The Politics    Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The ghost of Turnbulls past

By Sean Kelly

Malcolm Turnbull had an awful night on TV

Malcolm Turnbull gave an awful, awful interview last night.

It won’t be remembered in the annals of Australian political history as an all-time terrible interview, for the merciful reason that there was no car crash moment. Instead, it was more like watching the OJ Simpson car chase: a slow-speed, drawn-out exercise in terribleness, flavoured with a combination of awe and ennui. I was so bored by the time it finished that I was actually amazed by how bored I was. I felt a little ashamed of myself for watching all the way to the end, but I was more ashamed for the prime minister, and I suppose that was what kept me watching.

But I am committing the sin that Turnbull himself committed, which is to talk only in generalities. Let’s get specific.

The first and most worrying thing from the 7.30 interview is that the PM seemed to have scant detail about his own innovation statement, announced earlier that day. This is supposed to be his bailiwick: a technology announcement by a man who loves technology, support offered to entrepreneurs by the nation’s best-known entrepreneur.

Two questions in, host Leigh Sales asked: “There was I think $13 million to go towards the greater participation of women in science and maths areas. That sounds pretty general and nebulous. I mean, what specifically would that $13 million be spent on?”

This was a problem Turnbull had referred to in his answer to Sales’ first question, so you’d think he’d be across it. You’d be wrong. He started with “Well it’s all to do with programs and awareness and it’s – it is a – it’s a really – you’ve put your finger on actually one of the biggest challenges we face.” Really, prime minister, that’s all you’ve got? He added a few more lines, after Sales prodded him, but the only extra specific he gave, and I’m being generous here, was “mentoring”.

He then went on to mention a couple of specific elements of the innovation statement – nothing to do with the question, mind you – before ending by saying we needed a cultural shift: “We have to be prepared, and when I say ‘we’, I mean the ABC, the government, every business. We’ve got to be prepared to do things differently tomorrow than we did yesterday because the pace of change and the world in which we live is unprecedentedly fast and so we have to treat all of that change in the world as creating great opportunities. That’s why I keep on saying, and it’s true, there’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.”

But without specifics, all of this fancy talk is just a longer version of Tony Abbott’s approach. I don’t care whether it’s a three-word slogan or a 50-word slogan, and I doubt the public do either: a slogan is still a bloody slogan. I like the sound of “cultural shift”, but I’d like to hear the PM explain, with arguments and examples, how the policies he announced today will make it happen.

Having given Turnbull a chance, which he flubbed, to talk about his pet project, Sales used the second half of the interview to push him onto more defensive ground. Some politicians do better under pressure, when they have to fight a little. Last night, it seemed Turnbull was not one of them. The interview got worse. 

Sales asked about the NBN, about Mal Brough, and about Ian Macfarlane. None of these questions should have been unexpected. Sales’ assertions about the NBN were “simply not true”, Turnbull said. Asked about the potential slow speed of a copper network, he seemed genuinely surprised these things were being put to him. He didn’t want to go into “the ins and outs of Mr Brough’s remarks”. He didn’t want to go into “discussions between myself and ministers on this or any other matter”. The “internal workings of the Coalition” were “really best discussed internally”.

Some observations, then.

First, it seemed very much as though Turnbull had not been briefed. This could be Turnbull’s own fault, deciding that he was across the material, and prepared for the interview, when he was not. It could be a senior staff member telling his media staff he does better when left to himself, which is the type of thing that can seem true up until the moment you become prime minister. It could be his media staff. (I’ve seen all of these things happen and made some of these mistakes myself.) It doesn’t matter why it happened. It needs to be fixed.

That seems very insider-y of me, I know, and as an ex-press secretary I’m happy to admit there is also a danger of over-briefing politicians, which can ensure they look like bad actors. So far it has seemed to me that Turnbull is smart enough and experienced enough to avoid this. But he cannot afford to go too far in the other direction, because the consequences were there last night for all to see.

Those consequences were, first, a lost opportunity to explain to the country why his innovation statement was important.

Second, and more worrying, last night’s performance gave everyone a glimpse of the Turnbull we have been warned about, the 2009 Turnbull we had been promised had been done away with: smug, waffling, too sure of himself to feel the need to make a case properly. Much more of that and it will begin to hurt him.

Third, the PM, in simply batting away every question about large-p Politics (Brough, Macfarlane, Warren Truss’s response on Macfarlane), risked sending a message of contempt to the public. He is of course right not to want to speak about these things very much. But to simply refuse to answer ignores reality, which is that these relate to the internal dynamics of the parties which have been elected to govern this country, and to choices Turnbull himself has made (about promoting Brough and demoting Macfarlane). Voters have a right to expect more openness than that, especially from a man who has championed honesty in politics.

Back in 2012 Turnbull said this:

I am not suggesting politicians are innately less accurate or truthful than anyone else. But rather that the system is not constraining, in fact it is all too often rewarding, spin, exaggeration, misstatements … Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent’s policy does not respect “Struggle Street”, it treats its residents with contempt … Call me idealistic if you like, but we have a greater need than ever for informed and honest debate.

Turnbull now has the best chance he will ever have to show us that he meant what he said.

 

Today’s links

  • End times: Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. This is truly dreadful, and one can only hope that this is the beginning of the end for Trump in the presidential race. This gem from the New York Times: “Asked what prompted his statement, Mr. Trump said, ‘death,’ according to a spokeswoman.”
  • The announcement everyone knew was coming – Joe Hockey will be Australia’s next Ambassador to the US, taking over from Kim Beazley. Hockey says if he’d stuck around in politics it would have been to get even. Labor expressed some doubt about the wisdom of the choice.
  • And that other vanquished office-holder, Tony Abbott, won’t be making a decision about whether to stay in parliament until around April next year.
  • Both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten had a bad week in the polls. Turnbull fell more, but of course Shorten was starting from a way behind. Shorten had a fair bit to say about it all.
  • Push for WWII veterans to have the right to die with dignity.
  • Perhaps you missed yesterday’s story about Tony Abbott buying a fridge. Here, let me help you with that

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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