In search of Turnbull’s mojo
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the prime minister is simply not up to the job
In September 2015 I found myself in unusual solidarity with the conservative pundit Andrew Bolt. As the Canberra press gallery and much of the general public salivated over the prospect of the then new prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull, Bolt and I stood almost alone in exercising a note of caution, albeit for differing reasons.
I pointed to Turnbull’s patchy leadership record and the incongruity of his rhetoric of “exciting times” with the tenor of the politics of the day, whereas Bolt condemned Turnbull as a wrecker who won the leadership “because the Liberals let his bull weaken their nerve and bury their judgment”. “He stole the prime ministership he could not have won in an election,” Bolt, a personal friend of Tony Abbott, thundered on his Herald Sun blog, “by boasting of superior communication skills he does not have. He will now campaign on successes by Abbott … He will now be the leader of a party he cannot unite.” He went on to warn: “Whether Turnbull wins the next election or loses, conservative Liberals will feel they have lost already, now that a man of such ‘progressive’ views has snatched the leadership of their party.” Bolt correctly identified Turnbull’s leadership inadequacies, even if he misjudged the ability of conservative Liberals to dominate the agenda of Turnbull’s new regime.
Common to our readings was a sense, to borrow a line from Billy Hughes’ withering appraisal of Robert Menzies, who defeated him for the leadership of the United Australia Party in April 1939 upon the death of Prime Minister Joe Lyons, that Turnbull “couldn’t lead a flock of homing pigeons”. Just over a year since he snatched the nation’s top job, question marks over Turnbull’s leadership continue to grow. Even the most ardent Liberal supporter finds it difficult to ascertain a significant program of reform or clear governing purpose. Instead, spectacular policy backflips (think superannuation), meandering public debates (lifting the GST rate and federalism) and a sense of drift have defined Turnbull’s government. Turnbull’s government nearly lost office at the 2 July federal election, a marathon affair called too late and which featured nary a word on the key legislative subject that triggered the double dissolution ballot: workplace relations. The latest disaster-in-waiting appears to be Turnbull’s doomed promise to implement the Abbott-inspired same-sex marriage plebiscite: a sop to the right wing of his party to secure the prime ministership.
Turnbull’s prime ministership is regularly described as disappointing. It should not come as a surprise. Yet with monotonous regularity claims are made that Turnbull has got his “mojo back”. The claim was routinely made in the lead up to and during the election. In the wake of the controversy surrounding Labor Senator Sam Dastyari and Turnbull’s recent international travels the mojo cries arose again, despite the looming plebiscite defeat and a Newspoll showing Labor leading the Coalition by the largest margin since Turnbull took office. Turnbull’s approval ratings have halved from 64% to 32% over the same period.
The truth is Turnbull isn’t going to get his mojo back. Turnbull’s outburst on election night mirrored his reaction to the republic referendum defeat of 1999 – he has a longstanding inability to take responsibility for his own mistakes. He fundamentally lacks political nous: the latest example being his refusal on Tuesday to unequivocally rule out softening Australia’s gun laws in return for maverick Senator David Leyonhjelm’s vote passing the government’s Australian Building Construction Commission Bill. Labor could not believe its luck, leading to an embarrassing prime-ministerial clarification a few hours later. Turnbull’s prosecution of thorny public debates is all too often a matter of declaring “This is the right thing to do because I say so.” His record as a minister in the Howard and Abbott governments is far from stellar. His approach to running the country smacks of dilettantism and a fundamental lack of political nous, in the manner of his opposition leadership in 2008–09. Indeed, the mojoistas’ wish is father to their thoughts. As I have written here before the commentariat largely share his cosmopolitan worldview, which combines progressive social values with an adherence to free-market economics, and frequently focusses on issues to pertaining to the former.
The flipside of the ongoing love affair between Turnbull and a large swathe of the press gallery is the underestimation of opposition leader Bill Shorten. (Disclosure: he is my former employer.) Shorten, a former leader of a large blue-collar union, hails from a world that is alien to their largely post-material concerns. His unglamorous personality and lack of designer suits rubs salt into the wound. Shorten’s strong showing at the 2016 election was met with a mixture of bewilderment and grudging respect.
(I bore personal witness to this loathing when a gallery reporter unleashed a vitriolic attack on the opposition leader following Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership: “a loser” and a “f-cking dumb c-nt” stood no chance against the nation’s new messiah. Underestimating Shorten is not unique to the left-liberal commentariat, however: Bolt wrote that, for Turnbull, “knocking off that soiled Labor leader should be a cinch”.)
Here, however, a note of caution should also be struck. On the two key issues that we can expect will determine the next election – economic competence and national security – surveys continue to indicate that the Coalition remains ascendant. Shorten has neutralised the latter issue, but the public perception that Labor is less able to balance the books and manage the economy lingers. Labor has formed a majority national government twice in the last 25 years: in 1993, when Paul Keating destroyed John Hewson’s plans for a GST, and in 2007, when Kevin Rudd neutralised the Liberal Party’s historic advantage in matters economic.
Billy Hughes judged Menzies’ first prime ministership correctly. After a bumbling two and a bit years he resigned as leader and thus prime minister of a divided UAP government in 1941, paving the way for John Curtin’s legendary wartime Labor administration. Menzies’ second incarnation as prime minister proved rather more successful – his 17 years as PM is a record that is almost certainly never to be broken. But Turnbull is no Menzies. The latter had been a member of state and federal parliaments for more than two decades when he wrested back the prime ministership at the 1949 election, whereas Turnbull has just chalked up 12 years in the federal parliament. Menzies faced a Labor Party that was on the nose with the electorate, most notably over the issue of Ben Chifley’s plan to nationalise the banking system. Menzies had learnt from his mistakes, cultivated a growing middle class, ran a largely effective cabinet government and ruthlessly exploited Labor’s Cold War divisions.
In 2016 Malcolm Turnbull, a fellow returnee to the Liberal leadership, faces a Labor Party that arguably has not been so united in more than two decades. He lacks the killer instinct of a Menzies, or even a John Howard. Menzies’ government enjoyed the fruits of Labor’s postwar reconstruction program and an economic boom shaped in part by a burgeoning manufacturing industry, notably local car-making. Next year the industry is set to shut down – scarcely exciting times for thousands of soon-to-be unemployed Australians and their families, and a prime minister in permanent search of his supposed political mojo.
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.