It would be trite to begin with the platitude: You reap what you sow. To Malcolm Turnbull though, that cliché must have an ominous ring about it as he reflects on his past. To what extent has he brought upon himself the political troubles that afflict him now?
His career was illustrious before he entered federal politics, but once inside the rabbit fence the rules changed and so did he.
Brought up by his father, he had a sound education at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney, from which he graduated in Arts and Law, and on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford he took a degree in Civil Law.
He is remembered as an adventurous barrister defending Kerry Packer against the ‘Goanna’ allegations made by the Costigan Commission, and is famous for his success in the ‘Spycatcher case’ when he took on and defeated the UK government, which was trying to suppress the publication of the book of the same name by Peter Wright, a former MI5 official.
He tried his hand at journalism, moved into merchant banking and became managing director and later a partner at Goldman Sachs. Subsequently he showed his entrepreneurship and technical skills when he oversaw the expansion of Internet Service Provider OzEmail, which he later sold for $60 million. He was Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, and entered federal politics in 2004.
Even his opponents acknowledge his intelligence, his enterprise, and his substantial achievements. So how has it come to this?
This week, Bernard Keane began an article in Crikey: The Abbott legacy: Turnbull heads for the worst of both worlds with:
The political chattering class owes the people of Australian an apology. Nearly all of us, to a woman, were badly off-beam about the transformation of Australian politics last September. We were overcome with a sense of relief that the chaos and debacle of the Abbott era was over…
“Enter Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull the adult, Turnbull the brilliant communicator, a changed Turnbull who had learnt his lessons from 2009 and would now lead a rational, mature, consultative government. He promised to give us a genuinely Liberal government, in contrast to the reactionary rabble he had just ousted, and he promised reform via an intelligent conversation with the electorate. The years of destructive, negative politics from Abbott, the years of internecine squabbling from Labor, were at long last over.
“For a while it seemed to work. Turnbull was charming and, yes, Prime Ministerial. He refused to rule out reform options, insisting he was going to change politics by refusing to play those sort of petty games…
“Then it went wrong. Turnbull's government is adrift, there's open warfare within it…the much-vaunted tax reform package will be barely worth the term ‘minimalist’, with almost every worthwhile tax reform now ruled out because of backbench pressure, the desire to run an uncluttered scare campaign…
“What we missed in the relief rally that accompanied Turnbull's ascension was that merely because there was a new prime minister, that didn't mean the underlying causes that drove Australian politics into the ground in the first place had vanished. They were still there, and still capable of damaging politics and policy.”
Many of us, while enjoying the prospect of a more progressive prime minister to replace the reactionary conservative Abbott, had our reservations.
Puff the Magic Malcolm published on 18 February on The Political Sword, began with an initial optimistic paragraph that ended: “Most important though was his stated vision for this nation: it was upbeat, forward-looking, encouraging and exciting…” But the second and third paragraphs read:
Those of us who have followed politics for many years had reservations though. We remembered how after his rather brutal takeover from Brendan Nelson to become Leader of the Opposition in 2008, he offered much promise to his party and to the electorate. Many applauded particularly his enlightened views on global warming and his collaboration with Kevin Rudd to mitigate it. But after a promising start, an ill-considered instance of over-reach brought him undone. Failing to do the due diligence required of an accomplished barrister, a disturbed Liberal mole in Treasury, Godwin Grech, led him up the garden path with a fake email. He remained there, stranded and exposed as one too obsessed with bringing down a prime minister and his treasurer. ‘Utegate’ uncovered a fatal flaw in Turnbull’s personality. He did not recover fully until he removed Abbott in September last year.
Turnbull has sown the seeds of his own decline, and possibly his own destruction.
“But everyone knows that to garner the votes he needed to replace the unpopular Abbott, he had to compromise many of his beliefs and principles. Just how many, and to what extent, we would soon discover.”
He took on the leadership with some cherished principles and beliefs:
- the need for action on global warming
- the need for marriage equality
- the need to move to a republic
- the importance of the Gonski school reforms
- the need for superfast broadband for all
- a cities policy with emphasis on public transport
- the need for sound economic management (which he believed his predecessor lacked).
One by one he has diluted or abandoned each of these:
Far from his support for an emissions trading scheme in the Rudd era, and his sarcasm about the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, which he described as a ‘fig leaf’ for doing nothing, on becoming PM he immediately endorsed it, took it to Paris, and left us looking dangerously inattentive to climate change in the eyes of the world. And recently he has done nothing about the decision of Larry Marshall, chief executive of CSIRO to slash 110 positions in the Oceans and Atmosphere division, effect a similarly sharp reduction in the Land and Water division, and reorient climate change activities. Overseas climate scientists are alarmed that they will lose an important data-gathering source. Turnbull has been unmoved.
His support for marriage equality has been seriously diluted by his acceptance of the Abbott delaying tactic of a plebiscite after the election at a wasteful cost of $160 million. In similar vein, his support for the ‘Safe Schools’ program that supports gender diversity and counters bullying of LGBTI children, has been diluted by his authorization of an ‘investigation’ into it. In both these instances, the hard right conservatives and the Australian Christian Lobby have been let loose with their divisive propaganda.
His reaction to the revisiting of the Gonski reforms was unenthusiastic. He allowed the same old negative rhetoric of the Abbott/Pyne era to resurface, thereby giving it credence: “ You can’t fix the school curriculum by throwing money at it. No alternative was offered, with or without money.
His management of the NBN after Abbott ordered him years ago ‘to demolish it’ has been no better than Labor’s, which he ridiculed in such derogatory terms. It is still far behind schedule, costs are rising inexorably and will likely exceed the cost of Labor’s NBN, and the technology is antiquated.
His cities policy and his advocacy for public transport seem to have taken a back seat. Big promises; little achieved.
And as for the superior economic leadership and fiscal management that he insisted was needed after what Abbott gave us, it has all but evaporated. After hand-on-heart promises of comprehensive tax reform and attention to industrial relations, we are now facing a desolate scene as the fiscally inexperienced Morrison struggles to formulate his May Budget with virtually all his options propelled by a fractious Abbott-led backbench into the too-hard basket.
How has this all come about?
The answer is straightforward. Abbott and his henchmen, some of whom sit on the backbench, have made almost impossible every move Turnbull wanted to make.
The hard right reactionaries, supported by the coal lobby, have made action on global warming dangerously difficult.
The same neo-conservatives, aided and abetted by the ACL, have got their teeth into the sexual equality and Safe Schools debates, and have already debased them.
The Gonski reforms sit on the shelf, opposed by the Abbott conservatives who do not believe in equal opportunity for good schooling irrespective of postcode, income and ethnicity. How many of these are themselves recipients of private education, who believe in ‘user pays’? If you can’t pay, too bad!
The NBN will remain second rate because of the mixed technology and copper wire connections to the premises. Why the LNP does not warmly embrace FTTP technology, so essential for a first world economy and competiveness, seems mysterious until one recognizes that the FTTP NBN was a Labor initiative, and therefore must be denigrated and despoiled by the LNP.
Behind all this opposition is an Abbott-led Fifth Column of reactionaries, who still bridle at what happened to their man. It is determined to show us that they were absolutely right when in power. Abbott announced last week in Japan that he wears his 2014 Budget as a badge of honour. At the weekly party meeting he again called for spending cuts, particularly to welfare, and tax cuts, which will benefit mainly the wealthy.
Abbott has another objective: to upend and replace PM Turnbull. Anyone who doubts this has a faulty memory for Abbott’s characteristics. He has always been a poor loser way back to his student days. He is a bare-knuckle street fighter who never gives up his quest to destroy his enemies – destroy, not simply defeat. Turnbull is his enemy, notwithstanding Abbott’s vow to do all he can to have the Turnbull government re-elected. This is another of his lying utterances, like his promise that there will be no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping. Now all of these are happening! His erroneous comments about the delay to the purchase of submarines were an overt attempt at wrecking and undermining.
There is now talk of the ‘Second Abbott government’. Already he is out and about with another set of slogans he believes will win government: He has condensed Labor's election promises to a threat of: ‘five new taxes’ a housing tax (negative gearing), a wealth tax (capital gains), a seniors tax (superannuation), a workers tax (smokers), and the carbon tax. It is vintage scaremongering Abbott, but his behaviour is infuriating his colleagues. He has declared open war on Turnbull.
So has Malcolm sown the seeds of the harvest he is now reaping?
Yes. His bitter harvest is the direct result of his willingness to sacrifice so many of his sacred principles and policies in order to scavenge the votes he needed for leadership.
He put his longstanding ambition to be prime minister ahead of his deeply held values and principles. He ought to have known that the Shylocks who extracted that price are ruthless operatives for whom power is all that matters. They will never give up. They are determined reactionaries, hell-bent on upholding their ultra-conservative beliefs at all costs. Indeed, some believe it would be better to lose the election in order to cleanse the LNP of the moderate elements and restore and protect conservative values. To them, that is of supreme importance.
We should not be surprised at their destructive behaviour. They will not change; they cannot. They will fight to the bitter end in what is now clearly a life and death struggle between Turnbull and his moderates and the Abbott-led extreme right wing reactionaries. Abbott told us often that the LNP is not Labor. He was right. The LNP is now set upon a course even more self-destructive than that of Labor.
Malcolm’s Bitter Harvest is upon him. He has reaped what he sowed.
What do you think?
What are your views about PM Turnbull six months in?
We look forward to reading your views and your comments.