I’ve been following Australian politics for many years. Against my better judgement occasionally I’ve found myself drawn to the drama and conflict, the dynamic personalities and shifting narratives. There’s something Shakespearian in the play of politics, and that’s nowhere truer than in Australia.
In recent years the conflict and often bitter hostility has risen to a febrile pitch, both fascinating and terrible. It has become destructive and ugly and all-consuming. Though no-one seems to comprehend it at the time, there are no winners out of this – not the striving figures on competing sides, policy suffers, as does society, but the biggest losers out of this are the Australian public, who are entitled to expect better. It’s always been fascinating, but nowadays it’s a duel to the death.
For all those years following our politics I’ve never witnessed anything like what’s happened in the last few days. If you were not so dreadfully involved in how things play out you might see the sheer comic lunacy of some of the players and events. Certainly it’s farcical, but it’s also disgusting. Laid bare are the naked ambitions, the scoundrelish disloyalties, the petty selfishness. Few come out of this with any honour and it’s clear to anyone but the most blind that the good of the nation comes well behind individual opportunity in the eyes of those we have elected to serve us.
At some stage today or in the next few days it’s almost certain we’ll have a new prime minister. Who that is is anyone’s guess. It could be Dutton, the man who started all this, or Morrison or Bishop, or maybe even Abbott, god forbid. You never know, Turnbull may even survive by some miracle. Basically despite all the shenanigans of recent days, anything is possible, and good government has been suspended, both literally and figuratively. However it turns out a general election should be called soon after to be decent, but I don’t expect that.
What we are seeing is a war between the moderate and conservative factions of the Liberal party. Turnbull leads the moderates and had he been less compromising and more ruthless this situation might never have arisen. Like Chamberlain in 1938 he seems to have been under the delusion that he could negotiate with the devil. The problem is – as any savvy person knows – the more you give the devil, the more he wants. And the more he despises you. That’s Turnbull all over though – no political judgement.
Bishop is a moderate too, capable and articulate and relatively popular in the electorate, and hated by the conservatives. She’s a better option than Dutton or Morrison, but I don’t know if she’s up to being PM. To be honest, I don’t think she has the desire for it really, and fair enough.
Let’s discount Morrison who, even if he becomes a stand-in PM, is an incompetent buffoon. He’s a pragmatic conservative no-one trusts.
Then there’s Peter Dutton. He represents an existential threat to the Liberal party as we have come to know it. I’ve written about him before. He’s cold and calculating, a shrewd and ruthless operator beholden to a conservative ideology foreign to most Australians, but shared by the hard right rump of the Liberal party. They’re climate change sceptics, were against the same-sex marriage legislation, and in some cases promote a narrative verging on the racist. They’re in the pocket of big business and so promote old technologies such as coal fired power stations against cleaner and more efficient options – yet it aligns with their backward looking philosophies. They promote a toxic line that diminishes the people outside of that bracket – the many, if you like – concerned with getting the pay-rise long delayed while having their penalty rates cut. They are egged on at every step by News Corp, who are a pox wherever they set foot.
The first problem is this is not the government the people voted for. They’re blithely arrogant believing they know best, but a great portion of the Australian electorate are hostile to such a conservative ideology. If Dutton was to get up today or tomorrow and then govern until next year when the next election is due, then we the people will be subject to a government that few want.
The greater issue is what this means for the Liberal party. I wrote many months ago that I could see the Liberal party splitting into two. The problem, as I saw it, was the right wing ideologues are fanatics. They broach no opposition. They won’t consider an alternative view. They sneer at the moderate snowflakes. It’s their way or the highway. There’s no compromise in them, and ultimately little practicality. They are the poisonous right wing version of Keating’s basket-weavers of the left, unwilling to deal even if it means political death otherwise.
The only way the Liberal party survives as an entity is if the conservative edge of the party consumes the moderates, but no-one sensible wants that because it becomes a different party. It becomes a narrow party of the right full of hardliners; the moderate middle dies.
We don’t want that because it would be bad for democracy, but the alternative as I see it is that the two factions hive off. The conservatives go further to the right, embracing fellow travellers like One Nation and joining with Cory Bernardi’s ratbags. The moderates make for the sensible middle – the place Turnbull always wanted to sit, slightly to the right of the ALP (but just marginally these days – Labor has trended right too). That might be the best option.
What happens, I don’t know. Worst case scenario is that Dutton becomes PM and we’re stuck with him for the next 9 months. Best case scenario is a general election is called so we can sort this out sensibly. Somewhere in the middle is Bishop as PM, or even Turnbull surviving, not perfect, but better than the Huns.