Journalist Peter Hartcher has offered an interesting perspective on Malcolm Turnbull’s time as Prime Minister. Now, political junkies knew that Turnbull was not his own man while in office. He flagrantly violated his own beliefs, seemingly selling his soul for the top job. This partially explains why the 2016 election was as close as it was. That election should have been an easy win for Mr. Turnbull and his colleagues. The power of incumbency combined with Mr. Turnbull the affable salesman should have resulted in an easy win. So, why was the election so close? Simply put, the reason was because Turnbull was not allowed to be the affable salesman.
The assumption was that the hardline members of his own party held a Sword of Damocles over Mr. Turnbull’s head. An ongoing threat of the form ‘what had been done, could be undone’ in reference to making him Prime Minister. This turned out to be true, but the initial threat came not from Abbot, Andrews and the other hardline nuts in the Liberal party, but rather from (then) Nationals leader Warren Truss. According to Truss, the coalition agreement was a personal one between himself and Abbott. This agreement, Truss said, did not necessarily transfer to the next Liberal leader. Mr. Truss seems to have seen this situation as an opportunity to extract greater concessions for the increasingly junior partner in the coalition. Nothing says ‘national interest’ quite like playing petty politics with the nation’s government.
Malcolm Turnbull and The Threat of New Leadership
The Nationals were, to quote one of Mr. Turnbull’s senior aides ‘suspicious about Malcolm bringing all the gays in and doing climate change’. If that does not reveal the Nationals as hard-right social conservatives and deniers of reality, I do not know what will. They feared that Mr. Turnbull would bring ‘all the gays in’, a statement best translated as implementing a conscience vote on marriage equality, rather than the hate platform that was the plebiscite. As for the statement about ‘doing climate change’, this is perhaps best understood as putting in place some sort of climate policy. As if it were not clear, the Nationals represent the mining industry.
The sheer social, political and scientific regression on display in the Nationals’ fear around Mr. Turnbull embracing reality is palpable. Turnbull’s acknowledgement of the existence of ‘the gays’ and his acknowledgement of the very climate science his predecessor Mr. Abbott called ‘crap’ put him at odds with the political dinosaurs of his party. The rewrite here comes in the idea that it was the Nationals, rather than Abbott and his crowd in the Liberal party, that posed the initial threat.
Both Hands Cuffed to A Table
Hartcher adds the extraordinary line that
to win the final votes he needed for the Liberal leadership, Turnbull had already promised some conservative MPs from Queensland that he wouldn’t alter Abbott’s policies… Otherwise, there would be no Coalition. Turnbull argued for more flexibility, especially on same-sex marriage, but the Nats weren’t yielding
This exposes Malcolm Turnbull as what many suspected he always was: an acceptable venir on Tony Abbott’s policies. A palatable salesman for the same fact free, ideological, regressive and bigoted crap that had gone before. Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership was intended as a palace coup that consisted of putting a mask on the Emperor everyone hated. Nothing else was expected to change.
Turnbull had first had to make promises to the hard-line Liberals, and now the Nationals. Given that the government was a coalition, a ‘broad church’ as the faithful like to put it, either party governing in their own right was impossible. This partially explains Truss’ ability to extort concessions. One of those concessions was forcing Turnbull, the ostensible Prime Minister, to take the water portfolio and add it to the purview of Barnaby Joyce, who was then Truss’ deputy. A Liberal held the ministry, but if Turnbull wanted a coalition to lead, he had to comply. Mr. Turnbull had paid the piper but was not allowed to call the tune.
Lipstick on A Pig: The New Regime
Hartcher sums up the situation aptly when he says
The restraints he [Turnbull] wore were not yet visible to the public, but the new leader was shackled to the very policies that the Australian people thought had been discarded along with Abbott
Exactly. A palace revolution where nothing changes. There is something profoundly conservative about that. Speaking of things that are profoundly conservative, Abbott was quoted at the time as saying that Mr. Turnbull was ‘in office, not in power’. Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister was nothing but a figure head. To reiterate what I said above, he was the public face of the same crap that had gone before. The curiosity was Abbott being arrogant enough to admit that this was the case.
Some Liberals, such as Simon Birmingham, thought about calling the Nationals’ bluff, and some did talk tough at the time. But power trumps principles, and so the moderates (a relative term) yielded to the demands of the Nationals that nothing change. As for Abbott, despite being deposed, he took up residence in the Prime Minister’s suite to sulk and drink. Sore loser.
The Colleagues’ Response: Birmingham and Abetz
Hartcher says, quoting Birmingham
That issue [marriage equality], more than any other, gave strength to Labor’s narrative that Malcolm had capitulated to the Right. It didn’t hurt immediately, but the symbolic power was huge
That was not ‘Labor’s narrative’, Senator, that was reality. By continuing Abbott’s policies, Turnbull was living proof that the hard right still ran the show and that he had, in Eric Abetz’s words ‘sold everything he believed in’ in order to be Prime Minister. Seem to recall Abbott saying something quite similar. Power trumps principles.
Turnbull’s weakness, motivated by the obsession with being Prime Minister, meant that he pre-conceded on many issues. Loyalists suggested that he might have attempted to lay down the law with the Nationals, or use his personal popularity to bring pressure to bear on his coalition colleagues. But he did not do so. An explanation for this lies in the fact that, until he was Prime Minister, all of that was meaningless. Personally popular as a politician or not, one man against a party was not going to get far.
Turnbull and his new regime had many enemies. Voters were frustrated with him because he turned out to be a nothing burger. In addition, Turnbull never had the support of the hard-right nutbags to begin with. This fact was jarringly exposed by the hostility of Alan Jones toward Mr. Turnbull, specifically in a telephone conversation where Jones repeatedly, and with increasing volume, told Turnbull ‘Everybody hates you!’ – best translated as the hard-right hates you. During a notorious interview, Turnbull refused to ‘take dictation’ from Jones when the radio host demanded that Turnbull swear fidelity to ‘the Abbott-Hockey strategy for budget repair’. Way to read the talking points there, Alan. Turnbull told Jones to get stuffed, which set the tone for the relationship.
Hartcher ends his great piece with the following summary
Yet, for most of the conservatives in the Coalition, and among their media cheer squad, Turnbull could never be given any credit. He was, at best, a temporary vehicle who was tolerated in order to carry the Coalition to win the next election, but never embraced, never trusted. The electorate felt increasingly let down by him and the conservative faction detested him
Right. Turnbull was a means to an end; a ploy to win the next election. Neither the electorate nor his own faction saw him as particularly effective or useful. To the extent that he was trapped, a degree of empathy is due Mr. Turnbull. Had he been allowed to govern in his own right, he could arguably have been quite effective. But he craved power itself, and thought more about that, than how he would use that power to better the country. He was shortsighted, and paid the political price.
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