He did it his way

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Monday, 30 November 2009 23:44 by Ad astra

There are countless commentators writing about the ‘Turnbull wreck’ and what might emerge from it.  Almost every hour brings some new angle.  At the time of writing on the evening of November 30, it seems as if the spill motion on December 1 will be opposed on principle by Joe Hockey, who said he would not challenge his leader, but will be carried; that Hockey will then feel free to stand for leadership, that Malcolm Turnbull will contest, and Tony Abbott too.   Hockey’s price for standing is said be a ‘free vote’ for Liberals in the Senate on the ETS, where it is believed there are enough willing to pass the Government’s legislation.  Because Tony Abbott opposes this free vote, he intends to depart from his prior intention not to oppose Joe Hockey.  A writer of fiction could not have conjured up a more astonishing tale.

Instead of analysing what has happened in the last few days, as so many others have done, this piece reflects on past observations and predictions.  Those who seek contemporary wisdom and entertainment should read Crikey’s Bernard Keane Hockey will lead the Liberal Party to disaster, his Could Malcolm Turnbull go rogue?, his Reflections on Turnbull and his party and Mungo MacCallum’s Why Turnbull is an uncomfortable fit, all great reading.

As far back as September 2008 The Political Sword wrote Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up? that concluded "Given Turnbull’s character and self-confident style, the Coalition might be wise to allow him his head, and to accept that in so doing its leader will appear more authentic although at times he may cause his party some discomfort. Perception is more telling than policy purity.  It might be astute to let the real Malcolm Turnbull stand up.  The success of his leadership may depend on it.  But that would mean retreat of the Howardites, and abandonment of the fervent preservation of the Howard legacy.   Turnbull’s success may depend on how likely this is." 

A few days later The Turnbull Report Card 10 days in concluded “...to date Turnbull deserves ticks for sharing his background with the public, for being a smart and articulate campaigner when promoting his strongly held views, and for his aggressive performance in the House, even if not always based on sound information and a well argued case, even if founded on outright populism.  But where he falls short is when he is not on his favoured turf, when he’s challenged with uncomfortable facts, when he attempts to advocate causes in which he does not have his heart, and when he has to defend untenable positions.  As political life abounds with such circumstance, unless he can overcome this flaw, he will have difficulty convincing the people of the merit of his approach and his capacity to manage a nation beset with many contemporary challenges and complexities.  Leading a nation is so much more complex and demanding, so different from life at the bar and managing a merchant bank.” 

In early December TPS wrote Why does Malcolm Turnbull make so many mistakes?  It concluded “History may show that Turnbull’s biggest mistakes are underestimating Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, perpetually insisting they ‘simply don’t understand’ financial or economic matters, consistently condemning their every move, changing his tune whenever it suits him, flying in the face of competent economic intelligence, failing to exercise strong leadership, continuing to make political points at a time of unparalleled financial turmoil and steadily losing credibility as he does, indulging in obfuscation and circumlocution while avoiding answering questions asked by interviewers, and most significantly failing to notice that the people are not behind him”.  

Opposition ship docks for repairs written later in December, concluded "A combination of lack of purpose, weakness of character, insufficient muscle and diminishing authority, and an ego-centric certainty of the correctness of his own position coupled with an unwillingness to listen, is lethal in a leader.  How long can he last before the murmurings among his crew and the critics begin to further erode his position?  Shanahan’s article aligning Captain Turnbull with Captain Nelson may be the beginning, although he hasn’t quite been able to bring himself to the point of suggesting Captain Turnbull’s commission might be near its end.  Meanwhile Sub-Lieutenant Hockey shines through as the most plausible, personable, articulate and effective crew member, one who would make a good captain.  With youth on his side, with a mind open to contemporary thinking about strategy and tactics, he might be the answer to the HM Opposition’s yearning for a return to naval power.”

By February 2009 TPS wrote What is Malcolm Turnbull up to?  It began "An alternative title could have been ‘What is the Coalition up to?’ but it seems as if opposing the Government’s  economic stimulus package is Turnbull’s initiative, possibly urged on by the young Turks in the party room who want to take the fight up to Kevin Rudd.  This is understandable as it has looked as if the Coalition has too often rolled over in front of the Rudd steamroller.  But why pick the economic stimulus package against which to flex his muscles?  A coincidence or a carefully crafted action?  He is said to have had two-thirds of the party room behind him, but that means one third were not, amongst them, as we understand it, Nick Minchin and Fran Bailey in the most marginal seat in Australia.  With that level of non-support, Turnbull would need everything to go according to plan.”   History proved it to be not a smart move.

Malcolm Turnbull’s intelligence, also written in February, made the point that intelligence is not a homogeneous attribute and concluded "...that while Turnbull has intelligence in some areas, he has poorly developed political intelligence, acumen, judgement, call it what you will.  The real question for the Coalition is whether he has the capacity ever to develop it.  Or will his universally acknowledged large ego and self-confidence render him incapable of learning from his political mistakes.  There’s not much sign of that so far.  If the prognosis is as poor as it looks, his party has a very fundamental problem.”

In June, Stop at nothing – Malcolm Turnbull’s fatal flaw?, extrapolating from Annabelle Crabb's Quarterly Essay, concluded "Many commentators have remarked on Turnbull’s impetuosity, his headlong incautious rush into situations that need careful thought, the absence of the ‘due diligence’ that one might expect of a legal man, his self-confidence and arrogance, and his lack of political nous.  The Political Sword has long contended that Turnbull is a barrister, a banker and businessman, but not a politician.  He continues to take his father’s advice: ‘keep on punching’.  He told his party room that the Coalition must continue to attack and attack.  That his reputation is being shredded day by day, even in the eyes of the media, many of whom have been supportive of him and the Coalition, seems not to concern him, much less moderate his action.  He seems to know only one way of proceeding – keep on punching.”  Events of these last few days vividly illustrate this.

Then in late June came the Godwin Grech OzCar affair, a sharp turning point downwards for Turnbull, from which he has never recovered.  TPS featured Don’t blame me a satirical 'Open letter to the people of Australia' to capture the delectable details of this sorry episode.

By August TPS was writing The Turnbull endgame? that concluded “To draw this long piece to an end, should we be surprised at the position in which Turnbull now finds himself?  Looking back over a year or more a pattern of behaviour has become clearly apparent.  Impetuosity, poor political judgement, ruthlessness and self-confidence not matched by political ability, that goes to his character, his integrity and his political wisdom, all of which are now highly questionable.  Is Turnbull’s endgame upon him?  ‘Endgame’ describes the last part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left.  That looks like the right word.  It seems that only lack of a plausible alternative can now save him.”

By October TPS was writing What will Turnbull do now? about Turnbull’s attempts to engineer amendments to the Government’s CPRS: “But what if he can’t get his amendments, any amendments, through the party room at all?  That would be terminal for his leadership.  If a leader can’t command the support of his party over a matter to which he is so personally committed, how can he lead at all?  What would/could he do then?” and "Has Turnbull enough commonsense and political nous to see that all that lies ahead is more dissent, more corrosive comments from Tuckey and Co, more desire for another leader if only there was one around and even the remote chance of being extruded by his party, more media speculation about leadership, its favourite sport, more ridicule from Rudd and his ministers pointing to the rabble he’s trying to lead but can’t, something already well underway, more poor polls, and almost certain electoral defeat and loss of seats?  I suspect he has.  His doggedness may well be tempered by an intense desire to ease the pain and call it quits.  And if he can do that in a spectacular and relatively face-saving way, he might choose that out.  Turnbull has lost battles before.  When he lost the battle for a Republic, he said John Howard was ‘the Prime Minister that broke the nation’s heart’.  This time he could proudly proclaim that by not acting on climate change when at least two thirds of the people wanted action, he is abandoning ‘the Liberal Party that broke the nation’s heart’.”

After Turnbull written in TPS in mid October asserted “If I was forced to lay bets, although Turnbull's leadership seems fatally wounded, I would still punt on him surviving until the next election, only because the two most favoured replacements, Hockey and Abbott, are so wanting in the necessary skills, and the Liberal Party so impotent in managing the dysfunction it is experiencing.  The likelihood of the party extruding Turnbull seems much less than him walking away.  In that event however, I would now place Abbott as 'the most likely to succeed' Turnbull.  Not a great prospect!” 

Events have overtaken that prediction.  Turnbull’s handling of the ETS issue in the last few days, while laudable as an exercise in articulately and convincingly defending high principle, in defending a policy in which he has his heart, has been so poorly handled politically that he is about to be extruded as Leader of the Opposition.  The warning signs of impending doom have been flashing for many months.  The inevitability of his exit has been there for all to see, but like a slow motion train crash, seemingly impossible to avoid.  Turnbull’s characteristics have predetermined this outcome.

Reading predictions stretching back over time is salutary.  Those on TPS and those of its visitors who have added comments have been vindicated almost in their entirety.  Malcolm Turnbull has always insisted on doing it his way, and in business, banking and law this has resulted in him succeeding brilliantly.  On December 1, 2009 he will reap the rewards of unwisely applying this rule to the field of politics.

What do you think?