Malcolm Turnbull: A Man for Any Other Season

With Turnbull’s memoirs due imminently, it seems timely to revisit this one.

I wrote it in the wake of the first leadership spill against Turnbull, and it ended up being a political eulogy within a day. Like most eulogies, I tried to be as nice as I could. No mention of Turnbull’s grandiose, bitter narcissism – exceeding even Kevin Rudd’s.

Was I too nice? You be the judge, dear reader.

Malcolm Turnbull is, by any measure, extraordinarily successful: Rhodes Scholar, self-made multi-millionaire, and prime minister of Australia. Remarkable achievements for a man whose early life was one of modest gentility, raised by his single father in a rented flat in Sydney’s Vaucluse – not, then, the gentrified haven of Sydney’s mega-wealthy that it is today.

As prime minister, Turnbull is overseeing a nicely bustling economy. Border security, the great bête noire of previous governments, is solid. Much as it infuriates the chattering classes, Turnbull is backing away from bad rubbish like the Paris Agreement. He has consistently out-polled Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister.

Yet, the Coalition government’s standing tanked under Turnbull, and has never recovered, despite occasional flashes of sunlight. Rumbling about his leadership is a growing din in Canberra. So why is a successful man, leading a relatively well-achieved government, in so much trouble?

Partly it’s a problem of trying to be all things to all people. Pollies like to wax pious about “bipartisanship”, but the truth is that we live in extraordinarily partisan times. Trying to be bipartisan just means that everyone hates you. A prime minister like Joe Lyons possessed an inscrutable personal “magic” that saw him often bring implacably warring factions – even Irish Catholics and Protestants – to the negotiating table. But politicians like Lyons are the rarest of beasts, and Turnbull is not one of them.

One of Turnbull’s biggest problems is that he wants to be a Green leader of a blue Coalition. He is a lefty at heart, the wettest of Liberal “wets”. He considered switching to Labor in the 90s. Even his wealth places him alongside the wealthiest voting bloc in Australia: the far-left Greens. His ascension to the leadership seemed largely facilitated by the mistaken belief that having a green-tinged leader would mollify Australia’s left-wing media-cultural elite.

That was sadly mistaken of course. The tribalist ninnies of the left would never side with the Coalition, under any leader. The only reason lefty pundits spruiked for Turnbull at all was because they wanted to install one of their own in the prime ministership until they could vote the Coalition out anyway.

Meanwhile, the Coalition’s base were enraged by the knifing of Abbott, and they certainly didn’t want him replaced with a lefty “wet”. Just as Trump voters loathe “RINO” Republicans, conservative voters despise Turnbull as a “LINO” (Liberal In Name Only) usurper.

Even more mystifying than the Coalition’s naiveté that they could somehow win the approval the feral green-left, was their apparent blindness to Turnbull’s political track record. As Opposition leader, he was a disaster. His fumbles and pratfalls, especially the Godwin Grech affair, saw the Coalition’s polling sink to record lows.

As Communications Minister under Abbott, Turnbull became indelibly linked to the failures of the National Broadband Network, the Kevin Rudd brainfart that became a multi-billion-dollar white elephant. The NBN was a poisoned chalice from the start, but in valiantly trying to rescue such a lemon, Turnbull took the rap for a concatenation of cockups of which his own were probably the least egregious.

So, Turnbull came to power as already damaged goods: a failed opposition leader, a failed minister, and a hated usurper. Even so, a great political leader could have turned all that around. But for all his life’s successes, Turnbull is not a great political leader. Lauded at first for his supposed communication skills, and engaging in person, in the media, Turnbull mostly comes across as a waffling bore. In a notorious radio interview, Turnbull answered exactly three questions in 30 minutes. Eddy Maguire’s colleagues observed that they’d never before seen Eddy unable to get a word in.

Australians dislike both grandiosity and prolixity. Keating was loathed for his self-aggrandising pomposity, but while Howard was a terrible speaker, his fumbling ordinariness endeared him to voters. Rudd was “death by PowerPoint”, where Abbott was plain-spoken and ruthless at hammering home three-word slogans.

In yesterday’s leadership spill, Turnbull hung on by just seven votes. This is anything but a good sign for the embattled PM. Keating took two stabs to oust Bob Hawke. Rudd took two to knife Gillard, as did Turnbull to do in Abbott. Each time, the leader was left living on borrowed time, and everyone knew it. The narrowly defeated challenger strategically retreated to the backbench and ruthlessly white-anted their tottering adversary.

Malcolm Turnbull is in many ways a remarkable person: a brilliant lawyer, an astonishingly successful businessman, and a competent politician. Unfortunately, what he doesn’t have is “mongrel”. In other times, Turnbull might have been a solid, if unspectacular prime minister. Sadly, for both he and the nation, these are not those times, and Turnbull isn’t the leader for them.

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