In August 2010, in response to the knifing of Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull wrote a piece for the ABC titled Politics and moral courage. The following is an extract from his article.
“We are all faced with occasions when we are put to the test, and face a choice between doing the easy thing which is wrong, and the hard thing which is right. And that is what requires true moral courage. Examples of this choice abound in every stage of life.
You might be a legal adviser who is asked to give advice to a client, and tells the client what he wants to hear rather than what you know to be the truth.
You might be an investment banker who is asked to give a valuation of a company that is about to be floated, and you might be persuaded to give it a higher valuation than it deserves. (HIH and FAI ring a bell?)
You might, for example, be a politician who knows what is right but is presented with opinion polls that suggest you ought to do something differently simply because it will be popular.
The temptations abound.
But it seems to me that moral courage derives from strength of character. It comes from a kind of moral core within you. It requires that you believe in yourself, for if you do not belief in yourself you cannot ask others to believe in you.
… courage, in the truest sense of standing up for one’s convictions is a vital element of one’s character.
And it is something that ought never be neglected. I have formed the view over the years that character is like a muscle. If you neglect it, if you allow yourself to take the soft option again and again, all the while justifying these actions to yourself as being “just little things” or “not really a big deal” – then, I guarantee, the time will come and you will be faced with something important where you are called upon to be strong, but you will find yourself weak.
It was an horrifying thing to see a Prime Minister in his first term in office poleaxed by his own party. I understood how he felt at the time! But the difference between my situation and that of Kevin Rudd was the events that led to my very narrow demise as Leader of the Opposition were built around a matter of principle.
I believed then, and I believe today that Australia must take effective action on climate change, effective action to reduce our emissions. And I felt that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was a good way of working towards that goal. It wasn’t perfect – mind you, nothing emerges from Parliament that is perfect. But we should never allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good – that, it seems to me, is an important lesson that the Greens need to learn.
But the reality of Rudd’s demise was truly a shocking one. We should recall that he enjoyed the longest political honeymoon that any of us had ever seen, and yet it came to an abrupt end. It fell off a cliff after he decided to shelve the CPRS.
Why did he do it? We are told that the hard heads in the Labor Party, including Julia Gillard, told him that there were deep political problems surrounding the scheme and that he should back away from it. They wouldn’t have done so if they didn’t think it was politically advantageous.
But what happened, of course, was a loss of faith with the Australian people who had elected him to take action on climate change, and who couldn’t understand why he didn’t call a double dissolution election – as Judith Troeth, a very courageous Liberal, and I were certain he would.
So what brought Mr Rudd undone, in my mind, was not an issue of policy but of conviction. In politics people will forgive you for incompetence – up to a point, of course, and you don’t want to test the electorate’s patience. But if they feel there is no conviction there, if they do not believe that you have the courage to fight for what you believe in, then why on earth should they vote for you?
There is simply no substitute for conviction. Leaders cannot allow themselves to get into a situation where by endeavoring to please everybody they expose themselves as truly being a “hollow man” – or woman, as the case may be.
And that, I think, is the lesson we ought to draw from the tumultuous events in Canberra over the past few months.
But let me be clear about courageous leadership. Leaders have to consult, they have to engage – leadership is not dictatorship. Leadership is about listening, it is about reaching out and drawing strength from the people you work with. But at the end of the day, those that you are seeking to lead need to know that you stand for something. They need to know your vision. And if you cannot deliver that, then you cannot be a successful leader.
It is very easy, of course, to position oneself in an environment where courage is not demanded. But let me make what I believe is an extremely important observation. Courage is not the absence of cowardice. There are many people who strive to make their lives so safe that they never are called upon to make a courageous decision.
And badly led organizations can actually encourage such timidity. Just think of the many organizations in which conventional thinking is encouraged, dissent is dangerous, and failure is punished severely. If you find yourself in a culture like that, the only rational response is to do nothing. Better to do nothing, to risk nothing, than to fail.
Ultimately, in politics, the real issue is one of character. People often talk about elections as being a conflict between policies, that different parties will take different policies to the people. And that’s true, to an extent. But policies change and new circumstances frequently demand new policies.
What people look for at election time is the candidate that has the character that will enable them to make the right decisions in new and unforeseeable circumstances.
I was genuinely horrified by the events that precipitated Kevin Rudd’s demise.
As I watched him go, and saw what replaced him, I couldn’t get out of my mind that stanza from William Butler Yeats’s haunting poem, The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; / the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / he best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.””
Right back at ya, Malcolm.
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