It’s a tough choice for the top job of the Chief Eater of the shit sandwich, and that’s exactly what being the first Opposition leader of a routed government is all about.
For the next 3 years, as every misdemeanour or gross political felony that the previous government committed is thrown back in their face, when every dirty little policy secret or suppressed statistic is released into a hungry news cycle, the next leader has to sit there and go “Mmmmm Hmmm – tastes like chicken“.
It doesn’t matter what opposition leaders say for the first term – no one listens to them anyway. The only reason people know that opposition leaders exist in their first stint out of government is because they just happen to be the poor Shmo’s that become the target of a new government’s political retribution.
Now honestly – who can see Malcolm Turnbull sitting there sucking that up?
Brand Turnbull would be forever tainted if he gets the job now – it is truly surprising that he wants it at all, and Turnbull hasn’t exactly demonstrated the deft hand of political nuance lately. But so saying, I wouldn’t be the first possum to grossly underestimate the power of Mal Turbull’s ego. He might not have been around to participate in the events of the past that will inevitably produce grief for the future for the Coalition, but when the details of those events re-emerge as ammunition for a Rudd government’s partisan avengement, odium sticks – vicariously if need be.
However, the role of the next leader of the Liberal Party will not only be to chow down on that foul smelling sanger, but to stop the party from turning into a perpetually unelectable, sectarian rabble – leading by example, holding back the ideologically narrow forces of the religious right, opening up the party as the broad church it once was and maintaining at least some semblance of modernity and moderation. In this requirement, Turnbull is more suited than any other contender.
On the other hand we have the Tony Abbott – a man well practiced in dining on the odd faecal focaccia of late. He could not only take whatever the ALP serves up, but ask for more without blinking – the quirks of a Jesuit background rising to the fore. Yet Abbott is almost uniquely unsuitable for not only confronting, but overcoming the forces of ultra-conservatism that threaten the long term electoral viability of the Coalition. In many respects, his actions and history are part of the very problem.
The Liberal Party faces a tough choice for the top job, for the two main contenders each have only half of what the party requires in its next leader. If they choose Abbott, they at least have the option of electing The Google Assassin Andrew Robb as deputy and letting him undertake the role of the internal policeman; he knows the party inside out and knows where the bodies are buried – but no deputy leader can be the public face of a Rudd government’s sustained opprobrium that will have evidence to spare.
That is the leader’s privilege and the leaders alone. If they choose Malcolm Turnbull and he is not up to that job, will the Liberals destroy their best long term candidate to lead them out of the wilderness, simply as a result of expediency and a powerful lack of alternatives?
The other great problem with the leadership of the Liberal Party can be summed up with some tacky West Wing wisdom; “A leader without followers is just a man taking a walk“. If Abbott or Turnbull capture the leadership, will anyone actually follow them?
The consequences of Howards reign over the Liberal Party are only now starting to be revealed as the protective shield of government has been stripped away, exposing a cancerous organisation bereft of direction, devoid of true leadership, and completely incapable of withstanding the rigours of opposition and political life without the levers of power to protect them.
This is Howards true legacy, the legacy for which he will be remembered for a very long time.