November 21, 2014

The end of the affair

By Mark Bahnisch
The end of the affair
© Julia Kingma
Will the Left now finally leave Malcolm Turnbull?

I don’t watch Q&A very often. My efforts to do so, as a matter of perceived public duty, often fail within the first five minutes: if I’m not infuriated by the answers, the questions get to me. That may be unfair, as sometimes there are genuinely interesting unscripted enquiries, but far too often for my taste at least, questions are twists on the commentariat talking points of the week.

Among the other reasons I don’t watch Q&A is my disgust at the leftie love shown on the inescapable Twitter to Malcolm Turnbull during his leather-jacketed sojourns on the big screen. Having recently moved from digs with pay TV to digs without, I was channel surfing on Monday night, bemoaning the dearth of old Poirot eps on free-to-air.

After stumbling across Big Mal on Q&A, I was about to surf on (after quickly noting a sartorial segue from leather to cotton blazer). My ears pricked up, though, when I realised that he was playing Daniel in Lion’s Den: announcing cuts to the ABC while appearing on it.

All hell, predictably, broke loose on Twitter.

I didn’t stay around to watch, but I did feel moved to post on Facebook that I imagined that the leftie love-in with Malcolm was now over.

It had always puzzled me. Yes, Mr Turnbull is urbane. Yes, he is socially liberal. Yes, he has a certain wit. He likes dogs.

His haphazard and short term tenure as Opposition Leader, with his excitable and wrong-headed pursuit of KRudd and Wayne Swan at the instance of the amazingly named Godwin Grech, appears forgotten.

Similarly, no one seems to remember that Malcolm announced that he was leaving Parliament because he could not agree with Tony Abbott on climate change (or maybe because he was not on the front bench). Presumably he managed to settle their differences because as the 2010 election loomed, the past and present Member for Wentworth saddled up again for a future frontbench gig.

Memories are short.

Whether it was Malcolm’s putative charm, or the residual kudos of his championing of the Republic, or even the old stories that he had once considered representing Labor in parliament, he sailed into government and got away with dismantling the NBN with a lot of raised eyebrows and grimaces every time he mentioned Tony Abbott’s name.

Well, the geeks had long left the Turnbull fan club, but it seems his popularity with Labor and Greens voters continued.

Pounced on by Andrew Bolt because he supped with Clive Palmer, Mal proved popular because editors immediately smelled “leadership murmurings” and pollsters polled accordingly.

It’ll be interesting to see the next poll. Peter Lewis of EMC speculated back in June that Turnbull’s soaring polls after his appalling leadership ratings were because when it doesn’t matter, he has “a debonair presence that (rises) above the partisan fray”.

No doubt.

But Tony Abbott’s made sure he can’t do that. Whether or not he makes it clear that he wasn’t consulted about appointments such as Janet Albrechtsen’s to vet potential ABC and SBS board members, there comes a point where no amount of signalling, wincing and grimacing will absolve him from responsibility, whether or not he has a more managerialist approach to public broadcasting “efficiencies” than the right wing crusaders and Murdoch culture warriors.

That point, surely, came on Monday night. It’s painful to watch.

Malcolm may be a jovial multi-millionaire, and he no doubt does believe in the ABC as an institution unlike many of his colleagues (it would be as much watched in the eastern suburbs of Sydney as in the bush), but having made the decision to enter the Abbott cabinet, he is hoist on his own petard. He’s been outplayed in the political game by the PM, who, we would do well to remember, was himself the winner of a leadership contest against one … Malcolm Turnbull.

So, what does explain Turnbull’s appeal to Labor and Greens voters?

It’s partly as Peter Lewis says. It’s much easier to be popular without responsibility. Clive Palmer, another very wealthy man, is finding the same now he actually has to do deals with the Abbott government.

But there are at least two other stories here.

First, Turnbull has (or had) much of the same appeal Kevin Rudd once had to a certain constituency – urbane, thoughtful, concerned about more than the quotidian, focused intelligently on the future. The vacuum of thoughtful or inspiring leadership now plaguing both sides of politics will be filled by spectres. Fairly or not, Bob Brown’s replacement by Christine Milne also leaves a void in the inspiration stakes.

Secondly, it’s not just who happens to be leader, or how they got there. Australian politics has a crisis of authority. So broken is our politics that there’s a yearning for leadership that’s responsive, sane, smart. Abbott played to that too – “adults in government” and all that. Broken too are Tony Abbott’s promises, though, and Malcolm is the messenger.

If there’s a quest for salvation in Australian politics, then, the Messiah never quite comes. When one who might be arrives, sailing in on the clouds of Twitter love, they get down and dirty in politics as it actually exists in this country and they’re found to be just another false prophet.

Leather jacket or tailored cotton blazer – or sackcloth and ashes – it’s hard to be a voice crying in the wilderness when you also sit on the green benches. When the once and future King first lost his seat at the dispatch box, it was mooted that he would form his own party. Perhaps that was Malcolm Turnbull’s best shot, or perhaps he would have proved to be just another pollie. I suspect we will now never know, as I also suspect his effort on Monday night’s Q&A may prove to be his swansong among progressive voters.

Mark Bahnisch

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist, writer and consultant. He founded the popular progressive blog Larvatus Prodeo, and has analysed Australian politics across a variety of media since 2004. He is currently writing Everything You Need to Know About Queensland But Were Afraid to Ask for NewSouth Publishing, forthcoming in May this year.

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