THEMA AGNOSCO //
Jacob Atkins, freelance journalist. I don't tend to this blog at all (as you can probably tell) except for using it as a spot to compile my published work. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Every time Malcolm Turnbull makes one of his appearances on ABC’s Q&A program there is inevitably a few minutes devoted to a cheeky Liberal leadership question; when will he return to face off the Prime Minister at the dispatch box? The inevitability of this is apparently a universal wish among the young idealists who adore Turnbull.
It took a new turn recently when one whipper-snapper urged him, on live TV, to found a new ‘broad church’-style party to relieve the country, particularly the youth, of the current political malaise. Writer Clementine Ford dismissed the idea, but asked Turnbull when he was going to “take back the rightful leadership of the Liberal Party that belongs to him?”
Earlier in the program rhubarblover tweeted “the sensible and sensitive Malcolm Turnbull drips leadership”.MezOlsen followed up with “you’re my hero Malcolm”.
Turnbull is undoubtedly popular in certain demographics. He has a sophisticated, socially progressive, charming and nonpartisan demeanour that appeals to the young, educated and idealist. This is a complete contrast to the man who stole his job, Tony Abbott. He is seen as simplistic, backward and a doyen of the suburbs, who the urbanites loathe.
But the reality is that Malcolm Turnbull was not always this popular, and his leadership was characterised by a lacklustre opposition, political misjudgement (anyone remember Godwin Grech?) and ultimately party disunity. Abbott, on the other hand, has been a runaway electoral success.
Turnbull was dumped by his party and replaced by Abbott on the 1 December 2009, after party members were increasingly peeling away from Turnbull’s insistence that they allow the amended Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to pass through parliament.
Senior frontbenchers had announced they were resigning, Turnbull declared he could not lead a party that did not share his belief in the ETS and the leadership came to a spill, which Abbott won by one vote.
The commentariat generally agreed that, in his intransigence and inflexibility, he was the master of his own undoing. Leaders need to have a confidence in their decisions and of their convictions. But they also require the ability to negotiate and artfully placate internal divisions when it becomes apparent there is immense disquiet in their party regarding policy decisions. This key political capacity was evidently lacking in Turnbull.
Tony Abbott also divides people, but more in the electorate than inside the Coalition party room. His party are being held in line by their current comfortable standing in the polls, largely due to Abbott’s laser-like abilities to milk the government’s own goals.
Turnbull, who was leader albeit concurrently with the incredible Rudd honeymoon era, was never able to bring home the kind of electoral bacon that would have allowed him to crack the whip in the party room without fear of destabilisation. But crack it he did, and he duly paid the price with his leadership.
Turnbull does not have Abbott’s tack of speaking directly to suburban and regional voters—‘Howard’s battlers’. Aside from the business community, who have more confidence in Turnbull’s ‘capital ‘L’ Liberal’ economic philosophy than Abbott’s populism, Turnbull comes off especially well with youth and the more educated ‘small ‘l’ liberal’ professional class, who see him speaking to them across the partisan political divide.
The Q&A questioner demonstrated this is a strong allure, in days where people are decrying the low standards of political debate. But it is also his political Achilles heel. His inclination to assess policy from the reference points of merit and his economically conservative, socially progressive worldview—instead of from a populist standpoint—means he is far less regular and effective in attacking the government.
Writing in The Australian the day after Turnbull’s deposition, Mike Steketee wrote: “The reason Abbott is Liberal leader today and Malcolm Turnbull is a backbencher is because, in the political ring, Abbott packs a bigger punch.”
Furthermore, the growing disaffection in his own party, mirrored with growing support of progressive minds, was demonstrated in the days leading up to the spill. Newspoll analysis showed that Turnbull was the most popular he had been since the OzCar affair—but among Labor voters, not his own side, who had abandoned him in droves.
Under his leadership there was a less invigorated, indeed often disenfranchised, Liberal base and a blurring of the lines between the two major parties in the wary eyes of the electorate. Tony Abbott obliterates any possible lingering confusion with the sheer force and regularity of his opposition.
But does this unconvincing and lonely depiction gel with the Malcolm Turnbull we are always told about? Descriptions like “combative” and “relishes in confrontation” abound. He was a masterful, if ultimately unsuccessful, campaigner in the 1999 Republic Referendum. It is reasonable to assume he will thrive, as Clementine Ford clearly does, if he were to slide back into the Opposition Leader’s chair.
Malcolm Turnbull is most effective at debate, persuasion and—crucially—politics when it is his own personal passions and beliefs he is defending or promoting.
The catch is that those passions and beliefs are not necessarily shared by the party he once led, and on whom he ultimately depends for support.
This article was originally published in Farrago on 18/04/2012 under the name 'Jacob Aitken' (sic).