The Politics    Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fortune favours the lucky

By Sean Kelly

Does Turnbull mean what he says about luck?

There was an interesting moment on 7.30 last night when Malcolm Turnbull said this:

The fact is we've all got to recognise that much of our good fortune is actually good fortune. Of course you work hard. Look, I'll give you an example. I remember when I was a partner of Goldman Sachs in New York, very successful investment bank, everyone was earning very big money, the chairman, the chief executive of the firm gave a sort of pep talk to the partners and he said, you know, ‘We’re doing well. We’re making lots of money, ’cause we work hard and we deserve it.’ And I said to him afterwards, just quietly, I said, ‘You know, there are taxi drivers in this city that work much longer hours than anyone does here and they don’t earn very much at all.’ So, the truth is, we don't really deserve our good fortune.

There’s been a bit of fun since at Turnbull’s expense for his Goldman Sachs references, but whatever: that’s his life. The curious thing is that last sentence: “we don’t really deserve our good fortune”.

At first glance it seems merely humble, or perhaps empathetic. And it is both of those things. But it is also an expression of a philosophy you would, in usual circumstances, be much more likely to hear from somebody on the other side of politics. Pretty much every politician will concede, as Turnbull did, that luck and hard work both play a role in life. Conservative politicians are more likely to err on the side of hard work as the dominant factor, though – hence the rhetoric about choice, about dole bludgers, about asylum seekers who “jump the queue”, about high income earners being forced to pay huge amounts of tax. Politicians on the left are more likely to emphasise luck, and therefore focus on the social safety net and the importance of services like public schools and public hospitals.

That’s a simplification, of course, and much more true in other nations, where the poles of politics are more extreme – the US Republican antipathy towards paying tax is much more significant than Liberal feelings on the subject. Australia’s two major parties are centrist, and therefore tend to overlap.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear Turnbull’s take. Just as it was interesting to hear him answer a question from Leigh Sales about whether he, a rich smart bloke, could understand what ordinary families go through, with very similar words to Julia Gillard when she was asked a similar question on Q&A.

Gillard in 2010:

There’s never going to be one Australian who can encapsulate in their own life experience the story of every other Australian. You’ve always got to be prepared to listen and learn from other people’s experiences. I’m never going to know what it’s like to be an Indigenous Australian. I’m never going to know what it’s like to be someone who has a disability and has had to negotiate the world with that disability. John Howard didn’t know what it was like to be a mother and so the list goes on.

Turnbull in 2015:

The truth is nobody can have experienced exactly the same experience of any other Australian. The important thing is to have the emotional – emotional intelligence and the empathy and the imagination that enables you to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to be able to sit down with them on a train or on a – in the street, hear their story and have the imagination to understand how they feel. Emotional intelligence is probably the most important asset for – certainly for anyone in my line of work.

While we’re on similarities between Turnbull and Gillard, how about that Newspoll? In case you missed it the Coalition gained five primary points on the latest Newspoll (slightly fewer than Gillard when she took over from Rudd, slightly fewer than Rudd when he took over from Gillard) and went from 46% of the two party vote to a lead of 51%. Turnbull also got a huge bump on the preferred PM numbers from the dog days of Tony Abbott.

It would, of course, be interesting to ask Turnbull how much of that was luck and how much hard work.

What do the numbers mean?

First, don’t let anybody tell you that 51% is a paltry result for the Coalition. It is a blockbuster result. The government has gone from what looked to be a structural deficit – 30 Newspolls in a row it was behind – to an election-winning position.

But that is all we know right now. The big question is whether this is a brief sugar hit, as Labor claims (and hopes), or whether the government has the potential to rise still further.

On that question we don’t know much yet, and won’t for a month or two. As I’ve said before, analysis based on one poll is usually bunkum. But I’m going to give it a go anyway.

I suspect that what we’re seeing is voters being cautious. They’ve seen two spills already in the past few years. They want to see what Turnbull is actually going to do; whether the threats by some Liberals of disunity come to fruition; whether stability is actually round the corner.

If Turnbull performs well in the next month or so – and his reshuffle went as well as he could have hoped – those numbers could easily rise. But, again, don’t judge entirely on the next poll: by the end of October or November we’ll have a much better sense.

So far, Turnbull hasn’t said much about what he’s going to do. That was part of the reason he occasionally seemed to be waffling on 7.30 – until he makes some decisions he will be relying almost entirely on rhetoric. That’s OK, provided he’s not rushing to an election right away. He has time up his sleeve.

When he does act – on tax reform, on industrial relations, on education – we’ll get a chance to see whether those fine words about luck in life are sincerely meant, or just fine words.


Today’s links

  • Tony Abbott sounds philosophical, except about Scott Morrison.
  • Peter Dutton will not sit as a permanent member of the National Security Committee. Bill Shorten attacked this. The Australian says this arrangement of the NSC is “a mirror image of that which operated during the first, second and fourth terms of the Howard government”.
  • A trio of Australian columnists: Malcolm Turnbull’s former chief of staff Chris Kenny offers Turnbull some advice. Greg Sheridan looks at what Tony Abbott should do next. Peter Brent hopes Turnbull’s elevation will spell the end of the Howard paradigm.
  • The new Defence Minister asks that she be judged on her performance, not her gender.
  • The pursuit of voting reform for the senate, in the senate, might hurt the government’s relations with the senate.
  • The SMH explains what happens when a minister is demoted.
  • Has Turnbull changed his mind on the NBN? Probably not. And a good analysis of why “disruption” is the new word in politics.
  • US news: Scott Walker drops out of the presidential race. The Pope comes to America.

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.


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