Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 08:41 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 08:41 | SYDNEY

Malcolm as Doc Evatt


Graeme Dobell

30 November 2009 14:25

Australian political parties seldom slay or lose their leader over an international issue. Especially from Opposition. But when a Party does tear at its own vitals over an international/ideological policy, the electoral damage is huge.

Malcolm Turnbull is shaping as the Doc Evatt of the Liberal Party. Both rate as highly intelligent men and outstanding lawyers. Both drove their colleagues to distraction. Evatt then sent his party over the edge into political oblivion for a generation. Turnbull has achieved the first part of the Evatt trick by deeply dividing his own party. And the Turnbull invective at his Liberal opponents does have a touch of the Doc's manic intensity against the traitors within the ranks.


Climate change is to be added to the short catalogue of international issues that have turned the course of Australian politics. Usually it is Labor that stabs at its own heart and brain. Consider the list of Labor splits: over conscription during World War I, over economic policy during the Great Depression, and the Evatt-era conflict over communism.

For the conservative side of politics, the only entry into this Parthenon is the party machinations that deposed Robert Menzies as Prime Minister in 1941. World War II was central to the revolt, but political personalities were nearly as important. Menzies did not fall in a party room vote. Having decided that 'my political leadership clearly rested upon nothing better than quicksands', Menzies resigned as leader and went away – in one of his great phrases – to 'lie down and bleed awhile.' Menzies then constructed a new entity – the Liberal Party — better suited to his personality.

What does this history offer to today's Liberal Party? One observation is that almost all the great splits over international policy have occurred to parties holding government. This is logical. Governments must decide, and the bigger the stakes – international as well as domestic — the harder the choice. It takes a special sort of leader to force an idealogical split in opposition, when the party doesn't hold power. Come in, Doc Evatt. Welcome, Malcolm Turnbull.

Another piece of the history lesson is that big splits over international issues take a long time to repair. In dealing with such wounds, the party must come up with a set of arguments about the vexed international issue that it can sell to the voters. In striking against Turnbull, Nick Minchin has painted his leader as a dupe of left wing forces:

For 10 years the left internationally have been very successful in exploiting peoples' innate fears about global warming and climate change to achieve their political ends.

 The Liberal Party cemented itself in office for decades as the anti-communist defender of Australia. Consider that context, then, for Minchin's description of climate change as the new version of communism:

For the extreme left it provides the opportunity to do what they've always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left, and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.

Such an argument is useful in speaking to the conservative base in Australia. It reinforces the slogan deployed by the National Party that climate change action is just another term for taxation.

The point about international policy conundrums in Australian politics is that they always, by definition, have a global context. The Liberal focus has been on the struggle inside the party room, not the international context. The Liberals may be about to resolve the personality issue, yet leave the party an even bigger set of policy headaches.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia and