When they turn nasty, politicians can be an extraordinarily ugly lot. This week, the Liberals looked hideous – feral, self-indulgent, thuggish and contemptuous of an electorate that would like to be able to have MPs respect its choice of the country’s prime minister.
No wonder ordinary people caught by the cameras in the vox pops were disgusted. This was a shocker performance, even by coup standards.
As Malcolm Turnbull said, an “insurgency” by the conservatives brought him down. But, in a sort of perverse justice, the insurgents were punished. Their reprehensible behaviour blasted out the leader they hated but failed to deliver them the prize they desired – installing their own man in the Lodge.
Turnbull, by delaying the ballot, and getting the Solicitor-General to give an opinion on a question mark over Dutton’s eligibility to sit in parliament, helped to thwart them.
Dutton thought his prospects better than they were; Turnbull judged his own prospects to be worse than the reality.
The spill motion was carried 45-40, a tiny margin. In other words, 40 people wanted to keep Turnbull. Yet three cabinet ministers – Mathias Cormann, Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash – had previously insisted to Turnbull that he had lost the party room’s support and then resigned, ensuring his political death.
No wonder that after the spill numbers were given to the party room, Turnbull said “what a farce”.
In choosing Scott Morrison, the Liberals went for the safest option among the three candidates on offer. Dutton was seen as too risky and hardline; Julie Bishop started too far behind.
But while Morrison was the best of the trio, his elevation just further emphasised the bizarre nature of it all.
There is no compelling evidence to suggest Morrison will be much more competitive than his predecessor at the election. With some voters – Liberals on the progressive side – he might be less attractive.
And what about the gnashing of teeth over Queensland? After Longman, the Dutton people insisted he was needed to hold up the vote, because Turnbull was so unpopular.
In the new order, Queensland remains unrepresented in the leader/deputy team. And if Morrison has an advantage over Turnbull there, it would be a matter of degree, hardly worth ripping apart the party.
One vulnerable Queensland seat is Dickson, held by Dutton on a 2% margin. His actions may – and should – cost him votes, although they won’t cost him a position on the frontbench. Morrison has flagged Dutton will be in his cabinet.
Josh Frydenberg is a good choice as deputy leader, a unifying rather than a divisive figure, who’s done some heroic work on the National Energy Guarantee, the fate of which is up in the air.
Frydenberg becomes the new treasurer. He’s diligent and competent, but it will be a steep learning curve, facing a savvy and experienced opponent in Chris Bowen.
As he crafts his ministry, Morrison has to balance the factions and wrangle with the Nationals, out to get the most they can after the turbulence. Nationals leader Michael McCormack has every incentive to fight hard – he’s seen by his critics as not standing up strongly enough to the Liberals.
On the policy front, Morrison has an immense vacuum on energy, a major issue for the public, at the cutting edge of the ideological divide, and the catalyst for this week’s calamity.
Is he going to keep or reshape the NEG? He wouldn’t be drawn at his news conference. He said he’d talk to his cabinet.
Will he be able to get any sort of sensible energy policy through the party room? And will he want to?
Will he pursue an energy policy that is relatively bipartisan, as business desperately wants, to get investment certainty, or will he decide to go down the route of maximising the differences with Labor, in the hope of an electoral advantage and under pressure from the ideologues?
The energy wars will continue, one way or another.
A changing of the guard, especially in circumstances like these, is always disruptive – the ripples are felt through the administrative structure of government. New ministers have to learn new jobs. Initiatives in the pipeline must be paused and reviewed. All that alone is advantageous to an opposition that is already well organised.
Not surprisingly, Morrison flagged he doesn’t want an early election. But given Turnbull says he will leave Parliament “before too long”, he seems likely to face a byelection in Wentworth. It’s on a whopping 17.7% margin, but Turnbull had a strong personal vote, and a big swing would be a setback for the new leader.
Tony Abbott’s sister Christine Forster is being encouraged to seek Liberal preselection. Just another twist in this saga replete with dark irony.
Memo Scott Morrison: don’t chase the ‘base’
How the disappointed conservatives behave will determine what internal trouble Morrison faces. One thing seems clear: they won’t be satisfied unless the change of personnel produces changes in policy, notable on climate and immigration.
Abbott seems unlikely to go silent. He harbours a deep resentment towards Morrison, accusing him of disloyalty in the 2015 coup.
It will be fascinating to watch Morrison construct his post-Treasury, pre-election persona. There are multiple Morrisons. The aggressive, shouty, attack dog tearing at Labor. The lower-key, more compromising negotiator. The knock-about bloke, always talking about “the (Sutherland) Shire” and the Sharks.
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Then there is the Morrison who is ambitious to leave his mark as a reformer – who’d hoped to reshape the GST until Turnbull pulled the pin on him. Now he has his chance to set his own direction. But he will be buffeted by cross winds and has little time to plot his course.