The Member for Wentworth’s last huzzah

Let’s try and be fair and reasonable for just a moment. The Member for Wentworth is a pretty damned talented individual. Despite his predilection for despotism and bloody-mindedness, and his tendency to carp in Opposition, I think that most people would agree that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull had the capacity to make a significant and lasting contribution to public life in this country. With the announcement of his resignation today, however, all that seems to lie purely in the realm of small-l liberal fantasy about “what might have been”.

When the unifying influence of John Howard disappeared from public life in November 2007, the division inherent within the Liberal/National Coalition was laid bare for all to see. The demands of government are quite different to the demands of Opposition. Without the binding force of an electorally successful leader, the underlying rabble re-emerged. Turnbull’s own aborted stint as Opposition Leader was troubled, but hardly without merit. He was crushed between the popularity of a competent political operator in Kevin Rudd, freshly ensconced in government, and a party riven brutally along ideological lines. He needed an issue that he could run with; to nail his colours to the mast. Perhaps unwisely – he decided that issue was the government’s ETS. This invited those demanding action on climate change to view the Opposition Leader as something of a flawed hero. Those favouring inaction viewed this only as the final straw.

The closeness of the ensuing leadership ballot that deposed Turnbull and elevated Abbott indicates the extent of the Coalition’s political disintegration. If Turnbull had not nominated for the leadership, it seems almost certain that Joe Hockey, his small-l liberal compadre, would have won the ballot. As it happens, he nominated, splitting the small-l liberal vote and defeating his popular colleague. Turnbull then lost the run-off ballot to Abbott by a single vote.

With his opponent still clinging doggedly to his position on the ETS months after the fact, Abbott evidently felt that he could not allow his adversary to return to the front bench, even when a plum opportunity emerged for a reshuffle last week.

It seems that things could so easily have been different for Malcolm. The times, as it happens, did not suit him.