The Australian today abounds with talk of replacing Malcolm Turnbull as Coalition leader. Dennis Shanahan and Matthew Franklin wrote a piece Desperate Liberals look to replace Turnbull with Robb, and Shanahan has a blog. It's a loser or the last man standing. The sixty comments are pretty evenly divided between support for making a change and leaving Turnbull there as Robb would be no better. Jack the Insider has a blog Turnbull artistry no match for the numbers. He concludes “...that the hard heads in the Coalition will soon reach the view, if they have not already done so, that the continued existence of the Liberal Party depends on a change in leadership.” He did not canvass Robb as an alternative. Most of the 240 respondents, even those with Liberal leanings, agree that a change is necessary. [more]
The Political Sword has long maintained that while Malcolm Turnbull was an accomplished journalist, barrister, businessman and banker, he was not a politician and would have difficulty in the political milieu.
On 19 September last year in Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up? it was argued that after starting so promisingly when he entered parliament, when this independent thinker and decision-maker was being forced uncomfortably into a political mould as a Howard Government minister, his authority faded and he became less convincing. He seemed to not have his heart in what he was saying.
Then in The Turnbull Report Card 10 days in posted on 26 September soon after he became leader, after acknowledging his pluses, concluded ”...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.”
Then in Malcolm’s at it again posted on 15 October when he was beginning to qualify his support initially given to the first Rudd Government stimulus package, he began to sound less persuasive, became circumlocutory, and arguably lost his audience. The piece concluded “Kim Beasley was criticized for his prolixity, and unable to overcome it, eventually people stopped listening. Indeed this was a major factor behind the move to replace him as leader. Leaders who lose their audience – Beasley and Howard are examples - lose elections. Turnbull’s minders would be wise to point out this defect to him, and try to rectify it, always providing Malcolm’s ego will tolerate such a move.
To quibble or not to quibble posted the next day when Turnbull again quibbled about his support for the stimulus, concluded “As said so many times in this blog, when Turnbull does his own thing and promotes his own views, he looks impressive and sounds authentic; but as soon as he’s forced to toe the party line, he loses his lustre and becomes an ordinary politician...When will the Coalition learn? When will they realize that sometimes it’s better not to quibble.”
The emerging Opposition strategy posted on 13 November, described the strategy being adopted by Turnbull and the Coalition: attacking everything the Government did, criticizing everything Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan proposed, and attacking them personally, labeling them as incompetent and reckless. At the time Crikey’s Bernard Keane said “The risk with Turnbull’s tactics are that they backfire, and create a public impression of a smart-rse, someone who failed to get behind the Government as it tried to manage a global crisis...The risk at the moment is that he cruels his public image before that can happen. Once the public has an image of you, it’s very hard to shake it off.” The TPS piece concluded “So it’s hard to see any logic to Turnbull’s strategy and tactics other than his belief that if he throws enough mud, some will stick, and that by repeatedly attempting to discredit Rudd, Swan and the Government generally, he will gain traction, the scales will fall from the voters’ eyes, and he will emerge as the indispensable statesman who can restore Australia to the ‘glory’ of the Howard years. On the other hand, as Keane suggests, his strategy may inflict so much damage on his image that recovery will be difficult, if not impossible. Some are already punting he will not survive as leader to the next election; what he’s now doing may ensure that this becomes a discerning prophesy. Unfortunately for him, his impatience, his ego and his determination to use a ‘do whatever it takes’ strategy no matter how politically opportunistic, may be his undoing.”
The pattern of Turnbull’s behaviour was becoming clearer.
The ‘deficit’ wedge posted on 25 November was written when the deficit and debt slogan was launched. The piece concluded “What this amounts to is an opportunistic ploy by the Opposition to wrong-foot and embarrass the Government about the much-talked-about deficit, and to paint it as incapable of sound economic management if it finally does go into deficit for the good of the nation. That the Coalition’s wedge campaign flies in the face of sensible economic management in these troubled times is of no importance to them; political advantage and the wistful hope of winning the next election is all that counts...Since his election to leadership Turnbull has posed as a financial guru, but he has gained no traction in two party preferred terms in the opinion polls...The people don’t seem to be buying his rhetoric...Turnbull needs to be careful that his blatant opportunism doesn’t backfire.”
Turnbull’s benchmarks for failure of 30 November described his three benchmarks for Rudd Government failure: going into a deficit, rising unemployment, and recession. The piece concluded: “Economist after economist, commentator upon commentator agree that under the current economic circumstances a deficit occasioned by a well-targeted fiscal stimulus is necessary to limit the risk of recession. They agree with Rudd and Swan, not with Turnbull. His demand that the Government avoid a deficit, although this would be detrimental to the economy, to jobs, and to the nation, is irresponsible. But will contrary opinion be enough to stop him? Laurie Oakes doesn’t think so. Writing in the 29 November issue of the Daily Telegraph ‘Turnbull falls into deficit’ he suggests that even if he is wrong, Turnbull is never in doubt about the correctness of his position. So it’s unlikely Turnbull will change tack – no price is too high for him to achieve political traction. If one can judge from the latest opinion polls, Turnbull is spinning his wheels. He desperately needs traction. But his strategy is risky. The people are watching. When they see through his glib talk, he will be the one who fails.”
The ‘stop at nothing’ pattern was emerging.
The 2 December piece Why does Malcolm Turnbull make so many mistakes? 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.”
Then on 24 February this year in Malcolm Turnbull’s intelligence it was argued that intelligence was not a uniform trait, and that his clearly demonstrated intelligence in his prior endeavours did not guarantee that he had political intelligence. It was written following Julie Bishop's decision to fall on her sword as shadow treasurer, and when Turnbull was faced with the choice of filling the spot created when he sacked the little-known (right-wing) Cory Bernardi for insulting fellow frontbencher (moderate) Christopher Pyne, and in the process got himself into a mess with his party. The piece concluded “So shall we stop repeating the pointless mantra that ‘Turnbull is highly intelligent’ and then express surprise when he makes elementary political mistakes. Shall we acknowledge that intelligence is not a uniform attribute, and that while Turnbull has intelligence in some areas, he has poorly developed political intelligence, acumen, or 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.”
On 11 April a piece Why is Malcolm Turnbull so unpopular? began “There’s not much need to emphasize Turnbull’s contemporary unpopularity – it’s all over the air waves and the papers. It takes only a few metrics to quantify it...He leads a Coalition that Possum’s Pollytrack currently shows has an average TPP vote of only 40. Pollytrack shows 60/40 in Labor's favour across several polls, and Pollytrend showing a steady trend away from the Coalition. Turnbull seems to be relying on the economy steadily worsening, unemployment rising towards 10% and with it anger rising too, anger that would be vented in many ways, not least against those in Government. Then he believes the people will conclude they have been duped by an incompetent Rudd Government, and that a change back to competent economic managers, the Coalition, is the only solution. Indeed just this week he announced that only when he becomes Prime Minister at the next election would the economy be in safe hands.”
The piece described Turnbull’s Terrible Trifecta: Negativity-Arrogance-Disingenuousness and suggested that instead of the Trifecta, “...another choice for him and the Coalition would be to develop decent policy options and plausible alternatives to Government policy; introduce them modestly rather than insisting they are the only way to go; stick to the facts and avoid deceit. Public respect, now so profoundly lacking, might then be gradually restored. But at the moment Turnbull seems hell-bent on leading his colleagues, like lemmings, right over the cliff. Does he know how close to the edge he is?”
Stop at nothing – Malcolm Turnbull’s fatal flaw? posted on 24 June around the time of the OzCar affair, which is now at its zenith, used Annabelle Crabb’s Quarterly Essay to ask if the ‘stop at nothing’ approach was Turnbull’s fatal flaw. It 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.”
Turnbull in a China shop posted on 13 July, not surprisingly at the time of the Stern Hu affair, described Turnbull’s insistence that the PM ring the Chinese President Hu Jintao at once and demand that Hu be released immediately, a diplomatically inappropriate move that exposed Turnbull’s poor judgement. It concluded “All this leads us to the question: “Does Malcolm Turnbull’s behaviour over the Hu incident fit him to be Prime Minister of Australia? Does it improve his chances from that of two weeks ago? Or is he behaving, as is usual, like a ‘Turnbull in a China shop’.
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.