There’s a big hint in the job title – “leader”. It means the job is to lead, not to follow, not to merely manage a disparate group by appeasement, compromise and bribery.
It is to take a team forward, not to be pushed hither and yon by a disruptive rump. The job requires conviction and integrity – people have to trust you to be a person of your word, to have core values that won’t be compromised.
And thus Malcolm Turnbull has failed as leader.
The NEG (National Energy Guarantee) farce last week was the final straw for his leadership whichever way he eventually departs the job. He was unable to lead his party, his professed convictions abandoned, the rump allowed to rule. Compromise gained him nothing and surrendering lost all.
If this was merely a political party changing leaders, it wouldn’t matter too much. Heavens, we seem to do it all the time and the good ship Australia has managed to sail on remarkably well – testimony to the fundamental strengths of the nation and that our politicians are generally less important than they think they are.
But the change contemplated by the Liberal Party – a now-inevitable change according to the press gallery – does matter. It looks like the abandonment of one of the things that has made Australia great.
In the immediate aftermath of the last federal election, before the final narrow result was known, I stumbled on a reassuring statistic: If you accept that Australia entered the modern era with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, over the subsequent 44 years we had close to an even count of Labor and coalition governments – 22 years of Labor prime ministers and 22 years of Liberal prime ministers.
Over those 44 years, on average one mob tended to lean a little further to one side and the other mob tended to lean a little further to the other. The true believers in both camps believed only their party was the One True Faith and that the other party would cause the sky to fall. It didn’t.
The reality has been that both major parties have, more or less, coalesced around the pragmatic centre of Australian politics. Sometimes that centre has been stretched, but we managed to rebalance as Labor and Liberal danced around the middle.
For instance, under Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey the federal budget took a stiff turn to the right. After the near-loss of the 2016 election, last year’s Turnbull/Morrison budget returned to the middle ground and Labor subsequently swung a little further left to differentiate itself. And so the dance goes on.
Peter Dutton as Liberal leader threatens to end our bipartisan allegiance to the pragmatic centre by throwing the switch to Trumpian populism – a whiff of racism, a slash of migrant-blaming, a splash of wild spending, a surge of fundamentalism, a lowering of civil standards.
Australia embraced marriage equality, Mr Dutton voted against it. Australia embraced the Stolen Generations apology, he walked out on it. Australia (mainly) is successful multiculturally, while “too-scared-to-go-to-restaurants-in-Melbourne” Dutton blows the racist whistle.
Australia has long since abandoned the White Australia Policy, Mr Dutton supported race-based consideration for South African farmers. With civil discourse under attack, he embraces the shock jocks. Australia wants to be responsible about climate change, Mr Dutton is a coal hugger, only interested in using energy policy to attack Labor.
The vast majority of Australians reject Pauline Hanson, Mr Dutton is comfortable with her policies. Australia needs intelligent understanding of our immigration policy, while he runs with a simplistic slashing of numbers.
The early indications for economic policy are not promising. In keeping with the populist urge, the danger is an even greater welter of pork barrel-based infrastructure spending. A creature of the reactionary ideologues would lean further to tax cuts in good times, service cuts in bad, continuing the drift to greater inequality – “the right-wing ratchet”, as it has been termed.
Mr Dutton taking the Liberal Party further right, delivering greater power to his like-minded backers, carries the great danger of excluding liberal Liberals from the party, shrinking “the broad church”.
Australia would be the worse for it. Our lack of fanaticism, disowning the Hansonist populists, has served us well. It has genuinely made us great.