Features Australia

Malcolm Turnbull, chameleon

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

Malcolm Turnbull’s Lowy Institute Lecture was so compelling and so strong it could have been written by Tony Abbott. (But had Abbott delivered it, the outrage in the gallery would have been deafening.) So has Turnbull changed his longstanding marshmallow approach to national security where he would avoid  even mention of the word Islam? This was when he claimed the Christian principle of loving your neighbour was a golden rule also belonging to the Muslim religion. (Which it isn’t).

Turnbull has long been a political chameleon. Although he denies it, Labor grandees say he only moved on when they refused him a safe seat. Just as Donald Trump targeted the presidency as a Republican, so Turnbull targeted parliament as a Liberal. When he stormed the safe seat of Wentworth, even conservatives were persuaded he was one of them.

This need to play the chameleon has been heightened  since he ‘knifed’ Abbott. Although he used that word generously to portray Labor’s disputes, he now condemns it as a ‘violent metaphor’.

Like Trump, Turnbull relies on simplistic slogans, including those about ‘agility’, ‘exciting times’ and ‘innovation’. Aided by a supportive gallery, these distract from any sign of the economic leadership he promised. And like Trump, Turnbull even denies the undeniable. When Abbott stated the obvious − that the Coalition would  run on his government’s record − Turnbull’s nervous response was to swamp the media with the slogan ‘continuity and change’; until the American political TV show Veep revealed it was the ‘most meaningless election slogan we could think of’, one which was ‘hollow and oxymoronic’, saying ‘absolutely nothing’. But when the ABC’s Tony Jones asked whether he realised how silly it was, Turnbull said ‘No, I’ve not used that slogan’.

The government obviously cannot fail to run on Abbott’s record – secure borders, strong national security and defence, scrapping the carbon and mining taxes, a clutch of trade agreements and letting the people decide whether their fundamental institution, marriage, should be radically changed from the original intention in the Constitution.


Had Turnbull been PM in 2013 most of this could not have been achieved − too much would have stuck in his left wing craw, especially securing the borders through the almost universally condemned policy of turning back the boats. When the marriage plebiscite was announced, Turnbull was on the phone to Alan Jones to dissuade Abbott.

Until recently Turnbull showed little interest in targeting crime in the building industry and fraud in some trade unions. There was nothing like the fervour that led Abbott to establish the Heydon Royal Commission. But when he saw his ratings dive with Labor possibly electable, he decided  to salvage his position by threatening a double dissolution. Not only would he be seen as decisive, he could legitimately go to the people earlier than he had promised, and before more of the gloss fell off. But by leaving the election so late, he has put himself at the mercy of Labor who can now delay supply ever so slightly, thus denying him a July election. How impotent would he then appear.

Turnbull is a disappointment to many supporters. He is unlikely to offer, even through the budget, the promised economic leadership. This is likely neither to stop the unrelenting growth in government debt nor to offer any relief from bracket creep for taxpayers.

So why did the party room remove the one leader who brought them victory, the only one who could have secured the borders and whose direction was to  restore Australia to what it was?

Surely they were aware that Turnbull’s great political achievements were about ambition. There was his dramatic blitz on Wentworth, persuading Howard to bring him into the ministry and capturing the leadership twice. But examine the substance. As leader of the very well funded republican movement and with overwhelming establishment and media support he lost the referendum in every state. As water minister his legacy is the slow destruction of the nation’s food bowl, the Murray-Darling. His opposition leadership ended in tears. As communications minister he retained the socialist NBN, unashamedly accessed the ABC as a platform and deftly avoided the principal issues − that sports benefit from TV broadcasts to the extent they do in comparable countries, that obvious parts of the national broadcaster be liberated from the left, and that taxpayer funded broadcasters not compete unfairly, outside of broadcasting, against the press, including Fairfax. And like any socialist, Turnbull just cannot leave the private sector alone to do what it does best. After wasting billions on the NBN, his latest folly is to pour billions into the Clean Energy Finance Corporation − although in its planned abolition, Abbott bequeathed him another double dissolution trigger. On governments not picking winners, Turnbull should be daily reminded of the Tricontinental disaster which led to the collapse of the Victorian State Bank and the downfall of the government.

Nevertheless, those fine words at the Lowy Institute could be given some credence if they were actually followed by some action. Turnbull should not have rejected the American request for help in fighting Islamic State. He should concede that the purpose of acquiring a submarine fleet is more than saving Pyne’s seat. He should admit that our terrorist problems are the result of, at best, gross negligence by governments in handling immigration. He should ensure the police and security services are supported to the hilt and that terrorists be removed from society. The government should concentrate on defence and the other powers granted by the constitution, and vacate those areas purloined from the states with their unproductive, excessive duplication.

If Turnbull is genuine about the true welfare of Australia, he should bring into government not only Tony Abbott but other strong and principled backbenchers  including Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews. After all, Abbott included Turnbull in the cabinet. The reverse should apply where Abbott would make a real and significant contribution.

If Turnbull has now put aside playing the chameleon, his first act will be to constitute such a unity government.

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