27 November, 2009

Thrills & Spills

This has been a most extraordinary week in Australian Federal politics. A week in which the future of the Liberal Party looked as uncertain as Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership appears untenable. A week in which hard right ideologues seemed determined to make the Coalition unelectable in an environmentally aware world. A week in which reformation of Conservative politics in Australia along new ideological lines began to seem plausible. A week in which political journalists and politicians made Twitter and text messaging centre-stage in news-breaking, story telling and media management. A week in which political hyperbole reached new heights of absurdity.

It started on Tuesday afternoon with renewed leadership speculation surrounding Malcolm Turnbull as he attempted to ram climate change legislation (in the form of an Emissions Trading Scheme) through both the party room and the parliament in a rare show of bipartisanship in Australian federal politics.

During question time that day, it became apparent that the ideological fault lines within the Federal Opposition were starting to tremor.

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It emerged that, according to some of his internal political enemies, Turnbull had enforced Party Room ‘unity’ on the ETS legislation (timetabled to pass ahead of the Copenhagen summit) despite majority opposition, telling his detractors he was leader and would set policy before storming out of the meeting.

Ahead of widespread speculation about a leadership spill, I predicted Turnbull would be ousted within 24 hours.

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It was an audacious (some might charge 'reckless') call, but I could smell the blood and hear the wolves baying.

That evening, after a marathon eight hour Party Room meeting punctuated by interruptions which provided opportunities for dissidents to text message details of the negotiations to journalists, only the Liberal Party’s loony right, personified by the ranting Wilson Tuckey, was publicly talking of a leadership spill.

But the Canberra Press Gallery and the political junkies (me included) following and participating in the story’s dramatic twists & turns via Twitter were breathlessly posting #spill #spill #spill.

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As the backroom dealing and the brinkmanship continued, Turnbull went on the ABC’s influential AM program on Wednesday morning, ruling out any facilitation on his part of a leadership spill motion. And party rules require the leader’s ascent for such a showdown.

But by 11am, journalists were tweeting the news that a 1pm Coalition Party Room meeting had been called, at which a spill motion would be put. The stalking horse named Kevin Andrews, an arch conservative who applies religious zeal to climate change denial, was the lone challenger. The motion to allow a vote on the leadership was defeated by a less than convincing margin and Turnbull fronted the media continuing his “I am the leader” riff.

And although the ructions continued to bubble below the surface, even Press Gallery veterans with whom I shared dinner on Wednesday night gave Turnbull a 50/50 chance of political survival…at least until after Christmas.

During Question Time on Thursday, it still seemed likely that the ETS would ultimately pass the Senate, in accordance with an agreement reached between the Opposition and the Rudd Government, by Friday afternoon. But almost as soon as the session was over, the leadership speculation resumed and the spill became a flood as Shadow Minister Tony Abbott began the front bench exodus.

The body pile continued to mount throughout the afternoon and journalists were tweeting the news faster than they could write it. Senator Eric Abetz gone. Senator Minchin going. This one gone. That one gone. Another one bites the dust. By the time Turnbull finally called a press conference for 7pm, he’d lost 10 front benchers, at the end of a day unprecedented in Australian Federal politics according to veteran Press Gallery journalists and even seasoned Coalition politicians!

I wondered aloud about the prospect of a split within the Coalition, invoking the spectre of the 1955 split within the Australian Labor Party which birthed the socially conservative Democratic Labor Party and the 1970s formation of the now virtually defunct Australian Democrats.

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I envisaged a Coalition divided along new ideological lines – with social progressives in one camp (the New Democrats or the Progressive Liberals?) and the conservatives (melding National Party representatives with socially conservative Liberals) in the other. This could present a redesigned four-party Australian political landscape: Labor, Greens, Progressive Liberals and National Conservatives.

When he fronted the media pack in a press conference broadcast live into ABC nightly news last night, Turnbull surprised us all with a refusal to entertain the prospect of resignation, giving the impression of an impassioned, unflappable leader of enormous strength and admirable ideals. One thing was clear: here was a leader for a new generation. For a repositioned, socially progressive Australian Liberal Party. A leader who was prepared to bury Howard’s ghost.

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But it was also clear from within the party imploding behind him – which was now leaking like a rusty sieve - that he was a member of the political walking dead.

And in that context, the hyperbole reached fever pitch. After political journalist Samantha Maiden appeared on Sky News describing Turnbull as a victim of “political terrorism” the network’s political editor David Speers read a text message live to air from a Liberal Party opponent of Turnbull’s who said his leader was “behaving like Hitler in his Berlin bunker”.

The flaring language in the midst of a major political crisis is familiar. The speed with which it’s being transmitted – in real time via social media like text messaging and Twitter – is new. And in that process – as these platforms invade the traditional media space, and both feature in and facilitate coverage and conversation, they’re changing the rules of political reporting.

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Journalists are interacting with one another and citizen commentators as they report the news instantaneously via Twitter – interchanges which are influencing the framing of the news and laying bare the processes of story construction.

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It’s fascinating viewing for a journalism academic and invigorating for active citizens of all persuasions to watch the upheaval unfold moment by moment on Twitter.

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But it would be excruciating viewing for the politician who first tweeted from his own press conference when Twitter was little more than a novelty: Malcolm Turnbull.

Enter Joe Hockey: former Turnbull backer and one of the socially progressive New Guard within the Liberal Party who helped negotiate the planned passage of the ETS. He's now canvassing for public reaction to his own leadership ambitions, belatedly testing public support for the passage of the ETS legislation via Twitter.

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The subtext reads: will you have me as your leader tweeps? That’s a subtext being interpreted by veteran political journalist Michelle Grattan (a recent Twitter entrant) as a leadership nomination.

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And it’s a subtext given force today by Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott who's signed Turnbull’s leadership death warrant, saying he’ll move a #spill motion on Monday unless the ETS legislation is delayed this afternoon.

So, as former staunch Turnbull supporter Joe Hockey firms as the prime candidate for a successful leadership challenge on Monday, the coalition of climate change deniers and leadership change opportunists prepare to filibuster on the ETS legislation to ensure it isn’t passed before the baton is.

And the 3.45pm deadline laid out in the bi-partisan agreement for the passage of the legislation in the Senate looks as shot as Malcolm Turnbull's leadership of the Australian Opposition.

All the while, the Twitter backchannel is chanting "It's Climate Change, stupid".

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