No one doubts Malcolm Turnbull is intelligent. But is he smart?
Some commentators attribute the government’s popularity malaise to some lurch of public policy to the left of the political spectrum. They have obviously been seduced by some alternative truths to which ordinary Australians are not privy.
Since Turnbull’s past indicates a moderate liberalism, these self-proclaimed cognoscenti reason that the problems facing a government led by him must have their genesis in that political tradition. Turnbull defeated Brendon Nelson for the Liberal leadership, showing himself as a political progressive.
With a confidence born from his Rhodes scholarship and business acumen, he neither suffered fools gladly nor hid his light under any bushel.
Egos reign supreme in political parties. The envious, the ambitious, the fools and the just plain petty often possess them to excess. Add to that mix Turnbull’s outspoken views on climate change, same-sex marriage, republicanism and abortion and it becomes explosive. The flashpoint proved Turnbull’s support of Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.
Intelligent opposition was anathema to the reactionaries, climate sceptics and those who conceive opposition as an exercise in objecting to everything. It was inevitable that Tony Abbott, conservative to the bootstraps and combative by nature, should seize the leadership.
However, it is important to understand that in the Liberal Party loyal supporters do not determine leadership. Waverers, most of who are pre-occupied with personal political survival, inevitably decide it. Abbott’s inability to connect with voters sent these nervous nellies scurrying back to Turnbull, who they saw as keeping their seats secure. Had that been all there was to this spill, Australians might have got the Prime Minister they expected.
However, there were two Achilles’ heels; the first, Turnbull’s ambition, the second, conservative acumen.
Turnbull had lost the Leadership because he had been considered too much of a man one band, whose confrontational approach took no prisoners, considered no alternative viewpoint and whose policies
proved indigestible to the majority of his colleagues.
Abbott was given his chance. He failed. Recognising a dead man walking, the conservatives got to work. Turnbull was approached by Nationals’ leader Warren Truss and told that, unless he signed an agreement, Coalition between the two parties was over.
Many of his own promised support provided, in this term as leader, he remained faithful to party room dictates, rather than personal beliefs. Turnbull’s mistake was, because of a combination of his ambition and his bruised ego over his ousting, to accept those terms.
Had Turnbull been prepared to wait, with the political fortunes of the government sliding, it is arguable that he would have been offered the Leadership on any terms.
There is a parallel example in South Australia, when John Olsen deposed Dean Brown as premier. Olsen was patient. Before committing himself, he interviewed every Brown deserter to confirm his or her support. He was asked for nothing. He promised nothing. His leadership was unfettered. Turnbull’s was claimed in shackles.
It is interesting to speculate what might have been. What would have happened had Turnbull returned the agreement unsigned saying, “My party elects the leader. I remain accountable to them. I will be sorry to lose your party. I am sorry that you give away high office for yourself and your colleagues. I am aware that we cannot govern without your support, but if you are prepared to risk the election of a Labor government, I wonder at the backlash from your own supporters”. I suspect that Truss would have blinked.
Never the less, we have what we have. The question for Turnbull is “Quo Vadis?”
The success of his Snowy Hydro expansion announcement provides a strong indicator.
Turnbull must break his shackles. He must assert his authority and lead in the direction that Australia expected of him.
Gay marriage seems an obvious starting point. After all, few Australians understand the delay. As many as 80 per cent of us now accept it. Having pursued the referendum and lost, why should the national will be subservient to any party’s unity?
Additionally, matters of moral or religious belief have generally been considered as warranting a conscience vote. Members vote as they see fit without party instruction.
Turnbull might discover that the person he really is will last longer at the helm than the cardboard cut out that he has become.
Turnbull never highjacked the government. Rather, he remains hostage to the same myopic views that propelled Abbott towards the abyss.
Turnbull needs to break free, to assert his authority as Prime Minister. It time to crash through or crash.
Nobody suggests that Turnbull is not intelligent. But, in politics, there is a difference between being intelligent and being smart.
The survival of the Turnbull government hinges on his ability to get smart.
Mark Brindal is a former South Australian Liberal minister, an academic, public policy consultant and commentator.
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