22/07/2010 - 00:00

Failed leaders find a home on front bench

22/07/2010 - 00:00


Save articles for future reference.

The reasons for the fall of Kevin Rudd are remarkably similar to those behind the demise of Malcolm Turnbull.

Failed leaders find a home on front bench

AUSTRALIANS finds themselves in the peculiar position that whichever party wins the coming federal election, a former party leader has been promised a senior ministerial post.

First came the revelation by Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, that his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, could become a senior minister if his side wins.

But, true to form, Mr Turnbull sought to pre-empt that assurance by revealing he wanted inclusion in a pre-election Abbott ministerial line-up.

Mr Abbott understandably refused this, since Mr Turnbull’s previously stated position in support of a debilitating monster tax on all energy usage Australia-wide would inevitably be at odds with the party’s new position against such a carbon tax.

Mr Turnbull, again true to form, misinterpreted that to be a snub, so announced he’d leave federal politics.

For many Liberals that was cause for a huge sigh of relief; at long last they’d be rid of the man who’d sought to transform their 66-year-old party into an ALP appendage.

Following Mr Turnbull’s announcement there was some media chatter of him being offered a safe NSW state seat so he could blossom into a premier, like his onetime banking partner, Neville Wran, had been for Labor.

But he sidestepped that by reversing his original plan to depart the federal political stage.

He explained his change of mind by saying he’d agreed with the many voters in his seat of Wentworth who wanted him to remain in Canberra.

Then again, it’s possible Mr Turnbull was disappointed with the lack of viable post-politics employment options; but whatever the reason for his back flip the Liberals must now endure Mr Turnbull for several more years.

What of Mr Rudd?

Unlike Mr Turnbull, he immediately said he intended remaining in parliament.

For a few days we heard hints he’d displace Western Australia’s Stephen Smith as foreign minister. But, as with Mr Turnbull’s desire to promptly move into a front bench post, this was rejected by Mr Rudd’s replacement, Julia Gillard.

All that said, it’s certainly a challenge when pondering upon the fact that, as recently as November 2009, Messrs Rudd and Turnbull were not only Australia’s two wealthiest politicians – the Rudds conservatively valued at $50-plus million, the Turnbulls at well over $110 million – but also the most powerful in their respective parties.

Just seven months on, both are feather dusters with ministerial spots promised.

Why, when both face the prospect of lifelong Rolls Royce-class parliamentary pensions plus perks, won’t they go the way of their immediate predecessors, Kim Beazley and Brendan Nelson?

It can only be the politicians’ favourite ‘p’ word – power; not pension or perks, since the latter two are guaranteed whatever they do.

Both clearly want power, its long-term exercise, which they undoubtedly believe has evaded them although both had an abundance of it, even if, and thankfully, only briefly.

Both unambiguously showed voters and party colleagues they were incapable of using it judiciously.

Equally fatefully they also share having had that power forcibly removed.

And neither gentleman showed much magnanimity when that occurred.

State Scene often speaks to a knowledgeable Canberra insider, someone who is well briefed on goings on inside the Liberal camp.

Soon after Mr Turnbull’s demise I put to him that the crucial aspect of the Abbott emergence was that he became leader by just one vote, his own.

That led me to say that a Turnbull leadership resurrection must therefore be seen as distinctly likely.

Although not strongly disagreeing, the insider presented a markedly different assessment, one that has so far not been reported.

He said the one-vote difference could just as easily have been that of a particular Liberal MP he identified, but I’ll leave unnamed.

This particular MP, who had been a Liberal Party official for many years before pre-selection for parliament, had strongly backed Mr Turnbull until just one day before the successful Abbott challenge.

The crucial question, the insider stressed, was why that particular MP had belatedly swung, without being lobbied, into the Abbott camp?

The reason was that he’d carefully assessed the unprecedented phenomenon of 400,000 or so emails, letters and telephone calls from Liberal Party members and others Australia-wide calling for outright rejection of the Rudd carbon tax that was so badly splitting the Liberals’ Canberra contingent.

This MP’s assessment of those emails so concerned him that he privately met Mr Turnbull to stress that the 400,000 contacts were genuine, not due to an orchestrated nationwide campaign, as so many, including the MP, had initially suspected.

He told Mr Turnbull that if these 400,000 communications were ignored the Liberal Party faced the prospect of collapsing, imploding, vanishing, choose whatever word you wish, and never arising.

Crunch time had come.

The MP stressed to Mr Turnbull that he must take heed and forget his obsessive backing of the Rudd carbon tax.

There was no other way.

What was the outcome?

Mr Turnbull wouldn’t budge. He said it’s ‘my way or the highway’.

That so stunned the MP that, when he left Mr Turnbull’s office, he was convinced his leader must go since his intransigent backing of the Rudd carbon tax was clearly seen as more important than the views of 400,000 party members and backers.

More Liberal MPs have had this anecdote recounted to them, suggesting that the very best Mr Turnbull can hope for in the event of an Abbott victory is a senior portfolio. It is therefore most unlikely he’ll ever be viewed as leadership material.

What of Mr Rudd?

His situation is identical.

On the night he discovered he was also destined for the highway he responded by claiming the Australian people, “not Labor’s factions”, had elevated him to becoming PM.

That’s a very jaundiced interpretation of Australian political procedures and processes.

Mr Rudd then had 10 or so hours to ponder on his inevitable fate at next day’s caucus meeting.

For over a week before those 10 hours Labor’s factional chiefs knew their party faced electoral demise worse that what the second Whitlam government endured in December 1975.

By the time Labor’s MPs entered the caucus room Mr Rudd fully grasped the factionally imposed reality.

Because of his leadership record, which shares so much with Mr Turnbull’s modus operandi, he too is therefore most unlikely to ever be trusted as leader.

What both had in common over and above their sizeable family fortunes and obvious stubbornness is that they had to be prised out of their party’s leadership.

And not only did each refuse to see the coming train wreck ahead of their respective parties, they appeared to care even less.

Understandably, Australian political parties have operated on the basis of once bitten twice shy.

If Messrs Rudd and Turnbull have done nothing else, they’ve made their respective parties immune to ever again having to endure any ’Ruddbullist‘ experiments.

In both cases their first such ordeal has been quite enough.



Subscription Options