be more than enough.

Of course, it is always possible that Malcolm Turnbull could stare down his opponents and somehow survive the challenge. But even if he could manage that apparent miracle, surely the dramatic divisions of the past week have left him in an untenable position, unable to command clear support among his own colleagues. Of course, the responsibility for that state of affairs lies not with the leader but with those who refused to follow, but it’s a moot point because the effect is the same. A leader without sufficient followers cannot continue to be the leader, so even if Mr. Turnbull wins the day tomorrow, it can only be a matter of time before there is a fresh challenge.

Those who are behind the plot to remove Malcolm Turnbull seem to have decided that they want Joe Hockey to become leader, even though he has so far remained loyal to Mr. Turnbull. If Mr. Hockey gives in to that pressure and puts himself forward, there is little doubt that he will become the new Leader. In doing so, he will have to bring himself to do three things. One, betray his pledge of loyalty to the current leader. Two, go back on his word to support the negotiated amendments to the emissions trading legislation. And three, take an enormous gamble on his own political career by accepting the poison chalice of leadership at a time when an election victory is almost impossible, whereas refusing the opportunity now and remaining loyal would actually reinforce his claim to be the heir apparent further down the line.

If Joe Hockey decides that he does not want to contest the leadership now, that will leave Tony Abbott to challenge Mr. Turnbull. Although support for Mr. Abbott is probably not as strong as for Mr. Hockey, he is still likely to win and become the new Leader. In either case, whichever of the two is the new leader, the opposition will vote against the emissions trading scheme in the Senate, delaying its introduction and possibly triggering an early election which neither Tony Abbott nor Joe Hockey can win. In the end, whether there is a double dissolution election or not, the government will pass an emissions trading scheme, possibly with the help of the Greens. For that to happen, the scheme will have to be a lot more aggressive than the current proposal, and you would think that is the last thing the Liberals would want.

If Malcolm Turnbull had had his way, the emissions trading scheme would have passed as amended and would no longer be an issue, leaving him free to fight the government on his own terms. Instead he has been forced into fighting his own party members. The irony is that his opponents are not only destroying his leadership, they are also destroying the credibility of the party. If there was something to be gained it would all make some kind of sense, but the truth is that there is nothing to be gained for the Liberals in any of this sad sorry mess. Just as the climate skeptics insist that the emissions trading scheme will wreck the economy for no perceptible benefit to the environment, the same skeptics are wrecking the Liberal Party for no perceptible political benefit.

No matter who is the Leader after Tuesday morning, he will be presiding over the wreckage of a party that will not be elected to government anytime soon.

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