The Liberal Party is about to learn the many high costs of leadership chaos

She’ll be onions… Source: ABC/screenshot

  • Early indications after last week’s chaos for the Liberal Party are that voters are ready to punish the Coalition.
  • The Liberal Party has been struggling financially — Malcolm Turnbull was their biggest donor — and a drop in the primary vote will cost it money after the next election.
  • This has all come about despite the clear lessons of the Labor Party’s Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era that the Coalition railed against.

Tony Abbott is one of the few in the current parliament who’ll remember the 1996 “baseball bats” election.

Labor’s Paul Keating, having staged a Houdini-esque “victory for the true believers” in 1993 after rolling Bob Hawke for the prime ministership, was cooked just three years later.

Queensland’s then Labor premier Wayne Goss observed that voters everywhere were waiting on the verandah “with their baseball bats” for the 1996 poll that would usher in the nearly 12 years of the Howard Liberal government amid Labor’s biggest defeat in 65 years.

Abbott, now 60, had been in parliament just two years and got his first gig as a parliamentary secretary under Howard.

Last week the 24-year career politician who pledged “no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping” when he lost the Liberal Party leadership to Turnbull in 2013 achieved his key policy goal of the last three years — Turnbull’s destruction and banishment by the party’s tribal conservatives.

Abbott, Dutton and their supporters have also put a wrecking ball through Howard’s “broad church” party in the process.

And a bunch of hapless Liberal ministers who appear to have learnt nothing from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years were happy to be complicit in this revenge.

No one appears to have had the brains to ponder the cost of this folly. It will be high on several fronts. More on that shortly, but let’s start with Newspoll, released on Sunday night after the spill.

We’ll just leave this here.

Those responsible can’t even explain why it happened to voters. There is no “a good government that lost its way”. No promise to restore a “thoroughly traditional cabinet government”. It was just the pure narcissism of “he’s not one of us”.

Groundhog politics

Now, with Scott Morrison in charge following a week-long leadership tussle that bordered on farce, the message has turned to the usual platitudes of healing, unity and renewed focus on issues that matter to voters.

Voters now all too aware that for the past week, if not most of this year, their government has mainly been self-absorbed with its internal struggles. Voters weary of eight years of this leadership trash from both major parties.

Voters who, as Liberal pollster Mark Textor powerfully recounted:

Have to manage kids’ schools, and homework and sports, your household budget, relatives and help out the local charity – all while holding down a job – no excuses. But Canberra is full of excuses for not doing their job.

Voters are ready to punish people who don’t do their job. With fury they’ve been saving up from every painful, capricious experience with a government department over minor infractions as they simply tried to get on with life.

And with bigger baseball bats.

Five years ago, Labor lost more than a quarter of its lower house seats when a two-party swing of 3.65% saw Tony Abbott’s Coalition form government. The ALP’s primary vote fell to a new all-time low of 33.38%.

The economy was fine. Labor was punished for leadership spills in 2010, 2012, and March and June 2013 before the September election.

Fast forward five years, the economy is still fine. The Turnbull era has presided over record jobs growth. Tax cuts for small business got through, tax cuts for workers too. Yes, we’d like a pay rise and power bills have been nuts, but generally, we’re better off, our house is still worth more, our super too, and the nation is still 26 years without recession.

And in that climate, members of the parliamentary Liberals such as Abbott convinced themselves it was acceptable to destroy the party in order to save it. The lack of grace and wits amid the failure in their strategy is astonishing.

The challengers in the Dutton camp looked like the embodiment of that time-worn Australian phrase “couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery”. Their haste, combined with incompetence, gave Turnbull the window to snatch a victory of sorts from his demise by installing Morrison as his successor.

As Turnbull crowed in his leaving speech on Friday, the “insurgents were not rewarded by the election of Mr Dutton”.

And if Fairfax Media’s account of the night before Friday’s party room meeting is accurate, the plotters were smug and complacent.

While Morrison gathered support, calling MPs personally having entered the leadership fray 12 hours earlier, five key members of the Dutton faction, Michael Sukkar, Angus Taylor, Andrew Hastie, Tony Pasin and Zed Seselja, headed to a Japanese restaurant for sushi and beers, and, as Fairfax’s Michael Koziol puts it “toasted a job almost done”.

A little over 12 hours later they were toast, gazumped by Morrison.

How did such a tiny faction of malcontents get so much traction. As one minister, Turnbull supporter Simon Birmingham said on Sunday, sheer persistence.

“They continued to chip, chip, chip away, in a destructive way,” he said.

Friday’s meeting revealed how much everyone had been played. The 45-40 vote to spill showed that if Cabinet ministers who swapped sides between Tuesday’s and Friday’s meetings had kept their nerve – been more “small l” Liberal than lemming – this calamity could have been avoided.

(As an aside, Warren Entsch, as 43rd signature on the petition Turnbull demanded before he’d called the party room meeting, demonstrated his long memory. Underneath his name he wrote “For Brendan Nelson” – the now director of the Australian War Memorial, who Turnbull hunted mercilessly and dragged down a decade earlier to take the Liberal leadership for the first time.)

Conservative solipsism

The paucity of logic in conservative thinking was exemplified by NSW senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who sounded like the Veruca Salt of Australian politics in her ministerial resignation letter.

Promoted to the ministry by Turnbull to oversee international development and the Pacific, she complained that the party “was moving too far to the left and losing its conservative base”.

Her grievances included being criticised for comments about Chinese aid in the region earlier this year.

Well, they certainly caused enormous problems for the government, with the Chinese lodging an official protest with the Australian embassy. Some Pacific nation leaders also criticised her. It was left to Bishop, who did not make any public criticisms, to clean up the diplomatic mess.

Fierravanti-Wells, who said she was subsequently “vindicated”, would go on tell the media after her resignation that Bishop didn’t support her, which also helps explain why she told Turnbull to replace Bishop with Dutton.

The senator complained that her base needed “some demonstrable indication” from Turnbull “that there are conservative voices around your Cabinet table”.

That would be the Cabinet that featured Dutton, finance minister Mathias Cormann, communications minister Mitch Fifield, jobs minister Michaelia Cash – the conservative trio who switched sides to Dutton on Wednesday, bringing on the second spill – and three of the initial Dutton supporters: Michael Keenan, Greg Hunt and Steve Ciobo. Hunt wanted to be Dutton’s deputy.

That’s around a third of the Cabinet. None of them appeared particularly silenced on the policy front under Turnbull.

Fierravanti-Wells’ other gobsmacking claim was that the same-sex marriage debate “eroded further the support of our base”.

All Turnbull did was implement a strategy designed by Abbott and Dutton – the former wanted a plebiscite, the latter prosecuted the case for a postal vote. They both got their way.

In Abbott’s electorate of Warringah, 75% of people voted yes. In Dutton’s seat it was 65% – higher than the national average. The no vote was generally higher in Labor-held seats, especially in western Sydney.

There’s a difference between a base and the head of a pin.

Below is the resulting triumph of the conservative bloc in arguing last week that Dutton was needed to save Queensland seats at the next election – the same argument put forward by fellow Queenslander Kevin Rudd ahead of Labor’s 2013 annihilation.

Along with the Sunday night Newspoll figures mentioned above, here’s the Newspoll findings ahead of Friday’s leadership ballot and predicated on Dutton being PM – a loss of nearly 3% of the LNP primary vote in his electorate of Dickson.

And Dutton now in danger of losing his seat:

Meanwhile, Labor now has a thumping lead nationally.

As for the “conservative base” Senator Fierravanti-Wells is so concerned about, here’s what LNP supporters, the people who should matter to the party, say about their preferred leader. The parliamentary Liberals just ignored more than half that base:

And still Fierravanti-Wells wonders why people are not motivated to come and help staff polling booths. When you’re being paid $200,000 a year to ignore the views of those you claim to represent, then perhaps it’s time to replace self-absorption with self-reflection.

The biggest cost

The damage inflicted by the Abbott-Dutton faction goes beyond their talent for making their greatest fear, a Labor government, the most likely outcome. They’ve damaged the already cash-strapped party financially for years to come.

Putting aside the fact that Turnbull was one of the Coalition’s biggest supporters — he donated $1.75 million to the party in 2016, effectively keep it solvent and was one of its most effective fundraisers — it’s hard to see where the money’s going to come from as the government prepares for an election.

Political donations tend to echo betting markets, which right now are swinging behind Labor. (One has the ALP at $1.25 to form government at the next election, the Coalition at $3.50). The business case to donate to democracy is based on return on investment – there’s not a lot of point pouring money into a losing venture. So the Liberals have cruelled their chances of attracting the corporate dollar with this latest stupidity.

The party is now about to lose two of its star campaign fundraisers.

Fairfax Media reported on the weekend how a series of potentially lucrative events planned around Turnbull next month are now up in the air, along with a $12,500 per head corporate roundtable with five ministers this Tuesday, worth up to $1 million, has been postponed.

NSW Liberal president (and former Howard-era minister) Philip Ruddock was already worried about the party’s fundraising efforts. Both Turnbull and Morrison’s electorates were said to be ahead of their targets, while tellingly, Fierravanti-Wells is among those said to be lagging.

And with former deputy leader and foreign minister Julie Bishop announcing her move to the backbench on the week, the Liberals have lost another lucrative cash stream.

Then there’s the primary vote. Currently, taxpayers hand over $2.73 in electoral funding for every primary vote a party receives.

The latest Newspoll has the Coalition’s primary vote falling nationally by four points to 33% from a fortnight ago, while Labor’s rose to 41%. With around 16.1 million registered voters, should that 4% drop be repeated in an election, the spill has the potential to cost the Coalition $1.73 million in funding — equivalent to Turnbull’s donation — and tip more money into Labor’s coffers in the process.

So in addition to giving Labor a head start, conservative forces have potentially brought a long-term financial crisis down upon their party as well as leaving it underfunded going into the election.

Without the top hat

Having achieved their primary goal of Turnbull’s expulsion, it remains to be seen whether the forces around Abbott will be content.

As Howard-era minister Amanda Vanstone, a moderate, explained last week, part of the genius of her former leader was his ability to deal with opposing points of view in Cabinet and say to the conservatives “Look I agree with you guys, but I’m going with them [the moderates] because I think that’s what Australia thinks”.

Howard’s success for nearly 12 years was not only reading the mood of the party room, but more importantly the mood of the electorate.

The problem with the conservatives, Vanstone explained, is that they’re never satisfied, as she told Leigh Sales on 7.30:

I think it’s a great thing that the Liberal Party has this broad spread of views within it. I see it as a good thing.

And it does present problems for us sometimes and those occasions are when one section, and it’s normally the conservatives, say well, ‘Actually you’re allowed in the party just to give us the numbers to be in government, but really, we want everything our way’.

And you can see from the last couple of weeks where Prime Minister Turnbull’s gone out of his way to make concessions to accomodate the right wing – and in hindsight that might have been a mistake because they were never going to accept those concessions.

They want it their way or not at all.

It seems inconceivable that Labor and Bill Shorten are within spitting distance of government just five years after the disaster of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. That folly should have kept them out of power for a decade.

Instead the Liberals decided to have their own “hold my beer” moment.

Now all Labor has to do is get up in parliament and quote the self-described adults-in-charge elected on a promise of stable government.

Including Senator Cormann:

And his fellow prominent West Australian conservative senator, who also supported Dutton:

After three years as the PM’s right hand man as Treasurer, Labor is already calling Morrison “Turnbull without the top hat”.

Sounds familiar?

The message now from the Liberals with Morrison in charge and Josh Frydenberg as his deputy and Treasurer is that the party has “A New Generation”.

As some point out, the generation that designed the company tax cut and National Energy Guarantee, both used as stalking horses by Turnbull’s rivals to him drag down.

But if “A New Generation” sounds vaguely familiar it’s because when Rudd reclaimed the Labor leadership in 2013, he went to the election six months later with the slogan “A New Way”.

Now the boot is on the other foot, Bill Shorten only has to read from then-opposition leader Tony Abbott’s 2013 script, and argue a new generation only comes with a change of government.

As Abbott said in demolishing Rudd and that government: “Do you want three more years like the last six?”