If you saw me on stage for our live show from the Manning Conference in Ottawa last year, you'll know I was doing a lot of Canadian sesquicentennial gags that day: "It's a hundred and fifty years since the Tory leadership race began..." and so forth. That was a very slight exaggeration, but it is a fact that the post-Harper Conservative Party decided to have a multi-year campaign to succeed him. In Australia, by contrast, a leadership race in the (supposedly) right-of-center Liberal Party lasts 150 seconds, if you're lucky. They're called "spills", which is not a reference to the blood on the floor but is an Aussie coinage of at least three quarters of a century's vintage for a suddenly called election: Like many of the Lucky Country's contributions to the language, it's very good, conveying the sense not of an ordered poll but of something more spasmodic, capricious and convulsive.
Don't ask me why the two senior dominions of the Westminster system wound up with diametrically opposed systems of selecting their leaders. Their chums in the UK Tories have much calmer contests in which all the alternative candidates self-destruct leaving Theresa May to inherit by default. The former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has just said he doesn't think increasing the party membership (I believe there are still seven nonagenarian paying subscribers) is the answer because a lot of beastly UKIP types might sign up and there goes the neighborhood. Given the results of these various contests, you might as well shuffle the winners and systems randomly between the three countries and see if you could do any worse.
At any rate, on Friday the latest Canberra spillage broke out and kiboshed the PM, Malcolm Turnbull. Unlike the American three-month "peaceful transfer of power", under which the Deep State has all the time in the world to set up its plans to subvert the incoming leader, in the Australian system the new bloke has twenty minutes to freshen up in the men's room before he's sworn in:
Malcolm Turnbull is Australia's most famous republican, so he'll appreciate Oliver Cromwell's famous words to the Rump Parliament in 1653:
You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!
It's remarkable how long it took Turnbull's Rump to say as much to him. I wrote yesterday that, just as Tony Abbott had been toppled by Malcolm Turnbull, so Turnbull has now been toppled by Scott Morrison. And immediately a gazillion antipodean members of The Mark Steyn Club wrote to explain that no, no, Turnbull was toppled by Peter Dutton, the conservative who moved against him, but, before he could ascend the drive-thru throne, Dutton was himself toppled by Morrison, who was a so-called compromise candidate put up by frantic Turnbullites as they were being fitted for their lamppost ropes. So, if you'll forgive the analogy, if Turnbull is Mrs Thatcher, Scott Morrison is the John Major put up to ward off Peter Dutton's Michael Heseltine. My old pal Julie Bishop, meanwhile, after years of serving as loyal deputy to Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull (first time round), Brendan Nelson, Andrew Peacock, Malcolm Fraser, Sir William McMahon, Harold Holt, Sir Robert Menzies, etc, etc, finally ran for the leadership herself, and came a poor third: She had become the Black Widow of the Liberal Party - she mates, she kills - but this time it all went awry and she shot the venom into her own leg. It's hard to remember that in some polls of 2015, when she agreed to support Turnbull's overthrow of Abbott, she was more popular than either man. A mere three years on from what was supposed to be a swift cleansing knife in the back, the entire party is gangrenous and pustulating.
The Australian Liberals are supposed to be so in the "classical liberal" sense. These days it's a loveless ménage of conservatives, semi-lefties and finger-in-the-windy opportunists. An always uneasy coalition transformed into a disciplined electoral powerhouse under John Howard now lies ruined. It's easy to blame all that on Turnbull, because it's true. He was stupid in a way that only clever people can be. By "clever", I mean I found him unusually perceptive when I spent a day next to him at some gabfest a decade back. The seating was alphabetical: R, S, T; Kevin Rudd, Steyn, Turnbull - a prime ministerial sandwich with a maple filling. I don't recall much about Rudd's contributions to the conversation, although I do remember his hand constantly wandering over to my plate to snaffle most of my finger food. Turnbull had more ambitious heists in mind. I was impressed because he was literally the first western politician I'd met who'd thought about demographics. While Rudd snacked, Turnbull and I used our paper napkins to trade hand-drawn graphs on various fertility-rate scenarios for Europe and elsewhere. He was thoughtful, informed and engaged.
A while later, I spoke in the old Australian Senate, which I far prefer, architecturally and otherwise, to the new Australian Senate. Most of the cabinet were in attendance. Nick Minchin, the Finance Minister and Government Leader in the Upper House, was introducing me - mostly in a jocular way: his missus liked to read me The Spectator, and he complained about coming home after a late day in parliament to find the wife curled up in bed with Mark Steyn yet again - that sort of stuff. But somewhere along the way he said something that prompted Turnbull to flounce out in what, for a republican, was a very queeny huff. Don't you hate it when that happens? You craft your piercing, trenchant, vicious remarks brilliantly to drive Malcolm to storm off ten minutes into your speech, and then the bloke introducing you ruins it all by driving him to storm off before you've even taken the stage. I was furious.
But it told me something about Turnbull: he was thin-skinned and undisciplined. And that's not the kind of guy you want to make party leader. If you spill the king, you have to kill the king - and Turnbull did that to Abbott, selling himself as a centrist technocrat less extreme than the hardcore ideologue he'd knifed. You can only justify the regicide by governing brilliantly. Turnbull governed ineptly, selfishly, and pettily. A small example, as small as the man himself: Only a year before, Abbott had re-introduced knights and dames to the Order of Australia. People can have different views on that, but it's not a big deal either way - unless you really badly need to show how far you're willing to go to screw over your predecessor. So Turnbull's cabinet almost immediately announced they were re-imposing the prohibition on knighthoods in the Order of Australia. They could simply have not appointed any, and let the practice lapse into abeyance, as so many things do. But that wouldn't have served their principal need - to reject and humiliate the man they'd overthrown and teach him that, even on peripheral fripperies, he would be denied any legacy. It was both utterly trivial but also brutally vindictive in its public repudiation of Abbott - and it told Australian conservatives that Turnbull, unlike the aforementioned John Major, was so insecure he couldn't even genuflect toward healing the party.
And so it has proved. That was the logical consequence of what passed for any coherent strategy. Turnbull, a near parodic example of the wealthy globalist disconnected from the concerns of the electorate, decided to be the anti-Abbott by minimizing any differences between his party and the opposition. The principal practical effect of that is that he thereby maximized differences within his party that have pushed it to breaking point. But he could never be persuaded that those he alienated were necessary members of his governing coalition, only personal enemies whose views on climate change and much else were too boorish and witless for a man as brilliant as he even to acknowledge. So Turnbull came in small, and went out smaller: He started by canceling knighthoods and ended by canceling cellphones. When thirteen members of his ministry resigned after last week's first spill, the head of his department instantly emailed to inform them that with immediate effect they had no access to telephones, Internet or anything else. Smallness will scuttle you every time, and is Turnbull's principal legacy to his party. The compromise candidate Morrison didn't win big enough to mollify the caucus and the base but merely small enough to ensure conservatives feel cheated - and that the existential questions over the direction of the party will continue.
In the three years since the coup against Abbott, the new leader stubbornly refused to treat the wound he had inflicted. He got away with it thanks to a largely supine media content (right up to this weekend) to damn Abbott as the "wrecker". Well, if they think he's an embittered ex-, wait'll they see the new one. Nothing in Malcolm Turnbull's four decades in public life suggests a man minded to move gracefully on. He caused the split, he deepened the split, and his ego will be unable to resist widening it.
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