Losing focus
Malcolm Turnbull’s tirade revealed more about the PM than it did about Bill Shorten

Breathless. It’s the only word that adequately sums up most of the press gallery’s reportage of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s withering, highly personal attack on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in yesterday’s parliamentary question time. Turnbull has his “mojo back” is the basic refrain, a repeat of the trend among the commentariat that I identified writing here last year. Any pretence of rational assessment of the motives, meaning and likely impact of the speech is dispensed with. “This is the sort of Turnbull the govt needed during the campaign,” one journalist tweeted, adding, rather incomprehensibly, “Shorten actually unlikeable/phoney when this stuff put under a light.” With the honourable exception of this take by veteran journalist Michelle Grattan, so much for sober objectivity.

The reportage says more about the gallery than about the speech itself, or even Shorten’s prospects. Rather, Turnbull’s tirade demonstrated three things. First of all, Liberal focus groups are evidently telling staffers and apparatchiks that the public is still getting to grips with the proposition of “Bill Shorten, Prime Minister”. A less emotive, restrained version of Turnbull’s rhetoric has been on display for weeks. Fair enough. Doubts will always hover over an Opposition leader until they grasp the top job. Few Opposition leaders actually lead the prime minister of the day on the polling question of “Who is your preferred PM?”

Second, Turnbull’s assault was clearly a diversion from his troubled first week back in Canberra, and an appeal to nervous backbenchers contemplating the year ahead. Attack, it appears, is the best means of defence, given the sense of impending doom enveloping Turnbull’s government. The summer break was punctuated by the resignation of the health minister, the Centrelink fiasco, ongoing leadership tensions between the PM and his predecessor, poor polling, and Senator Cory Bernardi’s defection on Tuesday.

It also points to a longer-term feature of Turnbull’s leadership, as leader of the Republican movement in the 1990s, in Opposition, and as prime minister. Facing or having suffered defeat or under sustained pressure, he is prone to exposing how rattled he is by lashing out or overreaching. In the former respect, witness his description of how John Howard had “broken the nation’s heart” on the night of the republican referendum’s defeat, or his ungracious speech in the wee hours of election night 2016. With the latter, the Utegate affair springs to mind, when he relied upon the falsified email handed over by Godwin Gretch.

Yesterday’s events brought both tendencies together. Turnbull’s righteous anger was palpable and his overreach substantial: describing one’s opponent as a “parasite” or “sycophant” is scarcely likely to play out well with unaligned voters. Then there was the strange accusation that Shorten was guilty of the crime of being a “social climber”, with Turnbull adding today, in respect of his recent phone call with Donald Trump, “I don’t suck up to billionaires. I look them in the eye.” Yet the Coalition has spent the best part of the past few decades talking up aspirations and social mobility. The implication that “Shorten doesn’t belong in this class (like I do)” gives off the impression of snobbish disdain, precisely the image Turnbull’s opponents are attempting to paint. And while partisans might relish watching endless hours of YouTube videos of a Paul Keating or Howard in command of parliament, savage attacks don’t sit well with an already sceptical public, if they register outside of the bubble at all. (“Who is Dick Pratt?” non-Victorians might ask. “What on earth is ‘Cristal’?” nonplussed beer drinkers ponder.) If they do resonate, it is difficult to quantify their impact: Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech may have won her support from some quarters but lost it from others. It did nothing to prevent Tony Abbott from winning the 2013 election.

In any case, Turnbull’s tirade largely failed to speak to the issues of most concern to the voters who will decide whether he continues to reside at The Lodge or reprises his “Mr Harbourside Mansion” role, and permanently so. If anything, it is likely to act as a reminder that while the national economy remains weak, full-time jobs disappear in favour of casualised and part-time work, real wages are stagnant, and childcare costs continue to grow, a prime minister they came to expect great things from is more interested in character assassination than in his fabled mantra of “jobs and growth”. Turnbull’s effort may do more to alter voters’ perception of his own performance: to make them think that his focus is on preventing his rivals, Shorten and those on his own side, from taking his job, rather than protecting their interests.

Like most of Turnbull’s political endeavours to date, that can’t end well.

Nick Dyrenfurth

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.

@dyrenfurth

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