10 days ago Malcolm Turnbull became Leader of the Opposition at a time of intense political activity and global financial turmoil. This is one view of how he’s travelling.
As argued in another post: Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up? Turnbull’s performance varies according to whether he is advancing a case in which he believes, or one in which he does not. It is in instances of the latter that he has been unconvincing.
Why is this? Looking back at Turnbull’s career he has had success as a barrister and a merchant banker. A barrister takes a brief and argues the merit of the client’s case against that presented by an adversary, often a prosecutor. From what we hear of Turnbull’s successes as a barrister, it appears that it has been greatest in those cases where he was an enthusiastic advocate. The ‘Spycatcher’ case is an example. Since entering politics he seems have done best when his heart is in his advocacy, such as signing Kyoto or saying ‘sorry’. His is less convincing when his heart is not in it, such as was the case in the 5c/litre cut in fuel excise.
Since his ascent to leadership we have seen several pointers to his modus operandi:
First he will not shrink from populist politics if he sees it as advancing his and the Coalition’s cause. The fact that he endorsed Brendan Nelson’s populist positions without hesitation, when he could have stepped back from at least some of them when he assumed leadership, shows that he has embraced the ‘anything it takes’ approach to winning. The statesmanlike utterances he made shortly after he entered parliament have given way to ‘political-speak’. So he gets a tick for his ‘win at any cost’ approach, but a cross for populism.
Second, he has shown that he performs best when, to use his media cheerleaders’ words, ‘he takes it up to Rudd and his Government’. This is perhaps most closely aligned with the skill of advocacy at the bar, where the job is to take the client’s case up to the prosecutor, something at which Turnbull has excelled. So his aggression at Question Time or in proposing censure motions is to be expected. Although he knows he is unlikely to succeed, for example with censure, he proceeds with great vigour and eloquence, knowing that this will hit the news bulletins, and that when shown on TV will promote the strong advocate image, that of someone who can take the fight to the adversary. That the argument he is making may be flawed or his facts faulty, is no deterrent, so long he considers he is giving the impression of a strong articulate leader. His trenchant criticism of the exchange of abuse at Question Time on the ABC TV’s Q&A programme this week would have been more plausible if he had not been contributing to it so fulsomely. So he gets a qualified tick for his performance in the House. [more]
Next, he does well when he is talking about himself, his background and his family. We saw that at his Press Club address after his election, and again on Q&A this week, where he was the sole interviewee. Although it could be argued that placing so up-front the fact that he was brought up by a single parent in rented accommodation and has been short of money, might not cut much ice with many of those who have endured such inconveniences, his object was to lessen the ‘silvertail’ impression that had marred his image. It did open him up to Labor jibes about him being brought up ‘in a shoebox in Vaucluse’, but I imagine he thinks he’s come out on the positive side. His admission on Q&A of ‘pot’ smoking in his youth will probably do him no harm; it may give him a ‘regular guy’ shine. So he gets a tick for talking about himself.
Finally, how does he rate when advocating positions in which he does not have his heart, in justifying policy decisions that don’t sit comfortably with his views, in explaining statements he’s made to the media or in parliament that have been seen as imprudent? This is where he looks least convincing.
As argued in previous posts, in such situations he sounds, and in particular looks unconvincing. We saw this first when advocating populist Nelson policies, and again on Q&A this week. He started well on Q&A, urbane, eloquent, charming and humorous when talking about his background. But once he was confronted with issues such as his endorsement of the 5c/litre fuel excise reduction although he considered it was ‘bad policy’, the leaking of this to the media, his statement to Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes about the possibility of the Reserve Bank assisting Australian banks along the lines proposed in the US, and when Tony Jones challenged him with contrary facts, he turned defensive, his language became less lucid, his words entangled in verbosity and circumlocution, his argument unconvincing. This was identical to what he exhibited once he was required to adopt a political stance on being appointed Parliamentary Secretary to John Howard.
Q&A was a performance in two contrasting parts: the first gave the impression of an accomplished man in control of the agenda, the second a hesitant, uncertain, much less convincing person. After a sparkling start, he reverted to the unpersuasive mode we’ve seen before. The applause he enjoyed early in the program waned, the looks of approval and acceptance in the audience faded, and he ended what began so promisingly with a disappointingly below-par performance.
So 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.
10 days down, 750+ to go.
UPDATE 27 September 2008
Now some quantitative evidence of how Malcolm Turnbull is travelling. Judging from a telephone Morgan Poll conducted on the evenings of September 24 and 25, with a smallish Australia-wide cross section of 574 electors, while Turnbull has understandably improved the Coalition’s position in the Preferred PM stakes over that of Nelson to 55/30, and has an approval/disapproval rating of 43/24 (with 33% undecided), this has not yet translated into an improved 2PP position for the Coalition; in fact it has worsened a little (possibly within the MOE) to 57/43. Turnbull is least in favour with younger voters.