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Anguish, by August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck, 1878 (National Gallery of Victoria).

The Liberal Party as we know it is dead

Today’s Liberal Party room meeting was a funeral not just for Turnbull but for the party Menzies founded in 1944

HANGING among the international collection at the National Gallery of Victoria is a painting of a ewe standing above the body of her recently deceased lamb on a snow covered field and under grey skies, desperately trying to protect the corpse from a growing mob of hungry crows.

Titled Anguish, and painted by August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck in 1878, it is a perfect metaphor for the Liberal Party of Australia.

Slowly and clinically, the forces of conservatism, marshalled by Tony Abbott, have picked away at not just the Prime Ministership of Malcolm Turnbull but at the soul of the party created by Robert Menzies.

Today, the worst outcome was avoided when Scott Morrison prevailed over Peter Dutton, but all this has done is delay the inevitable.

Like The crows challenging that that ewe guarding her beloved dead lamb, eventually the scavengers will succeed.

The ins and outs of today’s leadership vote will be analysed ad nauseum elsewhere, but there were three converging events or forces that brought us to this place.

The first was the deluded self-interest of a few endangered Queensland MPs who have seen their conservative base being cleaved off by One Nation and believed their only salvation was one of their own becoming leader.

But that fantasy was blown out of the water by Warren Entsch, whose seat of Leichardt is one of those in jeopardy and would rather drink cyanide than support a kamikaze attack like Peter Dutton’s. Whatever switching to Dutton may have gained in Queensland, it would just as likely have cost as many seats south of the Tweed.

The second factor was Tony Abbott’s insatiable thirst for vengeance against Turnbull for cutting his own period in the Lodge short in 2015, at whatever the toll to the party.

The human cost of these political leadership changes shouldn’t be underestimated but often is. Politicians are human after all, and the pain and humiliation of losing your job at the hand of your colleagues is all too real.

In the bloodlust to overthrow Kevin Rudd in 2010, none of the plotters seemed to consider the impact this would have on Rudd and how he would respond. How could they have been surprised that Rudd reacted as he did in waging a three-year campaign to get his job back? Why did they expect loyalty from him when they had shown none towards him?

So it was always likely Abbott too would seek revenge, but crank up the dial way beyond even Rudd’s scheming ways.

As Phil Coorey wrote in today’s Fin: “This is not a ‘save the furniture coup’, this is revenge, hatred and ideology. University politicians who don’t give a s — — about the people who elected them.”

The reality was that whoever succeeded in this pointless, destructive coup today, they were inheriting a stinking, rotten corpse that has already been picked over and torn apart by a flock of crows.

And the third factor is the conservative takeover of the Liberal Party, aided and abetted by the religious right. The purging of moderate, socially progressive small l-liberals was begun two decades ago by John Howard, who for all his talk about the party being a “broad church” was intent on recasting it in his own conservative image.

The conservative takeover has never been about policy and all about the acquisition and retention of raw power. The conservatives have long been setting the Liberals’ policy agenda and while Turnbull may have arrived in the Lodge with progressive credentials, his time in the job was characterised by endless backflips and policy concessions to appease the conservatives intent on bringing him down.

He managed to stay one step ahead of them right up until last week, but as he was to learn, if you give into a schoolyard bully, they don’t go away, they just bully you even more. So no matter how many concessions Turnbull made on, say, climate policy, it was never enough for the conservatives who would continue to dictate party policy. A classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Long before the leadership spill, Turnbull was beholden to his party’s far right — that was the Faustian deal he had done at the beginning of his leadership. But mix that with the Abbott vengeance factor and it was a lethal combination.

But Turnbull’s leadership was also doomed from the start because as far as the conservative wing of the Liberal Party was concerned, he was never one of them. He came to politics aged 50, having enjoyed a glittering career as a lawyer and businessman, and had flirted with joining the ALP. They considered him an imposter.

Of course, in a futile attempt to appease Abbott and his fellow wreckers from the right, Turnbull had long since ditched every belief he had ever held and no longer stood for anything — the ultimate hollow man — but it was never enough. To the extremists on the right of the Liberal Party, he was still the devil incarnate, and the one thing that stood between them and a total party takeover.

The only thing that saved the Liberal Party today from a total rout was the absolute ineptitude of Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott in orchestrating their botched leadership coup. They failed to do their numbers and ended up with egg on their face.

The big question is where do moderate Liberals go now?

The right’s takeover of the party is so close to complete, that surely no true moderate Liberal could honestly continue in it.

But where do they go if there is no third party? Since the implosion of the Australian Democrats a decade ago, there is no centrist third party like the British Liberal Party for them to take refuge.

There was speculation that when Turnbull first lost the leadership in 2009 he would take his bat and ball and form a new party, one that was prepared to take action on climate change and be a safe haven for exiles from the Liberal Party. He could certainly have afforded to bankroll it himself. But Turnbull never had the gumption to go that far.

The leadership change will make absolutely no difference in the long run. It will make no difference to the government’s policy direction, given that Scott Morrison was at Turnbull’s elbow throughout his stint at Prime Minister. As we have seen, the conservatives were already dictating policy to Turnbull.

It was Morrison who was the most vocal champion of the unpopular plan to give big business a tax cut. It was Morrison who was most adamantly opposed to a royal commission into the banks. It was Morrison who was the architect of cruel imprisonment of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

And it was his new deputy, Josh Frydenberg, who crafted the energy policy that became the catalyst for Peter Dutton’s failed coup against Turnbull.

The leadership change will make no difference to the poisonous internal destruction orchestrated by Tony Abbott and his henchmen, nor the News Corp-2GB vendetta on Abbott’s behalf. Abbott loathes Morrison for backing Turnbull against him in 2015, and Dutton will now also have a major grudge to bear. The hard right will not rest until it has seized full power of the party, and before long the Queenslanders will begin to agitate for change again.

And the leadership change will make no difference to the Coalition’s fortunes at the next federal election.

Australians are thoroughly sick of this revolving door of leadership and the treacherous behavior of the political class, of politics as a blood sport. The petty, selfish brawl that took place this week will have cemented in many voters’ minds that the Coalition is unfit to govern.

For all his faults, Turnbull remained popular with the voting public and the way he has been undone will leave a sour taste, even if Dutton did not succeed. Australia (narrowly) voted in 2016 for a government led by Malcolm Turnbull, not by Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton.

The next few opinion polls may provide a small bounce for the government, but it is more likely that the disgust most voters have with the leadership change will be reflected in a further widening of Labor’s lead, just when Turnbull seemed to have steadied the ship.

If there was any honour left in politics, Morrison would call an immediate election to put everyone out of their misery. But of course he won’t.

The leadership change may also prove fatal to the Liberals in the upcoming Victorian election.

Going into the party room today the Liberals looked like they were heading to a funeral, ashen faced, blood shot eyes and tightly clenched jaws.

In a sense they were — it was not just the funeral of Malcolm Turnbull the politician, but of the Liberal Party project begun by Menzies in 1944.

The reality was that whoever succeeded in this pointless, destructive coup today, they were inheriting a stinking, rotten corpse that has already been picked over and torn apart by a flock of crows.



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