Why is John Howard Wanting to Save Malcolm Turnbull?

ABC, Australian Politics, Leadership, Malcolm Turnbull, Rundown

Newspoll loss number 30 is due for Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday night, the same measure he used to argue the Australian people had made up their mind about Tony Abbott’s leadership in his September 2015 challenge.

In anticipation of the next Newspoll loss leadership speculation has began, this week we saw the emergence of the Monash Forum made up of conservative Liberal MPs who published a letter demanding the government build a new coal fired power station. We also saw a Seven News report which stated even moderates are deserting Turnbull’s leadership.

This heightened leadership speculation has led to several high profile Turnbull Government Ministers such as Christopher Pyne and Mathias Cormann and even backbenchers including Andrew Hastie and Stuart Robert to publicly state there is no threat to Turnbull’s leadership and to play down the 30th Newspoll loss milestone.

But arguably the highest profile backing of his leadership that Turnbull has received is that of the nation’s second longest serving Prime Minister and hence respected Liberal Party elder John Howard.

Howard was a guest on 7.30 with Leigh Sales on Thursday night, primarily to comment on the 20th anniversary of the Patrick waterfront dispute. But Sales also sought his opinion on a range of other topics including energy policy, the cricket ball tampering and of course Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership given the pending Newspoll loss.

Howard’s responded to the leadership question that “I don’t find any evidence in the party of people want a change of leader” adding “I do not regard the next election as unwinnable” and “I think when you go through the process of changing leaders, it creates a problem” and that Liberal MPs had “a collective responsibility to get the act together”.

The message from Howard was clear to Liberal MPs, stick with Malcolm Turnbull. Given that Howard is a conservative and Turnbull is moderate it would appear to many causal observers of politics an odd source of support for Turnbull. However despite them coming from different ideological parts of the Liberal Party they have been close political friends for many years.

However they weren’t exactly the best of friends in 1999 during the Republican referendum. Howard backed the existing constitutional monarchy while Turnbull was head of the Australian Republican Movement. After losing the referendum Turnbull lashed out an John Howard calling him the Prime Minister who broke the nation’s hearts.

But they managed to somehow mend their relationship as when Turnbull won preselection for the seat of Wentworth for the 2004 federal election his unofficial campaign manager was John Howard’s right hand man Senator Bill Heffernan. Turnbull once an MP became a stalwart ally of Howard’s Prime Ministership against the leadership aspirations of Treasurer Peter Costello. Turnbull by the end of his first term in parliament was already a Cabinet Minister.

After Turnbull’s disastrous stint as Opposition Leader he was going to retire from parliament. But he reversed his decision after being persuaded to stay by a number of people including John Howard. Howard’s reasoning was that you never know what’s around the corner in politics and that Turnbull didn’t need to make anymore money in the private sector.

Howard has been close to Tony Abbott as well. In fact Abbott once said John Howard was his political father. After Abbott nearly won the 2010 federal election Howard credited him with bringing the Liberal Party back from the dead. But once Abbott was Prime Minister Howard’s praise of Abbott when he came under leadership pressure at the start of 2015 was non existent. In face Howard took a thinly veiled swipe at Abbott’s Prime Ministership by claiming that cabinet style government had been abandoned.

In fact the first time Howard spoke publicly on the Liberal leadership was after the September 2015 spill holding a press conference where he accepted the Partyroom’s decision and their reasons for acting (ironically due to the polls) but urged Turnbull to run an inclusive government incorporating both the liberal and conservative traditions of the party.

The only time that Howard has even been remotely critical of Turnbull was during the Marriage Law Postal Survey where he criticized the government for not outlining what religious protections would be in place if the vote came back as a yes. However he did not as Tony Abbott did join the no campaign out on the hustings.

The fact that Howard is now intervening to save Malcolm Turnbull, when he did not intervene in the same way to save Tony Abbott would perplex many conservatives who still view Howard as the greatest modern conservative leader this nation has seen. As has been established Howard and Turnbull are clearly friends despite their ideological differences. It is certainly a puzzling question. Maybe Howard is wanting to repay Turnbull’s support of his own Prime Ministership?

One thing that Howard has always been correct on is that being the leader is the gift of the partyroom. It is the serving Liberal MPs who get to decide who is leader and who will give them the best chance of retaining government and their own seats at the next election. Howard of course wants the Coalition to win the next election, but is not in the hot seat anymore. Those Liberal MPs who see in the inner and outer workings of the government every day will make up their own mind very soon about who they want to be leading them.

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