It was Karl Marx who said History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
Malcolm Turnbull gives contemporary credence to these words.
Seven years ago, in August 2009, as Malcolm Turnbull’s time as Leader of the Opposition seemed close to its end, I wrote The Turnbull endgame?
Four months later he was gone, replaced by Tony Abbott by just one vote.
The leopard has not changed his spots. What was written about him then, applies now. This piece highlights the striking parallels between now and then.
I shall intersperse in block quotes clips from that earlier piece, with contemporary comment to illustrate my argument.
The Australian today [6 August 2009] 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 that followed are evenly divided between support for making a change and leaving Turnbull there, as Robb would be no better!
Sounds familiar doesn’t it!
Jack the Insider has a blog Turnbull artistry no match for the numbers. He concludes “...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.”... Most of the 240 respondents, even those with Liberal leanings, agreed that a change was necessary.
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 2008 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.”
Despite the unhappy memories of the Turnbull of 2009, when he toppled Abbott in September last year the sense of relief among the general public that finally the calamitous Abbott was gone (at least from the top job) was so great that memories of the earlier Turnbull were erased from the public’s mind. Great hope was held out that at last we had a leader that was prime ministerial in appearance, demeanour and speech. At last our embarrassment of having Abbott as our leader was behind us.
His prime ministership started well, but soon doubts began. Had he learned from his previous period as leader? Had the Turnbull nature changed? The public was at first prepared to give him the benefit of the gathering doubts that people had.
Let’s look back again to 2008:
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?”
Sounds familiar again. Balanced journalists have commented time and again that Turnbull is under the thumb of his right wing members, the very ones who extracted promises from him for their vote when he challenged Abbott for leadership.
Now we hear him arguing strongly in support of the Coalition’s paltry Direct Action Plan although he vowed previously never to lead a government that did not put a price on carbon pollution. Just as before, he now sounds unconvincing, and is marked down for being a turncoat.
Although a strong supporter of marriage equality, he persists with his intention to hold a plebiscite. His rationale is that it was an election promise, but more importantly it was a promise to his right wing. The fact that recent polls show that the public’s desire for a plebiscite is waning and that they want parliament to get on with its job of legislating for equality, has so far not persuaded him to reverse his stand and show the leadership they hoped he would. Although he knows how close he went to losing the recent election, he realizes that his prime ministership depends more on the support of his right wing than on the support of the people. He knows where the power rests.
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 avoids 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.
History repeats itself.
In the wake of the disastrous storms that blacked out South Australia, we have Turnbull in full political mode, lambasting Labor states for having ‘aggressive and extremely unrealistic targets for renewable energy’, insinuating that South Australia’s high use of wind power was a significant factor in the catastrophic failure of electricity supply to that State. He persists with this line despite energy providers and experts in power generation, as well as renewable energy providers and advocates insisting that the blackout was caused by the unprecedented disastrous weather event that hit the State, and not the use of renewables. As he condemned Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan for their actions during the GFC (now shown to be life-saving for our economy), he now condemns Labor premiers for their support of renewables, and piously (echoed by energy minister Josh Frydenberg) boasts that ‘energy security is the Coalition’s top priority’ (apparently national security has slipped down the list). Again accruing political capital is his object, not the wellbeing of the nation.
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.”
He is now in similar mode, asserting that Labor does not understand energy security, that it is obsessed with renewables, that its targets are wildly unrealistic, all the time neglecting to set national targets to guide the states, or even to carry out modeling for the very modest emission reduction and renewable targets he agreed to in Paris. He is dragging his feet while castigating the Labor states which have filled the void. Again, he is failing to provide leadership. He seems oblivious to the increasing demands of the people who want action on climate change urgently.
And it’s not just ordinary people who want action. Major business organizations and energy users have urged federal and state governments to work cooperatively to map out a “strategic response to Australia’s energy transition and challenges”… warning that investment is at risk. The Australian Energy Council, the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia, the Energy Users Association of Australia, Energy Consumers Australia, the Energy Efficiency Council, the Energy Networks Association and the Clean Energy Council are jointly calling for leadership from and between the jurisdictions, and bipartisanship on “the tightly connected issues of energy and climate change”
, warning that in the absence of bipartisanship, “uncertainty will cause essential energy investments to be deferred or distorted, to the ultimate cost of us all.” But will Turnbull listen to them?
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 currently shows has an average TPP of 60/40 in Labor's favour across several polls, which show a steady trend away from the Coalition.
His polling situation is not quite as bad now, but compared with the stellar polls he enjoyed just a little over a year ago, his personal popularity is in a steady downward spiral, and recently the Coalition’s TPP was as bad as it was when Abbott was PM!
This piece is already long enough. Let’s finish with the conclusion of the 2009 piece; The Turnbull endgame?
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.
Here we are again! Nothing has changed since 2009 except the dates. Turnbull is still the Turnbull he always was, and always will be. The electorate, initially buoyed with high expectations, has that sinking feeling again as disappointment and disillusionment overwhelms.
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.
And his right wing would have him gone in a flash if they could mount a plausible case, provided they could find an acceptable alternative, as was the case in 2009.
As 2353NM put it in Turnbull – Abbott from a better postcode?
: “When Turnbull became prime minister, there was a hope that he would bring the claimed decency and ability to appeal to the middle ground that was so lacking with Abbott. After 13 months, it hasn’t happened. There are two possibilities: Turnbull is just as bad as Abbott (except for better clothing choices and living in a ‘more expensive’ postcode); or, to coin a phrase, Turnbull ’doesn’t have the ticker’ to promote and implement policy and legislation that isn’t approved by his conservative rump thereby ensuring his longevity as prime minister. Either way, the rest of us as Australian citizens will continue to suffer as a result."
Marx said: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
We’ve had the tragedy; now we have the farce.
Is this the Turnbull endgame – again?
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