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]
Brendan Nelson decided that a populist approach would serve him, and the Coalition well. The first manifestation of this was the Coalition promise of 5c/litre cut in fuel excise. Turnbull saw this as bad policy and said so in an email to Nelson that somehow leaked to the press. But he was forced to toe the party line and at a subsequent Press Club address, when confronted with this, excruciatingly acknowledged that even if it wasn’t good policy it was certainly good politics.
Subsequently he promulgated Coalition policy on alcopops, luxury cars and climate change, but seemed unconvincing, especially about the Coalition’s climate change position, with which we know he disagreed. He seemed to be going through the motions, but without enthusiasm. Perhaps because these matters had budgetary implications, of which he would have been acutely aware, his performance as Shadow Treasurer was less than impressive. He seemed to be constrained in stating his own views, which one suspects were not well-aligned with his party’s position.
Then Nelson threw his last dice and lost to Turnbull 41/45. Now Turnbull could call the tune, say what he believed, and lead the party his way. But he hasn’t made a great start in that direction. Already he’s confirmed the Coalition’s position in its opposition to the bills already in the Senate. He had the opportunity to review these positions, but so far has not. Maybe the closeness of the leadership ballot has constrained him to go along with the established positions. Maybe he feels pressure from the 41 who didn’t support him, from the hard-core Howardites, who want to preserve the Howard Government’s legacy and its policy positions.
But how long can someone with Malcolm Turnbull’s temperament tolerate perpetuating positions he does not support enthusiastically? How can this self-made man, used to making his own decisions, calling the shots and taking considered risks, be restrained? Can he be a successful Leader of the Opposition while his party leans on him to strictly follow the party line? Can he thrive unless the party allows him more slack, much more?
Already some would be questioning his disagreement with some aspects of the recent statement from the Reserve Bank governor. Turnbull is entitled to have his view, especially with his banking background, but are some of his colleagues wondering if this was a ‘gaffe’ and a foretaste of things to come?
Given Turnbull’s character and self-confident style, the Coalition might be wise to allow him his head, and to accept that in so doing its leader will appear more authentic although at times he may cause his party some discomfort. Perception is more telling than policy purity. It might be astute to let the real Malcolm Turnbull stand up. The success of his leadership may depend on it.
But that would mean retreat of the Howardites, and abandonment of the fervent preservation of the Howard legacy. Turnbull’s success may depend on how likely this is.
UPDATE 21 September 2008
There was further confirmation of Malcolm Turnbull’s discomfort when advocating things with which he does not agree during his interview with Laurie Oakes this morning on Channel Nine. His discomfort was obvious when he was challenged about the 5c/litre cut in fuel excise and with the Coalition’s determination to block a number of budget bills in the Senate. His argument that the 6 billion of revenue affected was a tiny amount of money, less than a half of one percent of the four year budget, was unconvincing. Most ordinary people would think 6 billion was a great deal of money that could fund important projects such as infrastructure developments, especially at this time of constraint on borrowing in the private sector.
Again, he was uncomfortable and unpersuasive when trying to sustain his party’s criticism of Kevin Rudd’s trip to the US this week to speak at the UN and to meet financial regulators to discuss the global financial crisis.
He continues to be unconvincing when he’s pushing a line with which he disagrees or his commonsense tells him is untenable. Until and unless he calls the policy and PR shots he will continue to flounder.