Are Malcolm Turnbull’s days numbered?

Malcolm Turnbull
Contributed by Joe Montero

The Malcolm Turnbull leadership saga continues and it may be that over the last week or so, it has entered the start of a new phase.

With former leader Tony Abbott sniping from the sidelines and yet another unflattering opinion poll, coupled with shots being fired from the Murdoch media, the bloodletting within the Liberal Party is rising once again.

If an election were to be held today, Labor would romp in with a landslide. The reason would be less about what Labor is offering than the Coalition repeatedly shooting itself in the foot. They are on the nose.

Within the party and government there is no shortage of finger pointing and blaming, as the key protagonists and factions accuse each other of being the problem.

What they fail to come to terms with, is that that their problem goes much deeper than the contesting faces.

A party that likes to cast itself in the mold of its founder Robert Menzies and conservatism and has very little in common with either in what it does, is eventually going to find itself in some bother. Even more, when in government and when the economic and social challenges are greater than they have been for decades.

The Menzies myth is that his era represented something of a golden age. In a sense it was, because Australia was sharing in a post war and long running boom. Labor had been white anted by the groupers and the Australian version of McCarthyism. It was a time when it was easier to be the government.

The Coalition with the Country Party (now the Nationals) was nothing like the Coalition of today. Especially with the relatively progressive Nationals led by Jock McEwen, this was not a government of cuts to services and privatisation. It oversaw a major expansion of the welfare system, an unheard of building of schools and hospitals, an ambitious public housing program and the creation of the government owned Commonwealth Bank.

Any comparable economic program would send the present Coalition to hiding under beds. The Liberal Party and the Coalition during the time of Menzies was not conservative. It was reformist. To explain this, one only needs to look a little further back in history.

The Liberal Party emerged out of the United Australia Party, based a split away from Labor (opposing the Scullin government’s handling of the depression) and a disparate collection of other groups and individuals. The Country Party was itself in part, the result of a breakaway from Labor, based on farmers and country people, who felt that their interests were not being met by city based parties.

This background, plus the experience of the Great Depression and the war that followed it had fostered a widespread belief in government intervention and a measure of redistribution downwards of the wealth of the nation.

Of course, the political baggage of the Coalition was more than this, also embodying belief in the market and the preeminent position of the major investor. The Menzies era was the time of the rise of the multinational, and in Australia, the multinational was usually a foreign owned entity that had been given an open door into the country.

Menzies had also earlier been a fan of German Nazism, and with this had a penchant for corporatism, which essentially, is the merger of business and state interests. Consequently, there was a dose of regulation and a rise of corporate welfare.

Inevitably, the two sides of the contradiction tended to clash. They also set the backdrop for the Coalition to morph into something else.

A genuine conservative tendency had evolved within the Liberal Party. The essence of conservatism is reliance on what is traditional and a distaste for change of any sort. Trouble was going to come, in proportion to the shift away from conservatism.

The post war boom had clearly run out of steam by the end of the 1970’s and the coming of the Hawke-Keating government in 1983, brought in the era of what is now called neoliberalism and a strengthening of corporatism, in the name of the Prices and Income accords. Use of the word corporatism is accurate, because the accords gave birth to a new era state linked organisation that brought in representatives of corporations into a range of new bodies, raising the influence over government to a new level.

By then, the internal contradiction in the Liberal Party had divided it into two camps. That which had been the dominant was represented by Malcolm Fraser and the emerging radical wing had John Howard as its figurehead. The coming of the Howard government consolidated and built on the foundation set by Hawke-Keating. Neoliberalism and corporatism were set in concrete.

This history is important, because when it combines with changing economic and social conditions, the ground is set for the present division with the Turnbull government.

It is the reason why, only days ago, Turnbull invoked Menzies. In many ways, he is right to position himself as the heir of the party founder and his radical opponents as something else. At the same time, an inability to effectively counter the radicals, shows how the balance of forces has changed.  They are a formidable force and more thoroughly entrenched in the Australian corporate state.

Although Labor paved the way for their rise, the radicals found their opportunity in an emerging and deepening long-term economic crisis, where the old consensus on the pro welfare and state managed capitalism was no longer working. They offered a solution, and when this became the new consensus, delegitimised any other point of view. Labor was dragged along.

It was never going to work and this has actually made the situation worse. Neoliberalism and corporatism have themselves been shredded of legitimacy and it is this that has aggravated the existing internal divisions.  Some want to pull back to a softer version, while others push for a harder version. Overriding this is an inability to make a fundamental change. The result is a somewhat paralysed and ineffective government.

No one is pleased and Malcolm Turn bull’s base crumbles, giving an advantage of the radicals, who wait, ready to carve up their opponents and take over the mantel once again. In the absence of a powerful enough counter force, it will happen sooner or later.

On this day, they might also find that Australia has changed, with the population wanting to go in a different direction. The victorious radicals may well find that achieving their own legitimacy is much harder than they thought.


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