The Politics    Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Off the cuff

By Sean Kelly

Can Turnbull be himself and be PM?

Early in 2014 I attended the launch of the Saturday Paper. I wasn’t there in my own right; a mate had brought me along as his plus-one for the evening. I very nearly didn’t make it, though I can’t remember why. That’s pretty much the only thing I don’t remember, however. It was the last day of Febfast, so I can guarantee my memories of the evening are neither sparser nor warmer than they should be.

I’m glad I went because that evening I heard one of the funniest speeches I have ever heard. It was delivered by the then communications minister, now prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. You can find the written version online, but it’s a pale facsimile, with only passing resemblance to the speech that was actually delivered, and pretty much none of the jokes. There was reporting afterwards asking whether Turnbull had been mocking Rupert Murdoch, but the reality was the speech wasn’t aimed at anyone very much: Turnbull mocked himself and his hosts as much as anyone else. He owned the room.

I bring this up because this morning I found myself wondering: would Turnbull deliver that speech today?

This will be one of Turnbull’s trickiest challenges: how to remain himself while staying within the strictly monitored prime-ministerial parameters.

Once you become prime minister you are judged according to entirely new, and alien, standards. As I wrote a couple of days ago, you are suddenly marked almost entirely on what you do, and not the hopes people have invested in you. But it’s much more than that. Every single thing you do is watched. Every word you speak carries a weight that you will never have previously experienced. How to speak nimbly and freely while closely assessing the impact of each escaped phrase is a dilemma with which most of us do not have to grapple – at least not publicly.

Right now Turnbull seems relaxed, speaking fairly articulately, not looking too fazed by the mammoth change in his circumstances. The test will come when he makes his first verbal error – says something he did not mean to say, or uses a word with an everyday meaning that has a very different meaning when it issues from the mouth of a national leader – and a national clamour erupts. It is those moments that bring on self-consciousness.

We have by now been told repeatedly of Julia Gillard’s warmth and humour and Tony Abbott’s charm – when they are in private. And anyone who has seen Gillard on stage in her post-politics life can attest to how funny she can be, now her every word won’t wind up on television. And we also know that both struggled to get that side of themselves across to voters.

My advice to Turnbull would be: don’t think about it too much. Easier said than done, of course. There is a lot of pressure on, all the time, and the temptation to overthink your presentation is constant. But Turnbull is eloquent, and has gravitas; he should trust to that. In particular, he should ignore anybody who tells him to be “prime ministerial”. This phrase is bandied around a lot in politics, and it only serves to confuse things. The reality is that there is no set way to perform in the job, and therefore no set definition of the phrase. Most of us will only experience a handful of prime ministers in our lifetime. Each is different from the next. It is up to each to shape the public’s idea of what “prime ministerial” really means.

Right now, it is up to Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. The test of a good prime minister, of course, is not whether they can crack jokes or deliver witty speeches. Turnbull will ultimately be judged on what he achieves in policy terms. But, at the same time, being prime minister is a uniquely personal job. The policies you pursue, the image of the nation you present, the alliances you forge, are all dictated by your own beliefs and choices. Many people are asking this week whether Turnbull can remain true to himself, given the divergence between his past convictions and some of the policy compromises he has been and will be forced to make. It might not seem like much, but whether he is still delivering uncensored, unscripted, funny speeches a year from now will be an important clue.


Today’s links

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.


The Politics

Composite image of Nationals MP George Christensen and Greens leader Adam Bandt (both images © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images)

Friends like these

Labor distances itself from the Greens, while the Coalition does little to condemn the actual radicals in its own ranks

Image of former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in September. Image © Dan Himbrechts / AAP Images

Gladys for Warringah?

In attempting to take down an independent MP, Morrison is helping pro-integrity candidates across the country

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time earlier this week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Go figure

How did Labor end up with an emissions-reduction target of just 43 per cent?

Tudge and go

Is Morrison’s standing down of Alan Tudge a sign that he’s listening to women or watching the polls?

From the front page

Composite image of Nationals MP George Christensen and Greens leader Adam Bandt (both images © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images)

Friends like these

Labor distances itself from the Greens, while the Coalition does little to condemn the actual radicals in its own ranks

Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Image of Australian Bicentenary protest, Sydney, NSW, 1988

The stunted country

There can be no republic without constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man