A man for some seasons
The times may not suit Malcolm Turnbull
In July 1986, John Howard famously said “the times will suit me”. Facing a wildly popular Labor prime minister in Bob Hawke, and himself leading a divided party, Howard misjudged the timing by a decade. In fact, the heady pace of 1980s economic reform and Paul Keating’s conflict-driven prime ministership would buttress Howard’s later electoral dominance, one defined by his use of the phrase “comfortable and relaxed” prior to the 1996 federal election.
The dominant note of media reportage of Malcom Turnbull’s recent ascension to the prime ministership – putting aside vacuous commentary pertaining to his supposed “popularity” among voters in recent opinion polls – has been one of optimism and hope. A Turnbull prime ministership, we are told ad nauseam, will be all about embracing the future, in stark contrast to the fearful, backwards-looking tenor of Tony Abbott’s now-deceased regime.
“We are at the beginning of a new era in Australian politics”, cheered former Howard cabinet minister Amanda Vanstone in The Age. “For the first time in ages, when my mind turns to politics I have both high hopes and a happy heart.” Mal Brough, an improbable choice as the new Special Minister of State given his controversial role in the Ashby–Slipper affair, actually said this of the Turnbull redux: “The smile on Malcolm Turnbull’s face, the body language is as important as what he is saying because people want to be uplifted, they want to feel that they can embrace the future and there is a vision there to do that.”
Such a reading is not altogether confected. As Frank Bongiorno notes in a perceptive essay for Inside Story, “considerable optimism has been invested in Turnbull’s prime ministership”, largely on the basis of the disillusionment with both major political parties since 2007. Yet, as Bongiorno insists, we should not confuse the media’s reception of Turnbull’s ascent with the judgement that the broader electorate will form over coming months. “The media love this kind of thing because they largely share his combination of progressive social values and market economics”, he judges, warning of the gallery’s fickle mood. “So far, they have managed to persuade themselves that this former journalist and media lawyer is in some manner one of them – despite his huge ego, immense wealth and vaulting ambition.”
But do the times really suit a Turnbull prime ministership? It is difficult to believe that Turnbull, who next month turns 61, can break the habits of a lifetime, and in his own words “restore traditional Cabinet government”, free of “policy on the run and captain’s calls”.
As Paul Strangio points out, Turnbull’s pledge to reinstate proper cabinet processes has been a recurring promise of his recent predecessors, Liberal and Labor, each of whom “struggled to live up to these pledges”. It may be beyond Turnbull, too, given long-term trends such as the expansion and centralisation of decision-making power within the Prime Minister’s Office, a “hyper-paced and technologically agile media environment” and the “broader phenomenon of the personalisation of politics” which encourages a culture of leadership predominance.
In any case, can Turnbull really deliver “advocacy, not slogans”? His leadership track record is mediocre at best. While he blamed John Howard for “breaking the heart” of Australians by virtue of campaigning against an Australian republic at the 1999 referendum, Turnbull’s own leadership of the Australian Republican Movement bears more responsibility.
Then there is the small matter of his performance as Opposition leader in 2008 and 2009, a divisive, chaotic era punctuated by the dreadful judgment he exhibited during the Godwin Grech affair. Few would describe Turnbull’s previous roles as a cabinet minister as the pinnacle of quality public policy making. More than firm advocacy, voters may recall Turnbull’s tendency to verbosity. Indeed, this was on display at his first press conference as prime minister designate, when he drifted into talk of political science characterisations of Australia as a “Washminster” parliamentary system and, having promised to answer one further question, proceeded to take a further two, only desisting at the urging of his deputy Julie Bishop. And how far can Turnbull’s renowned charm carry his government? Paul Keating once remarked of his fellow-travelling republican: “You light him up, there’s a bit of a fizz but then nothing – nothing.” And it remains a very real prospect that Turnbull will not be granted a clean run at the prime ministership. The ideological divisions and personal animosities that characterise the post-Howard Coalition will not be so easily heal.
Much the same may be said of the policy directives of Turnbull’s administration. Turnbull once vowed that he would never be “a mouthpiece or a patsy or a tool” of climate change deniers, but now presides over an administration virtually committed to such a stance. And in regards to the issue that will ultimately decide the next election, Turnbull’s promise of policy optimism and hope may be a serious misreading. He says that “we are living as Australians in the most exciting time”, but that is not arguably how the majority of voters view the current economic outlook. Declarations of positivity cannot so easily assuage public angst about the post-mining boom economy’s future. This is to say nothing of the end of the car-making industry, scheduled for 2017, and the disastrous flow-on effects that will spread throughout other sectors of the economy. It might not be a popular reading among the political class, but Turnbull’s brand of market and social liberalism, circumscribed as it is by the realpolitik of the Coalition’s ideological makeup, has little to say of the yearning of many Australians for an economic future characterised by stability rather than flux.
“Malcolm Turnbull,” Vanstone wrote, “recognises that change is inevitable and that it brings opportunities.” True enough, for the new prime minister, but what about for his ultimate judges?
Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.