The view from Billinudgel

A tale of two leaders: Malcolm Turnbull and Emmanuel Macron
They have much in common, and yet their approaches to leadership couldn’t be more different


Malcolm Turnbull was properly effusive in his meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron, but there may also have been more than a touch of envy.

In many ways, Macron is the leader Turnbull could have been, should have been, and, one suspects in moments of introspection, would like to have been. And, on all the evidence, the general public would have liked it too.

Both men were above the normal ideological confines of left and right, well educated, independently wealthy, formidably articulate and hugely ambitious. They both had successful careers outside politics: Turnbull as a lawyer and sometime journalist; Macron as a philosopher and senior civil servant. And both made a lot of money from merchant banking, Turnbull in Goldman Sachs and Macron in Rothschild.

And they were both essentially centrist reformers: unashamed capitalists, free marketeers and globalists, but guided by genuine small-l liberal beliefs. Turnbull is fond of invoking solutions derived from engineering and economics, and Macron takes the same approach. This non-dogmatic, middle of the road agenda looked like a certain formula for success, and so it was initially received by the voters.

But then their paths diverged. Macron is indisputably his own man. He has already made it clear that if his program is blocked by reactionary elements from either the left or the right, he will give the game away: crash through or crash.

In the nicest possible way, Macron confronted and rejected Donald Trump’s stances on economic protection and climate change in front of the Congress, and has given Turnbull a lecture on the need to show leadership – as Macron does – in taking measures against global warming. Which Turnbull won’t, because he is no longer his own man.

It is true and obvious that Macron is an executive president, not a prime minister in the Westminster system, and so he has more clout and autonomy than Turnbull does. But Macron still faces fierce resistance, especially from the union movement in France, which has long been in need of a shake-up.

The point is that he is prepared to stand up his one-time supporters, to insist that he should govern in the national interest. And so he does what he said he would.

Turnbull, on the other hand, routinely capitulates, not only to his party room but also to any other perceived threats that might loosen his tenuous grip on power. He has opted not for achievement but survival, and as a result may well end up with neither.

It is easy to say that the fire has gone out of Turnbull’s belly, but that is to assume that it was there back in 2015 when he took office. In fact, the surrender took place almost immediately, with the concessions on everything from climate change to same-sex marriage.

Macron, in contrast, made no concessions to the reactionaries and dissenters in his national assembly, and, although it is still early days, shows no signs of flinching. And, having challenged the Turnbull government to lift its game on climate change, he left with applause on his way to the South Pacific, which one suspects was his real destination.

Turnbull reaffirmed the strong friendship between Australia and France, and waved Macron off with a cheerful au revoir. But wouldn’t it have been so much more impressive if he had linked arms with his guest to proclaim: “Allons enfants de nos patries – en marche!”

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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