When Malcolm Turnbull appeared at Thursday night’s politics in the pub on the NSW central coast the first questioner demanded to know whether he was interested in being leader.
Turnbull dodged around but he was particularly anxious to stress one point. Tony Abbott had had “more consistency and loyalty from the frontbench than any other Liberal leader in our lifetime”. The subtext was: the crisis in which Abbott is engulfed is not because he’s been undermined by colleagues – it’s his own work.
No-one knows what will happen when the Liberals gather on Tuesday – whether the meeting will be a fizzer, a fizz or a boilover; whether the critics will retreat or move on their embattled leader, or the outcome if they do move.
So let’s put aside the impossible job of prediction, and consider what might be best for the party.
This rests on a judgement about whether Abbott can revive sufficiently for the government to be competitive or better at next year’s election.
It’s hard to see it. If Abbott survives in the short term, it’s quite likely he’ll be kicked out later. If the party baulked at execution, on present indications the voters would undertake the task.
We know leaders can rebuild but there is such an entrenched view of Abbott among voters that, on the balance of probabilities, he can’t climb back – just as it was clear well out from the 2013 election that Julia Gillard couldn’t.
In these circumstances, the best option would be an orderly leadership transition, with Abbott stepping down.
Abbott would resist this: he’s a natural fighter and it would be an inglorious end.
But it would be an honourable act for his party, which would resent having to blast Abbott out, and remember him badly if he cost it the election. Importantly, a voluntary exit would ensure his successor did not arrive blood-splattered.
Then there’s the matter of timing. Those trying to contain the feral backbenchers leading the anti-Abbott campaign say “he deserves more time”. Maybe, but at what cost?
The federal crisis is likely to bleed into the late March NSW election, which is already tightening. How much of a handicap Abbott will be to Premier Mike Baird’s campaign can’t be known. But if Baird had a narrow scrape, Abbott would get some blame and it would trigger another crisis, with NSW federal marginal seat holders in a panic.
If Abbott is terminal, it would be better to have the matter resolved quickly, for the sake of the Baird government.
To have it over soon would also be helpful for the Coalition’s second budget. A new prime minister later in the year would inherit an Abbott-Hockey budget rather than selling the product of the fresh team.
And who should comprise that team? The option (canvassed by some in the party) of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister and Scott Morrison as treasurer, with Julie Bishop remaining deputy Liberal leader and foreign minister would seem the best combination.
Turnbull is strong on economics, and popular in the community. Bishop is also well-liked and many female voters would warm to her. But she does not have the grunt for the economic debate that a prime minister needs; she is not a policy innovator.
One grudgingly advocates Morrison, who’s shown a heart of ice towards the human rights of asylum seekers, as Joe Hockey’s replacement. But he has ability and – probably – the talent to carry the budget argument. With longer term leadership aspirations (he’d lack the numbers now) he’ll be anxious to remake his image. Morrison as treasurer would also be a bone to the right from the moderate Turnbull.
There is no doubt that Turnbull would be a major risk. We’ve seen him as Liberal leader before and he performed badly.
It wasn’t just his problems around carbon pricing, although they brought things to a head, or the fact he believed a Treasury official who had faked an email (understandable, given the man’s seniority). Turnbull’s troubles lay in his personal flaws, including his often dismissive attitude to others and his short attention span. These were on show as much as his intelligence and wit. As his colleagues know, there is the charming Malcolm and the dark Malcolm.
Leaders who look to resurrection – John Howard, Kevin Rudd – will say they’ve changed. Howard had changed a lot, Rudd not much at all.
Only the test of office would tell if Turnbull had sufficiency re-minted himself. But he’s seen the precedents, and he’d have an enormous amount at stake.
Turnbull would have to bring the Liberals together, which most obviously would mean managing the issue of climate policy. Those in the party who feel strongly against him on this are intense about it. He’s begun work on the challenge, and it is worth quoting his rationale at length.
Leaving Thursday night’s function Turnbull was asked by a reporter whether he had recently changed his position. He replied: “No, let me be quite clear about it. An emissions trading scheme is a tool, it is an economic tool, to reduce emissions. It’s not the only tool, there are many different approaches you could take. It’s not a question of ideology, it’s just a mechanism, right.
"Now we had a referendum on the emissions trading scheme in 2013 which was concluded, or resolved, decisively against one. It was then repealed. It was replaced by the Direct Action policy. Now some people have said, ‘you know, Malcolm doesn’t agree with the government’s policy and it should be changed’.
"But let me say this to you: You can’t change your policies every two years or every three years. My own view is that we have got the same target, it’s a bipartisan target, but we have got a different mechanism. We have got to work with that, leave that as it is. And as is consistent with our Liberal policy, in the event of there being a new global agreement we will review that existing policy.
"But the idea that we would or should suddenly reinstate something we’ve just abolished is ridiculous. I mean, business needs stability and continuity. So the law’s been changed, it should be left as it is. And then like any law, it will be reviewed down the track if and when there is a new global agreement. So you know, it’s just common sense.”
There’d be many other problems for Turnbull, including managing a reshuffle and dealing with the party organisation (when he was leader, he reportedly wanted to get rid of federal director Brian Loughnane).
All in all, a move to Turnbull would be no cakewalk. But unfortunately for the Liberals the Abbott prime ministership has turned sour as a lemon.