It’s been a bit over a year since the shock almost loss of the Federal Election by the ALP and more than that since the speculation about the reanimation of the Turnbull soufflé began. It’s a constant and consistent meme amongst political commentators and those who consider themselves knowledgeable and well read about politics.
We know how this narrative goes by now – the Liberals would almost certainly win the next Federal Election if only they ditched Tony Abbott and inserted Turnbull into the big chair. This would be because, the narrative goes, Abbott is unpopular amongst women and is purely negative and original policy and idea-free. He thinks economics is boring and has no nose for policy. His socially conservative, religion based beliefs would hurt him out in secular Australia and his climate scepticism makes him a big risk for people. Turnbull, however, would attract women to the Liberals because of his inclusiveness, socially progressive views, has a proven track record in business and is a supporter of positive climate change actions. He has ideas, vision, policy thoughts and isn’t an aggressive bully who spends more time running and swimming than reading things. Finally, according to this narrative, Turnbull would attract second preference votes from the Greens in those areas where voters are still preferencing the ALP – he seems to believe in climate action more than Gillard and the NSW Right machine that powers her value neutral pragmatism. He really does stand in the middle of Australian politics – not too right or left.
It’s an attractive narrative. We’ve had it from Jane Shaw, amongst others. It is attractive especially to those people who love politics and want it to have a close relationship to policy and genuine reform. Abbott’s continuation as leader, and, to a lesser extent, Gillard’s continuation as Prime Minister, seems to show a preference for the simplification of politics to mindless catchphrases and simplification of politics to risk averse numbness. A return to Turnbull as Opposition Leader and Rudd as PM would take us back to where policy is important and the politics would be intelligent.
Just like the Godwin Grech business.
When I read Annabel Crabb’s excellent essay on Turnbull, the one thought that kept repeating was “he can’t stay as leader”. Crabb’s portrait showed us a restless, brilliant mind that was always engaged, able to focus on big ideas with precision, but easily distracted and a figure that would leave many puzzled and confused with that brilliance of presence and mind. Not to me ideal material for an Australian Prime Minister. I know that Paul Keating had a brilliant mind and is able to focus on big ideas with precision, but he was able to play his vaudeville act when needed – but did manage, over time, to alienate a large chunk of the Australian population with his inability to reduce the size of his ideas and play to the people who didn’t want Australia to “waste taxpayers’ dollars” on things “that don’t matter”. Telling was a conversation I had this year with the at-the-time surprise new member for Lindsay, Jackie Kelly. She was assured she didn’t have a hope of winning in 1996 – she didn’t resign her position with the armed forces because of that. However – despite our economic prosperity – people were in a dark mood at the election and just wanted Keating out. This just adds to my suspicion that many Australians, I believe, cannot handle a brilliant, ideas-focused person as Prime Minister. Hence, Turnbull would be equally hard to handle.
What else would keep Turnbull out is something that is often downplayed by the politically focused commentators – the Weekday News / Sunrise / ACA / Today Tonight effect. Turnbull plays very well on Lateline, Q & A, 7.30 and other more serious news programs. Better, every time, than Abbott. When Abbott is confronted with economic and climate change logic, his own statements and policies, he often stumbles, unlike Turnbull. It is a reality, however, that most people don’t watch these shows or follow their arguments and analysis of policy.
Abbott is more a creature of the short grab weekday news, current affairs and Sunrise program – get on, say your piece about how bad the government is and get off before any serious discussion is done. And if it’s not Abbott doing it, it will be one of his army of machines doing the same thing. It’s an effective thing, continually bagging the government – it’s a constant of our contemporary political period, except perhaps in the Beazley and Crean periods as opposition leaders.
The one modern opposition leader we have as a previous template with which Abbott can be compared is Mark Latham – one with the same “mad” moniker as Abbott. He, too, was very successful at being negative about the government of the day and being repetitive with that criticism. Latham, played very well in the outer suburbs of Sydney, because he really did represent their interests. Examples of these were his bizarre entreaties to Howard to support reading to one’s children and cut off the superannuation for MPs. He also managed to keep his more intense political ideas away from the limelight – things such as his “Third Way” philosophies. Latham’s poll numbers were good to start with because of simplistic nature of his messages and the way he marketed them. Fortunately for us, as it turned out, we found out just how truly “mad” he was, with a mix of ALP bastardry during the 2004 campaign and politically suicidal plans like stripping funding away from the big private schools, which made him unpopular with the media and the political forces that combine whenever private school funding is threatened.
Since then, the success of people like Rudd and Hockey has been attributed to their easy going blokeyness on Sunrise. This explains somewhat the enduring popularity of Rudd, because his brand was well built in those years. Hockey, though, has had some decline, mostly due to the perception he has been a disaster as Shadow Treasurer. Which he has been. Joe would have been better as a shadow of a human service, such as health, rather than dealing with money. It’s not a strength. Mind you, I suspect Abbott’s people would have realised that. Brand Hockey has been hit, almost terminally.
Turnbull, however, would struggle to appeal to the audiences on Sunrise and its ilk because he comes across as a super-rich merchant banker, rather than as a man of the people. Rudd is better at imitating a warm everyman, as is Abbott – the man “with a workable substitute for integrity” (a Bob Ellis observation). Gillard, however, has not managed to imitate that same sense of warmth for people who are making judgements based on instinct and personal engagement. In addition, Rudd managed to reduce his policy ideas and statements to sound bytes for that audience – “working families”, even if that ability lessened somewhat when he assumed the PM’s chair. Turnbull, however, is not as strong at this reduction. He also fails at the relentless negativity that marks the Abbott approach.
The same seems to go for his party. It seems as though the Liberal Party prefer the Abbott simplistic approach to the complex, demanding, restless approach Turnbull would demand of his colleagues – another reason why I believed he could not stay leader whilst reading the Crabb essay. Like Rudd’s ceaseless work ethic as PM, Turnbull’s colleagues would buckle under the pressure. And the Federal Liberals appear to have even more truculence and sluggishness on work than the ALP, making it harder for Malcolm in the Middle to tread the line between neo-liberal economic policies and socially progressive actions that would polarise the party.
Ultimately, while I would, along with Jane Shaw and the rest, love to have Turnbull back, I can’t see the Australian political landscape being able to handle his triumphant return. We are a small, provincial place when it comes to our favourite political leaders and Turnbull should have parachuted out when he had the chance. It is somewhat depressing seeing him acting as Abbott’s wrecking ball on one good, self-generated reform being performed by the Government, the NBN. He is one man stuck in the middle – but far too left, intelligent and restless for the Federal Liberal Party to handle.