Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up?

When Malcolm Turnbull first entered parliament he cut an impressive figure.  Good looking, personable, articulate, experienced, knowledgeable, well informed, and credible.  His utterances exuded common sense.  He said what he thought, and it sounded convincing.  He came with a background of successful lawyer, journalist and merchant banker – a spectacular CV.  Many quickly saw him as a future Prime Minister.  Then John Howard appointed him as his Parliamentary Secretary with a brief related to the environment and climate change.  The ensuing change was palpable.  He had to toe the party line, not something to which an independent thinker, a successful entrepreneur was accustomed.

Soon we saw him having to make statements or support positions related to his new role with which he did not feel comfortable.  His discomfort was obvious.  His language was guarded, his delivery stilted, his argument unconvincing.  The man who was used to making up his own mind and expressing his views persuasively, found himself having to promulgate other views, views with which he seemed to be not in accord.  The independent thinker and decision-maker was being forced uncomfortably into a political mould.  From then on his authority faded.  He became less convincing.  Time and again we saw him struggling with issues, struggling because he seemed to not have his heart in what he was saying.  Reflect on his contributions to the Gunn’s pulp mill debate.

Then the Coalition lost the election and from the moment Peter Costello declined the leadership, Turnbull put up his hand and hit the airwaves with his views on ratifying Kyoto, climate change and an apology to indigenous people.  He seemed to relish the new-found freedom to say what he thought.  But it brought his leadership ambitions undone.  Upset by his liberal views, his ready retreat from the Howard doctrine, and his willingness to say what he thought even if it varied from the party line, Howardites Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott persuaded a small handful of Turnbull supporters to switch to Brendan Nelson to give him a 45/42 win.

It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, another taste of how different politics is to business.  It must have been a rare experience to suffer defeat. More...

The hardest job in politics

How many times have we heard that ‘being Opposition Leader is the hardest job in politics’?  Almost since the day Brendan Nelson was elected we have heard this mantra from Coalition members, increasingly in recent months as Nelson’s performance failed to improve.  There seemed to be a need to excuse his performance by pointing out how hard his job was.  But is the mantra true?  Is being Opposition Leader inherently as hard as has been asserted?

Let’s look back.  We can still remember the days of Simon Crean.  Coming as he did from the position of Shadow Treasurer, he carried the baggage of that position, a position in which he was often carping about what the Howard Government was doing.  Although a thoroughly decent person well versed in his shadow position, he was characterized by the media as whining, lacking charisma and not up to the job.  It wasn’t long before one could see the writing on the wall.  The media began to write him off.  He was unable to meet the expectations people had of him.  Eventually he succumbed to the pressure.  But was this because his was ‘the hardest job in politics’?  No.  It was because of his unsuitability for the position and the media’s realization of this.

Take Kim Beasley.  He had two stints as Leader of the Opposition.  He suffered electoral defeats.  He was well liked by the public, his fellow parliamentarians and by most of the media.  During the years he exhibited competent leadership no one mentioned that he had the hardest job in politics.  But because he was seen as verbose, and eventually boring, people stopped listening.  He was, to use a media cliché, no longer ‘cutting through’.  A reason to replace this nice man was needed.  It turned out to be a couple of small verbal blunders – we all remember the Rove McManus – Carl Rove gaffe.  From then the mood for change crystallized.  But was his political demise the result of him holding down ‘the hardest job in politics’?  No.  It was of his own doing, with help from the media and some of his colleagues.

Remember Mark Latham.  His early days as Opposition Leader generated great excitement.  He was someone ready to take on John Howard.  We all remember his successful attack on parliamentarians’ superannuation.  He was riding high.  No one said he was labouring in the toughest job in politics.  It was not until he began to make tactical mistakes, beginning with the surprise ‘we’ll bring the troops home by Christmas’ announcement that he was increasingly seen as erratic, too emotional and angry about media intrusion into his family life, too unpredictable.  He lost the election and retreated.  But was his departure because the job was too hard?  No. It was because he proved to not have the temperament, the judgement and the wisdom a leader needs, and his colleagues, the media and the public had lost faith in him. More...

Peter Costello’s painful parting

What happened?  Why?  What’s next? are questions we all ask.  Peter Costello has given us his answers to the first in The Costello Memoirs.  But not why, and what’s next?

Why did he never challenge for the leadership?  Why didn’t he accept it after the election?  Why has he refused it ever since despite his party’s pleading?

His detractors conclude he has never had the courage – John Hewson uses ‘balls’ – to challenge Howard, that he wanted it handed to him without a contest.  His supporters insist that because he never had more than a third of the party room behind him, he wanted to avoid the disruption that a challenge, a defeat, a retirement to the back bench, and the appointment of another Treasurer would have inflicted on his party. They say he put his party ahead of his ambition.  He would argue that he had enough hints from John Howard and others to persuade him to be patient.  He says this was the case right until near the end, at the time of APEC.  His detractors say he never had enough 'mongrel' in him to fight for what he wanted. 

Why then did he reject leadership when handed to him on a platter after the election?  His detractors would say that the prospect of leading a defeated  party back to prominence against a popular new Government was too overwhelming, too hard a road.  Paul Keating classed Costello as the laziest Treasurer in history who lay in a hammock for 11 years, and periodically asked for a push.  ‘All tip but no iceberg’ was his acerbic assessment.  Costello’s supporters, who were surprised, mystified and disappointed, attributed his decision to a laudable concern for his wife and family, who had suffered his absences from home for 11 long years, and now deserved more of his time.  After all, ‘Australia’s greatest Treasurer’, with 11 hard years under his belt had earned the right to do it his way and to take his time about it.

Then there’s the question ‘What’s next?’  More...

In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative

Part 1 – What is a political narrative? 

The recent media obsession with finding Kevin Rudd’s ‘narrative’ came to a head last month with Jack the Insider’s blog in The Australian In search of the Rudd narrative.  It attracted 386 comments. But so far no conclusion has emerged.  This followed Rudd’s Press Club address at which journalists, keenly anticipating the emergence of the Rudd narrative, came away disappointed as Rudd’s focus had been on another chapter of his ‘education revolution’.   The term ‘narrative’ seems to be enjoying the contemporary spotlight because journalists have taking a liking to it.  It’s become a political buzzword. Yet I have not seen one journalist explain what the term means.  Its meaning is assumed to be self-evident. 

A dictionary search gives the usual meaning that we all understand - a story or account of events, experiences, or the like; a literary work containing such a story.  We know too that stage and television shows have a narrative.  In medical circles the word is used to describe a patient’s life story and history of health and illness, and because of the narrative’s role in predicting future events, ‘narrative therapy’ has emerged as a type of psychotherapy. 

But nowhere is ‘political narrative’ defined.  Nor does Encyclopedia Britannica shed any light.  Wikipedia casts ‘narrative’ as a record of past events; it derives from the Latin verb narrare, which means ‘to recount’, but goes on to say “…narrative is the general term for a story, long or short; of past, present, or future; factual or imagined; told for any purpose; and with or without much detail.”  The political narrative that columnists talk about seems to about the future, an underlying theme that authenticates the direction in which a political party is intending to travel – a theme that is as much philosophical and ideological as it is practical.  Or at least that’s what I’ve come to conclude.  One can’t be sure because journalists never say.  Which leads one to ask whether they really know what it means, or at least whether they all agree among themselves what it means.  If they do, it would be good if they were to let us ordinary mortals into the secret. More...