So the Abbott government completes the full Hobbesian trifecta, proving itself short as well as nasty and brutish. If you want some extra schaden with your freude, note that the New Yorker’s currently illustrating its story about the PM’s early demise with a picture captioned: ‘The newly ousted Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, samples a raw onion during a visit to Tasmania.’

Such gravitas! Much dignity! Wow!

With Abbott so repellent, it’s tempting to see his replacement as an improvement, almost by definition. Certainly, once upon a time, Turnbull basked in the admiration of some progressives, in a way that always seemed entirely inexplicable. Acclaim a grave robber or a crack dealer, laud the guy eating raw meat in the sideshow. But admire a millionaire merchant banker? Really? Really?

‘Turnbull is […] a businessman and a true believer in free market economics’, writes Lenore Taylor today. ‘Any left-leaning voter who thinks common ground with Turnbull on climate change and gay marriage will mean they agree with most things he does is probably in for a surprise.’

Well quite. As Elizabeth Humphrys wrote a few years ago, Turnbull’s ‘celebrated small “l” liberalism is little other than a continuation of the right-wing economic radicalism of the neoliberal era’.

Anyway, here’s a straw in the wind: on climate change and same-sex marriage, Turnbull’s already announced that the party he leads will steam forward on the course set by Captain Abbott.

In other words, he’s sacrificing his ‘convictions’ on these supposed signature issues, so as to appease the party’s Right. No surprises there.

Like the thylacine, Liberal moderates were once plentiful but have been ruthlessly hunted to extinction, with the occasional claimed sighting generally emanating from deluded enthusiasts (generally Fairfax editorialists). The bulk of the Liberal Party’s activists and a sizeable chunk of its parliamentarians loathe Turnbull. Fortunately for him, they loathe losing their jobs even more, hence their willingness to knife Abbott.

But, even if Turnbull harboured the liberal views attributed to him, it’s hard to see any base for them in the party he now leads. Indeed, he’s so far selling his ascension as about style rather than substance. Slicker communication, better cabinet procedures, yadda yadda yadda.

All well and good but essentially meaningless: what politician declares an intention to communicate incoherently or govern chaotically? These things are symptoms, not causes – and Turnbull’s no better positioned than Abbott to address the underlying problems.

Over the last months, the Very Serious conservative commentators were despairing about Abbott’s inability to deliver the (always capitalised) Reform Agenda (a phrase that’s always very much capitalised). No-one really knows what the Reform Agenda is, except that it involves competition and productivity and markets and the usual grab-bag of economic hokum, and that without it we’ll all be rooned.

Can Turnbull, now presiding over a bitterly divided party, articulate the coherent program that the pundits want and then sell it to the electorate? Well, what does he bring that Abbott lacked? Remember, Abbott was never personally popular but he could count on the Murdoch press to puff him up and monster his enemies. That’s not going to happen for Turnbull. The flying monkeys hate him, in a deeply personalised way. Yesterday, Ray Hadley said Turnbull was up himself because of the way he wears his collar. Andrew Bolt has been attacking him almost daily, while the Herald Sun front page last night described him as ‘Malcolm Turncoat’.

Yes, he might get better press from Fairfax and the ABC but that just illustrates his problem, because Liberal activists loathe and despise Fairfax and the ABC.

Turnbull’s main weapon against Abbott was the polling that showed him consistently more popular. But that’s entirely ephemeral, as we saw with all the Labor stoushes. In an era in which everyone hates politicians, the person not in the job will always out poll the incumbent.

Furthermore, Turnbull’s been here before. As Peter Lewis and Jackie Woods note, during his tenure as Opposition Leader, Turnbull’s popularity sunk to a dismal 25 per cent, worse even than Abbott. More importantly, voters saw Turnbull as low on honesty and high on arrogance, suggesting his current ratings reflect the general hatred for Abbott rather than any love for his rival.

No doubt there will be an immediate bounce in the polls. There always is. But Turnbull faces all the same problems as Abbott, except now with a divided party and a hostile media.

Mind you, the Liberals still possess their greatest asset, which is, of course, the ALP. Bill Shorten’s weird press conference in the midst of the spill, in which (by saying nothing of substance), he managed to draw attention away from the Liberal in-fighting and back to his own shortcomings, serves as a reminder of Labor’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. With a fighting opposition, this government would be gone. With Shorten, who knows?


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays