Changing leaders not always a bad idea


Malcolm Turnbull made a return to the ABC’s Q&A program last week to ruminate on his political knifing. Apart from the discomfort his appearance caused for his successor, Scott Morrison, there was one insight worth reflecting on. He gave a succinct principle for getting rid of a leader.

Turnbull is, after all, something of an expert. He seized the leadership twice in his career, when he deposed Brendan Nelson in 2008 and when he cut down Tony Abbott in 2015.He said in politics, particularly in government, “stability is very important”. He went on to say “disturbing that stability should only be done with very clear justification and very clear purpose”; and, in an understatement, concluded “and even then it carries risks”.

It is true Brendan Nelson was struggling badly as opposition leader after the defeat of the long-term Howard Government. Turnbull made an immediate impact and was doing better until he put all his chips on the fraud, Godwin Grech, and his lies about Kevin Rudd. And there is no doubt when he moved on Tony Abbott, the nation breathed a sigh of relief. But Abbott and his conservative allies in the party and sections of the media never joined the cheer squad.

They had their revenge in August when they toppled him. Though Turnbull would not admit it on TV the other night, it was his failure to stand up to his internal critics that gave them the courage to keep compromising him on issues like marriage equality and especially climate and energy policy. Their win, without clear purpose or justification, has all the hallmarks of a Pyrrhic victory. Rather than enhance the coalition’s chances, it has, according to all the opinion polls, worsened them. And Turnbull is right when he says “in order to be successful as a political movement, you have to win votes from the centre”. And you have to win them as a stable, cohesive team.

Applying Turnbull’s leadership change principle to what happened at the end of last week in NSW we see a very different proposition. Besides the fact that Luke Foley was leader of the opposition and not premier, in the end he bowed to the inevitable and resigned. He even gave a reason – he could not fight an imminent election campaign and clear his name at the same time.

That bit of face-saving is regrettable, but it hardly masks the reason for disturbing state Labor’s stability. There was a “clear justification and a very clear purpose” for change.

So serious was the allegation against Foley about his sexual assault on a female journalist and her reluctant but articulate description of the episode, Labor had no choice. New Labor Leader Michael Daley was forthright in believing the woman ahead of his colleague.

Daley’s tone is right and completely in line with contemporary sentiment. More respect for women is demanded and calling for an end to parliamentary mudslinging a noble if forlorn hope.

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