The view from Billinudgel

The great dominators
Attacking Bill Shorten won’t give Malcolm Turnbull the policy legitimacy he needs


Paul Keating regarded parliamentary performance as a crucial part of his leadership. If you couldn’t win in the parliament, he declared, you couldn’t win in the country.

And it now appears that Malcolm Turnbull has belatedly taken the maestro’s advice. For the past fortnight, our formerly urbane prime minister has dominated the House of Representatives; indeed, he has all but blown it away.

Turnbull has raged remorselessly against Bill Shorten, calling him a hypocrite, a fake, a sycophant, a sucker-up, a parasite and a man who will say anything to gain advantage. Don’t listen to what he says, our leader bellowed. Look at how he acts.

Bravura rhetoric, certainly, but not without risk. Because the biggest criticism of Turnbull since his ascension to the top chair has been that he has behaved in precisely the same way.

He is the one who has deserted all his earlier principles, caving in to the agenda of the far right to gain the vital votes that delivered him to the Liberal leadership. He is the one who has abandoned climate-change policy, same-sex marriage, the push for a republic. Hypocrisy? Fake?

And as for sucking up – even apart from his kowtowing to the likes of Peter Dutton, Barnaby Joyce and even the real fringe-dwellers like Cory Bernardi and George Christensen, he is seldom seen away from the rich and famous whom he has cultivated all his adult life.

The irony is that Turnbull, in his own account of his rise, constantly tries to play down his wealth and privilege. We are constantly regaled with stories of his upbringing in a rented home, raised by a single parent, how he made his way up by sheer grit and determination to achieve the position he now sees as his right.

As Turnbull tells it, it is a classic log cabin to White House fable, a noble saga of aspiration triumphant. But Shorten also came from humble beginnings – rather more humble than the sizeable cash inheritance that came Turnbull’s way. And he too has reached leadership of the party of his choice (and very nearly toppled the incumbent prime minister in his first go at it). For all of Turnbull’s shouting, the comparisons are irresistible.

But the real flaw in Turnbull’s strategy is its sheer negativity. The great dominators of parliament – Menzies, Whitlam and Keating, most notably – all had something to say: they were policy powerhouses, intent on changing the nation in their own images. There was plenty of attack, plenty of invective, but it was all aimed at providing a genuine agenda.

Turnbull, so far at least, seems to be ranting simply for the sake of ranting. If he is really to listen to the wisdom of Paul Keating, it might be an idea to heed one of his other maxims – the one that made him the most audaciously successful economic reformer in recent times. “Good policy,” said the great man succinctly, “is good politics.”

This, surely, is the message that Turnbull needs, and the one he is apparently determined to ignore.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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