So it has come to this.
My interest in studying the Liberal Party all began one sleepy afternoon at the end of the political year in 2009. That day in parliament, the pollies gave their traditional end of year speeches. It had been a very rough week for Turnbull. He had declared that the party would support the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) despite a heated and unresolved debate in the party room. Later that week, Kevin Andrews unsuccessfully challenged Turnbull for the leadership.
By Question Time, on the last day of the parliamentary year for the House, journos started receiving text messages that Abbott was going to resign, and by 5pm that evening, he duly had. This followed a slew of resignations from opposition members following Abbott’s example. By 7pm, Turnbull was giving a press conference to fight for his political future. He would not go quietly.
What followed was a chaotic weekend of negotiations and deal making, and utter confusion. At one point, speculation ran wild that Hockey would run on a ticket with Peter Dutton after a report that he had visited John Howard. It seemed that a deal to move to Hockey as a compromise candidate was firming up. But the support around Hockey started to fade away when he asked for feedback via twitter, and collapsed, when he declared that his policy on the CPRS would be for a free vote. The Liberal Right, content to back Hockey until this point, refused to accept this position. Abbott then withdrew his commitment not to stand against Hockey. Abbott did not expect to win.
But when Turnbull ran as a candidate, blind-siding Hockey, the moderate vote was split and Hockey was eliminated from the ballot.
A change to Turnbull?
And here we are again. As I write the television is blaring as pundits give their two cents, government ministers have been out to support the PM, and now the Liberal Party is meeting to settle it all. It’s as if its all come full circle.
It was only a few days ago that I was writing about some of the structural features that inhibit debate in our country: strong party discipline and MPs ambitions; the media’s propensity to report on internal debate as division and dissent and; how changes in media processes and technology allowed a party’s communication strategy to be centralized in the leader’s office into one, single message.
Turnbull’s pitch to the party has in some respects addressed this
And we need a different style of leadership. We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and opportunities, explains the challenges and how to seize the opportunities.
A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it.
We need advocacy, not slogans.
That is, if we think about this as if we were writing a paragraph, advocacy needs to move beyond the topic sentence. Perhaps contextualize information, advance an argument, provide evidence, remind us all why we are talking about the subject. But we shouldn’t think this is just about communication. Advocacy of complex policy, by a government, requires the policy to be internally consistent and add up. It has to stand up to scrutiny, because it’s going to be implemented and we will all find out if it will work soon enough.
And he also hinted at another
We need to be truly consultative with colleagues, members of Parliament, senators and the wider public.
We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield.
Is this a call for a wider, more constructive debate that is actually allowed to develop and evolve? Perhaps even a search for an eventual consensus?
Yet, many structural problems remain. We still have a small parliament, high discipline and a media inclined to report on alternative views as dissent.
Turnbull’s pitch rests on the idea that he, personally, has the skills to to distill the Liberal Party’s values and its policy ideas into a broader narrative. That the Party’s values and ideas are not the problem
Now what we also need to remember, and this is a critical thing, is that our party the Liberal Party has the right values.
We have a hugely talented team here in the Parliament.
Our values of free enterprise, of individual initiative, of freedom; this is what you need to be a successful agile economy in 2015.
Rather, Turnbull is saying he has the skills to finesse and wear away at the rough edges. To convince voters that the Liberal Party has a plan. That the party could govern and govern well. This is not a pitch to change the party’s ideas (at least for now). Indeed, we seem to be back in the days of ‘management’ problems of the Rudd-Gillard era, but minus the poisonous rancor.
If Turnbull wins, will his force of personality be enough to give the government the space it needs to wrestle with ideas and convince voters that they have the right plan? Has he changed enough to manage the party room? Will he be able to reconcile the right wing in order to govern without constantly looking over his shoulder?
I guess we’ll find out. If nothing else, I know what my next paper is about.