Leading article Australia

Malcolm, messiah

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

Justinian II, Charles II, Napoleon, Gladstone, Churchill, Menzies, de Gaulle, Nixon, Wilson, Howard, Clinton, Rudd — what do these figures have in common? Having been badly defeated and widely written off (including sometimes by themselves), they made remarkable comebacks. Call it the Arnold J. Toynbee theory of ‘departure and return’, the idea that certain legendary leaders must endure time in the political wilderness before returning to power.

There is an unmistakable theme of departure and return in the media narrative of Malcolm Turnbull. Just as virtually everyone had written the one-time Liberal party leader off as irrelevant nearly four years ago, seasoned observers of Canberra politics regularly raise the prospects of a Turnbull bounce back. Sometimes, journalists are reflecting the pre-election sentiments of some nervous nellies in the Liberal party room; at other times, they are just being mischievous.

Take the distinguished journalist Peter Hartcher. Writing in the Fairfax press, he said: ‘Malcolm Turnbull has no prospect of leading the Liberal party to the election, despite a recent surge in media speculation.’ As far as scoops go, he may as well have written: ‘The sun will rise tomorrow, despite speculation by owls that it won’t.’ The non-article followed a similarly themed piece where Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull were portrayed as two equally benign tall poppies — both ‘persistently popular’ and ‘manifestly intelligent’ — whose bountiful qualities were such that the Australian electorate begrudged neither of them their wealth. Oh, and in case you missed the underlying theme, we were told that Tony Abbott’s ‘sweaty palms are showing’.

Such articles are pure mischief-making, indulging the fantasy that Mr Turnbull, like Mr Rudd, is some kind of longed-for messiah. The idea is simple: if Labor can bring back their media darling to win an election, why can’t the Liberals?

In making this case, the hollowness of progressive politics in Australia is laid bare. It’s not about principle, nor policy. Just personality. Mr Turnbull has no hope of leading the Liberal party anytime soon; not because ‘there is no venue for a party meeting’ (as Mr Hartcher asserts) but because his Wentworth-centric view of the world is anathema to the core Coalition voter. A resurrected Turnbull leadership would face two unpalatable choices — either ‘sell’ wholeheartedly the entire Abbott agenda and expose himself to charges of Rudd-esque backflips, or shift the party markedly to the centre left and lose the rock solid two-party preferred majority that Tony Abbott has maintained throughout the last turbulent three years. Either way, Malcolm would be seen as mini-Kev, and as happened during his 2008-9 tenure, Coalition support would evaporate.

Still, Mr Turnbull could do worse than heed Nixon’s advice to overcome adversity: ‘One is not finished when he is defeated; he is finished when he quits. Always keep fighting. When one door closes, another will open.’ No doubt his media mates will be chanting the Nixon-ian mantra after the election.

Where are they now?

A popular media sport is to dig up household names from the past and find out what has happened to them since the credits rolled on their careers. So well may we ask: what on earth has happened to Team Gillard?

Only a few short weeks ago, the Australian electorate couldn’t get through any given day without being lectured and hectored by Wayne Swan, Nicola Roxon, Greg Combet, Peter Garrett, Stephen Conroy and Ms Gillard herself. This worthy group clearly held the utmost concern for our long-term wellbeing and prosperity, and didn’t hesitate to share their wisdom and advice with us. So adamant were they that they ‘knew best’,  they frequently sought to pass laws designed to change our behaviour for the common good.

Alas, it appears they have lost all interest in the people they were previously so concerned about. With the resurrection of Kevin Rudd, a third of Ms Gillard’s cabinet announced they wouldn’t work with him or were quitting politics altogether.

Would it be too much to ask why? Please explain, as it were? After all, as Mr Rudd remakes policy on the run and smashes to smithereens their hard work, are the members of the Gillard cabinet prepared simply to lie back and think of Labor? Are they really prepared to put the party before the people and keep silent on issues that they were previously so determined would damage the nation?

The hypocrisy is sickening. No doubt the moment the election is over they will all rush into print telling us how dreadful Kevin was and what a disaster he would have been for the country. By keeping silent, they betray the voters who gave them their jobs in the first place.

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  • Austin

    Strongly agree with your contention that “his Wentworth-centric view of the world is anathema to the core Coalition voter”.

    I consider myself a core Coalition voter and my sense is the most important thing to Turnbull is Turnbull, a man driven by personal ambition and a win at all costs attitude. This might be acceptable should his views align with the underlying Liberal party ethos which includes social conservatism (not just economic).

    No doubt there are voters seeking a socially progressive party with a pro-capitalist flavour, however I am not one of them and will do all I can to prevent the likes of Turnbull turning the Liberal party into a vehicle for his personal aspirations.

    I might also add there is nothing more nauseating than enduring the platitudes of Turnbull supporters, having been surrounded by them in my previous role as an investment banker – perhaps this says it all.