Is there any way out for Malcolm Turnbull?

'No undermining': On his way out as Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott said there would be 'no sniping'.
'No undermining': On his way out as Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott said there would be 'no sniping'.

When Tony Abbott was deposed as Liberal Party leader and prime minister by Malcolm Turnbull, he magnanimously said that there should be a clear transition and that he there would be “no wrecking, no undermining, no sniping”.

Two years later, the Liberal Party is at war with itself, with the conservative faction led by Abbott now publicly undermining Turnbull’s leadership, and seeming not to care if this infighting loses them the next election. It is as if they cannot remember the gift that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd period of Labor instability afforded them.

How did it come to this and, more importantly, is there any way out of this imbroglio for Turnbull?

First, it’s clear that Abbott had no intention of refraining from trying to defend his reputation, even if this meant undermining his successor. Still deeply offended, personally humiliated by an opponent he neither trusted nor liked and convinced the government has moved too far to the left, he has gone on the attack.

The attack has been clearly orchestrated. When ultra-conservative former Queensland premier Maurice Newman openly called on Turnbull to resign, he wasn’t acting in a vacuum. 

Second, clear attempts by the government to move away from the stringency of the Abbott budgets, and to initiate more moderate policies on the renewable energy target and Gonski, have enraged many conservatives in the party. This has motivated Abbott to revisit his battlelines rhetoric.

Third, while Christopher Pyne – despite his ego and self-promotion – has been generally tolerated by the Abbott forces, his indiscreet comments to fellow travelers in the party, bragging about the moderates control of the party and a possible parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, were incendiary. Pyne’s comments didn’t start the war, but they have certainly thrown petrol on the flames.

Finally, there are the polls. Turnbull cited the fact that Abbott was behind Labor in 30 successive Newspolls  as the principal reason for his leadership coup against Abbott. 

Now, Turnbull has been behind Labor in 15 successive Newspolls.  As each negative poll goes by, the Abbott forces will show less restraint.

Liberal Party members and supporters all over the country are throwing up their hands at what seems to be an intractable mess, bought on by Abbott’s desire for revenge.

Replacing Turnbull does not solve the Liberals’ problems. The vicious infighting we are now witnessing would become an open civil war if this were attempted.

There are two alternatives for Turnbull. He could attempt to arrange a truce with Abbott and give him a place in Cabinet. If Abbott accepted, as surely he would, this would curtail his open criticism, but would give him a better internal platform to promote his ambitions to halt what he sees as a drift to the left by the Turnbull government. It would also place him in a better position to orchestrate another leadership coup for himself or another senior party conservative such as Peter Dutton.

The second option for Turnbull is to convince Abbott to accept the coming vacancy as Australian High Commissioner in London, replacing Alexander Downer. Given Abbott’s demeanour of late, this would be a hard task.

If this doesn’t happen, the clear winners are Bill Shorten and Labor. 

Ian Tulloch is an Honorary Associate (Politics) at La Trobe University, Bendigo.