(Originally on Ausvotes 2016 – new title suggestion from @patstokes)
It’s been a strange couple of weeks for Malcolm Turnbull, with many things changing and unravelling about “his” government. The suave, leather jacket wearing Point Piper sophisticate seems to have already forgotten why it is he was made leader and what his job is as Prime Minister. The shifts and back peddling by Turnbull are clear to see – and are being catalogued by cartoonist Dave Pope with his sharp eye for details. With this week’s acquiescence to the homophobic wing of his party in allowing an inquiry into the Safe Schools program, Pope posits that Turnbull is allowing himself to be bullied by the homophobes in order to keep his job as Principal.
A bit different to the Pope image from a couple of weeks before, where Turnbull was the sophisticate getting ready to make the switch to election mode, though still tied to Riverview’s old boy combo, Abbott and Joyce.
The most telling cartoon from Pope for me this year is the one where Turnbull is handcuffed to Joyce whilst driving the Abbott car – it’s both amusing and chilling, with the “boot full of asylum babies” line.
If we’re talking characters, though, overall Turnbull can be seen as being more like Charles Foster Kane from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Turnbull himself is a vastly talented person who has flitted from place to place, able to achieve any number of things. Kane may have inherited his fortune, unlike Turnbull, who made his own – but Kane could have gone anywhere, done anything, but he chose to focus on building up a broken down newspaper, because it would be “fun to run a newspaper”. He did so partially in order to fight for the disenfranchised and underprivileged, because, as he puts it, he can because he has money and power. Our own C.F. Kane, though, has created his own feckless catchphrase – “there’s never been a more exciting time to run a country” would be more accurate.
Turnbull seems to have decided, like Kane, that it would be fun to run a country. And he fought his way to do so, continually sniping in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways at the previous incumbent throughout his time as leader, chiefly by presenting himself as the leader of moderate thinking. One such way was being a leader in the marriage equality issue, suggesting a private members’ bill introducing the change, which saw him come into conflict with Bernardi and others. Another was his continual support for action on climate change, which included him being a passionate advocate for scientists who would address climate change, as opposed to the “climate change is crap” stance of his predecessor. These stances from the outer made him the popular figure who continually topped opinion polls. The sensible moderate who should be leading the country instead of the clown who was. The Man of Principles.
Unlike Kane, though, Turnbull doesn’t seem to have written them down and have them published – only to be reminded of them later. Turnbull’s principles all seem to be evaporating in a very short time. He supports the ineffective Direct Action policy, the ridiculously expensive (and pointless) Marriage Equality Plebiscite is going ahead. This week, it is reprehensible that, unlike old Malcolm, he isn’t speaking out against the kind of comments being made by the likes of George Christensen accusing the Safe Schools Coalition of “grooming” children. Instead, he is making meaningless comments about people “needing to be careful“. The squibbing on this necessary discipline is highlighted by Cathy Wilcox’s outstanding cartoon, which highlights why Turnbull should be speaking as he used to.
It is, as Jacqueline Maley has said, as if Turnbull is becoming the “incredible shrinking man“.
Another aspect of Citizen Kane is when Kane runs for election and loses.
He is, like Turnbull, charismatic and charming. We never really find out, however, why he runs, except for vague promises to help the underprivileged. He doesn’t really seem to know why he’s running for political office. He does it for the same reason he wants to run a newspaper – it would be fun and he may get the chance to help people. His old friend Leland, however, points out how patronising his rich man paternalism is in one of the best scenes in the film.
The problem with Turnbull is that it’s rapidly becoming clear that he doesn’t seem to quite know what he needs to do, now he’s Prime Minister. He is letting people like Bernardi, Christensen and Abetz run rings around him. We expect him to give them looks like this –
But he doesn’t. He hasn’t been able to stop the Onion Man from staying in parliament, doing his sniping not sniping act. In terms of showing they actually believe in something, Labor has well and truly got the jump on him with their Negative Gearing policy. They have snookered him in terms of showing they have ideas about how to both address first home owner house purchasing and the revenue loss currently occurring with the tax break (I outline my reflections on their policy as someone who uses negative gearing here). His response was to become nothing more than a confused 2 Dollar shop scaremongerer about the issue, diving into his weakest persona, Retail Politician. As pointed out here, his “opposition to Labor’s plan is full of contradictions and has been made on the run for political purposes rather than sound policy judgements”. This is because, like Kane, Turnbull is playing at being a politician, rather than truly believing in what he’s doing. He needs to remember, however, what it was that got him into the chair in the first place, his popularity as a moderate. He is running the risk of spurning those who supported his rise. These supporters must be increasingly thinking they are doing this whilst giving their support:
Turnbull himself needs to get some passion into his politics. He needs to stop acting like a feckless wealthy patrician hobbyist and have some idea of the principles he may have had at some stage in his life. Or maybe he never really had them.
Postscript – There’s been some discussion about this analogy. In it, Jed Leland is Chris Kenny, a close confidant who is now drifting his own way. Rosebud is maybe the Republic…