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That’s It, Big Smile, Everybody’s Happy: Malcolm Turnbull as PM

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.

The Detractors

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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  1. RosemaryJ36

    Being leader can be a poisoned chalice. Teresa May is another example. She took on the unenviable task of trying to forge a deal with the EU, when the outcome of the vote, which had forced the government down the Brexit path, was not necessarily a true indication from an electorate which had not understood the process or its consequences. But at least she is honourable, whereas Turnbull sold his soul to the devil.

  2. whatever

    Malcolm is still bitching about what he terms the ‘Mediscare’ campaign of Labor.
    Every waiting room in every Medical Centre in the country had messages posted on the wall about procedures that were going to require cash payment, the changes due to take place on election day.

  3. Keith

    It is a problem for Australia that the Nationals are anti Physics, Chemistry, Astro Physics, Oceanography, Biology and other science disciplines that support them. Climate science is supported by the listed disciplines and others.

  4. Geoff Andrews

    Not from “Hamlet” Act 5, Scene 1

    (Malcolm’s official portrait in Parliament House featuring recently hand drawn moustache and glasses)

    A restorer laments:

    RESTORER: Alas, poor Malcolm; I thought I knew him well, Tim.
    A fellow of infinite wealth and most excellent leather coats. He carried my hopes through a thousand days of Abbot’s time (how abhorred in my imagination they are – my gorge rises at the thought of them!).
    Here are those lips that I believed, I know not how oft.
    Where be your clever gibes now? Your supporters? Your principles? Your flashes of hypocrisy that were wont to set the tabloids on a roar? Still the “smartest man in the room?”
    Now get on the blower to Scott and remind him that he too, will soon hear the mocking cry, “Where the bloody hell are ya?”
    He may see the joke.

  5. Josephus

    Indeed, Geoff. Felt betrayed by a man who seemed to be of the centre, and even rational. My impression was that many grieved over his lack of principle in practice. And yet, his wife and daughter put in a submission for the Joint Houses committee on giving our first peoples a voice. They were clearly ashamed.

  6. Bronte ALLAN

    All the crap quoted above about just what ALL these so-called “politicians” (sic) tried to do & did about the Turnball election is yet more reasons as to why anyone would ever want to elect any of these lying, inept fuckwits. Sadly, it seems, NONE of any of these COALition/National mob have any consciences, decent ideas, or even decency, when it comes to trying to run our country! The sooner the lot of them are voted out of officer, the better off, Australia will be, the public will be & maybe we will all be able to get back to having some decent politicians running our country. A well written & a well researched think piece Dr Jones!

  7. New England Cocky

    @Bronte Allan: Sadly the endearing characteristics that you identify are exactly the attributes that the male voters in New England aspire to have. Many male voters express envy at Barnyard’s high-flying life style on the public purse and his ability “to get a bit on the side” when away from the “Little’ Missus”. But will his Parliamentary retirement package be sufficient to keep his paramour and two bastards when she does a runner after tiring of his philandering away from home?

    Sadly, many women New England accept this form of male behaviour as “normal” so the political slogan “Tamworth women supporting Adultery support National$” has a certain truthful ring about it.

    Indeed, history shows that “jumping the blanket” was the greatest exercise among the New England squattocracy set in the past.

  8. Old Codger

    If Peter Hartcher’s ‘expose’ was meant to garner some sympathy for Turnbull, it failed in that sense for me. It did however increase my contempt for the man. I was in China during that week in August last year and found myself glued to my laptop screen watching the farce unfold. Even to worst of ‘whodunnit’ novels would have been hard pressed to match what was happening. And as has been suggested, at what stage did any of the perpetrators give a thought to this country. Traitors all.

  9. David Stakes

    Most of us on the Left of politics knew this, only the LNP supporters were fooled. And most voters will be fooled again by the fistful of dollars and magic surplus budget to come. Which will give them another term, to sow their bastardry and dishonest policys. Prepare for the concentration camps.

  10. TuffGuy

    No sympathy is due to that gutless pig who only really wanted to be PM and have power (well, symbolically at least). He was too gutless to stand up to Abbott and his monkey pod and sold his soul just to remain PM at any cost. He did not give two shits about Australia or Australians because he is rich and does not care.

  11. Phil

    The fools who put this government into power will kill each other in the rush to vote for them again. All those Captains of Industry the Entrepreneurs we have all seen them before. They’re the contractors with a ute full of shovels and a new cement mixer from Bunnings. And don’t forget the unemployed a percentage of them love the Liberal party. Of course then there’s the people dying of cancer and getting chemo they love the Liberal party health system. When they watch someone like Cormann blow forty grand on a plane ride to attend a meeting, that’s just envy when people moan about it. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be laughable.

  12. Andy56

    May was against brexit but took on the mantle of pm to sell it ! You couldnt get a more poisoned chalice than that. An honerable person would have pass it up.
    Malcom only had his past shadow to fight. The shadow nearly won.
    The libs still dont get it, are still delusional that their policies are adequate.
    What more needs to be said?

  13. Aortic

    To all you climate change deniers, fossil fuel protagonists and energy policy procrastinators who have to insist on Neanderthal policies to protect your incumbency rather than promote the common weal, may I quote Oliver Cromwell.

    ” you have sat too long, for any good you have been doing. Depart I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

  14. Dr Tim Jones

    Fantastic Cromwell line Aortic! So fitting!

  15. rotsock

    Why did Hartcher (and so many others) for so long write commentary treating Turnbull as a respect-worthy, principled, honest leader, when they knew, and we knew that he wasn’t? It’s this sort of cowardice and hypocrisy from so much of the media that we have to thank for the fact that people like Turnbull, Abbott, Dutton, Abetz can get away with their incompetent, unprincipled stupidity for as long as they choose to.
    It’s only now that Turnbull has left the scene that they have found the courage to tell the truth about him. It’s not news – none of it.

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