Tony Windsor
What Turnbull lost when Ian Macfarlane failed

The Brough affair, Malcolm Turnbull’s constrained performance in Paris and the internal machinations over Ian Macfarlane are starting to show that the prime minister may only be there at the behest of those who don’t share his vision for the future. Moreover, all three events are creating doubts about what Turnbull stands for and whether, between the radicalised extremists in his own party and the nomadic wanderers of the Nationals, he will be allowed to fulfil his potential.

One of Turnbull’s great strengths is that he does have the capacity to bring people back to the political centre, where most but not all Australians feel comfortable. Some in his own party see this as a weakness born out of close contact with Labor in years past. Others, including Bill Shorten, would see it as an asset, which is distinctly different to the tribal warfare that the parties traditionally practise.

Turnbull can’t exist for long in an environment where his main justification for being is that he is not Tony Abbott.

In politics it is hard to build true friendships but there is a need in the major parties particularly to have wingmen to watch your back. Turnbull has never had that support, with the possible exception of one person – Macfarlane. He is there for what he can do for them, not vice versa.

With back-up such as Julie Bishop, who is as loyal as the direction of the breeze; Scott Morrison, who until recently was no fan of Turnbull; his ambassador in integrity, Mal Brough; and, of course, the born-again crusader Tony Abbott; Turnbull has no real inner sanctum he can trust. This is partly due to his self-assurance and at times arrogance, but if he can’t overcome it, he runs the risk of being the ultimate hollow man.

During the 2010-13 hung parliament there was a suggestion that if Turnbull could replace Abbott as leader of the opposition there may have been a change of government to repair the damage done by Abbott’s incessant vitriol and opposition to everything and the impact it would have on the way politics was played in the next decade. But it was plain at the time he could never get the numbers: most of his colleagues hated him.

Now he is leader, Turnbull is fighting on two fronts. In many cases that front is personal, and on others it is policy related.

Some suggest Macfarlane’s failed attempt to move to the Nats’ party room will damage Turnbull. I’m not so sure. But what it shows for me is opportunity lost. In fact, it’s the sort of opportunity that suggests to me the PM himself may well have been a participant in the strategy, hoping his long-term friend Macfarlane might bypass Barnaby Joyce for the Nationals leadership when it comes up.

There is real concern that Joyce as leader and potentially deputy prime minister could be electorally damaging for the Coalition. And this concern is well founded.

Tony Abbott tolerated Joyce on the basis that “retail politics” could keep the Hansonite hayseed support base on board. But even that started to fade in the last months of Abbott and this could be seen in the butchering of the agriculture white paper process.

Warren Truss, the details man of the Liberal National Party and committed Coalitionist, has always worried about Joyce’s capacity to think through issues, and has been searching for a more suitable replacement for some years so he can retire. Veteran LNP member Bruce Scott only ran in the 2013 election for the Queensland seat of Maranoa to stop Joyce standing there.

Overtures were made to former National Party of Western Australia leader Brendon Grylls to be parachuted into Canberra to succeed Truss. Grylls has been one of the stars of regional politics through the development of the Royalties for Regions policy in Western Australia and would be an asset in any parliament. He took advantage of the hung parliament in WA to deal with both Labor and the Liberals and benefited the broader regional constituency.

But for Canberra, Grylls declined.

Major players and historic funders of the LNP/Nationals in the Queensland cattle industry gave Truss an ultimatum that they would withdraw funding if he allowed Joyce to become leader and demanded he stay on until a capable person was found.

Michael McCormack and Darren Chester were considered as options. Chester has the capacity but he’s a Victorian Nat and he doesn’t wear the big Queensland hat. McCormack, a nice guy whom many in the Liberal Party would prefer because he could be easily manipulated, wouldn’t cope with the job and would be only marginally better than the $100-leg-of-lamb man.

Nevertheless, some see the pair as possibilities – only not yet. And so the dilemma facing Truss is either to stay on or find a stopgap while the search for capability continues.

Enter Ian Macfarlane. At least that was the plan until this week, when the Queensland LNP state executive blocked his plan to switch parties. They did so despite his local party members voting 102–34 for the move.

I have known Ian Macfarlane since the 1980s, when we both served on the Grains Council of Australia. He ticks nearly every box. He has the capacity and the experience in negotiations on difficult issues – the emissions trading scheme dealings with Penny Wong when Turnbull was opposition leader, for instance. He is intellectually above all the Nats with the possible exception of Truss, who to his credit is a man who considers detail to be important.

It must be noted that Macfarlane was originally approached by Truss. Joyce attempted to play himself into the negotiations but was quickly bludgeoned by Truss. Macfarlane is no fan of Joyce’s and Macfarlane’s motives were not about a sudden yearning to help farmers and an opportunity to wear his Akubras. It was Joyce who spread the fiction that the proposed move was about the Nationals gaining the numbers necessary to be awarded another Coalition ministry – and what an extraordinary admission for a minister of the Crown, the deputy party leader of the Nats, to say his party needed an extra minister in cabinet to get anything done – and the media swallowed his line.

And yet Macfarlane is one of the few friends that Turnbull has in the building. He remained loyal during the Abbott coup over climate change in 2009. He was with Turnbull when the counter coup took place. Macfarlane would recognise that some of Joyce’s loopy policies, such as building dams everywhere, won’t stack up in many cases and historically has had little time for the Nats. He detests Joyce for the opportunistic way he treated climate change in 2009.

Adding to the barn dance is the fact there is no Nationals party in Queensland: they merged prior to the great success story of Campbell Newman.

All this is very well for political buffs, but what about the policy initiatives that made voters see Turnbull as a breath of fresh air? The custodian, the visionary, the man of the future, the man espousing “new politics” and the end of combative destruction, who would embrace the intellect of the community?

That man may never have existed – or perhaps he can’t exist within the current Coalition. One example is the innovation statement. Encouraging as it is, the language of an innovative and agile business sector gives virtually no regard to the major conduit, the national broadband network, and the action of the Turnbull government to axe the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, or the brushing aside of a carbon price in Paris as an innovation driver on the major global economic and environmental issue of climate change. Turnbull knows this doesn’t add up, but seems powerless to travel his own road.

Macfarlane’s pitch for the Nationals seat – and, likely, their leadership – was a little bright spot. Some saw it as cynical, but politics has never had too much of a problem with that. Instead, though, we have Macfarlane considering whether he will even stay in parliament. And Joyce sits, waiting for the disaster that will be his ascension in the party – the terror of this idiot making it as deputy prime minister. It’s enough to see you almost pity Malcolm.

There’s a lot of gloss around in politics at the moment, but not much substance. The punters are starting to sense that, and they will want more from Turnbull. He just needs to find a way to make his party let him deliver – if he can. Having Macfarlane in the Nats – leading the Nats, even – would have been a big help. But that option is now gone. Irrespective of what happens next, Turnbull may find his own prophetic words, uttered on the ABC’s 7.30 last week, coming back to haunt him. Quote: “The biggest mistake that any politician can make is underestimating the intelligence of the Australian people.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Bold Macfarlane bought the farm".

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Tony Windsor is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.