Inside Story

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Getting down to business

21 September 2015

Malcolm Turnbull’s diverse career brings new qualities to the prime ministership, writes Frank Bongiorno. But he will need to be careful his larger-than-life persona doesn’t wear thin


Quips with a message: new PM Malcolm Turnbull. Adam Carmichael/Flickr

Quips with a message: new PM Malcolm Turnbull. Adam Carmichael/Flickr

So far, there have been no real surprises. The parlous Canning by-election in Western Australia was always going to test Tony Abbott’s hold on the prime ministership, and in the age of continuous polling there was no need to wait for the actual vote. Malcolm Turnbull’s election as Liberal Party leader was always likely to be well received by the media and the public. And Turnbull’s first ministerial reshuffle seems to have emphatically set the government on a new course.

Abbott’s prime ministership was in such a state of decay that any change was going to have a significant impact. No one suggests that Bill Shorten’s leadership of the Labor Party has created any electoral momentum of its own; so far, he and Labor have largely benefited from the Coalition’s hopeless performance and the deservedly deep unpopularity of Abbott. The prospect of an early election will rise as the Coalition’s numbers improve, not least because after two wasted years of economic policy (and much else), the government won’t be looking forward to delivering an election-year budget full of handouts the country can ill afford.  

But that assumes Turnbull’s prime ministership proves to be more successful, and popular, than his previous term as party leader. He faces obstacles at least as formidable as the deceptions of Godwin Grech, not least a Coalition riven by the personal animosities, ideological conflicts and policy divisions that are among the Abbott prime ministership’s main legacies. At least for the time being, the government will carry the bad odour that often lingers once its perpetrator has walked out of the room.

But Abbott hasn’t actually walked out of the room, of course – not completely, not yet. And his supporters on the right, some of whom believe that even Abbott wasn’t really conservative enough, certainly haven’t left. All of this could make for a difficult time for Turnbull this side of an election, and an interesting one afterwards.

Even among people not inclined to vote for his party, though, considerable optimism has been invested in Turnbull’s prime ministership. This is understandable. Since John Howard’s fall in 2007, a series of prime ministers have proved incapable of doing the job to the satisfaction of either their party or the electorate.

Each of them was able to do part of the job. Rudd, despite being a policy wonk, proved good at arousing the support and even affection of many ordinary voters – a skill that mystified and frustrated people in Canberra who had to endure the real man up close and personal. Gillard had many of the personal qualities, negotiating skills and policy interests essential in a good prime minister, but she was destroyed by the circumstances of her accession to the leadership, a series of poor decisions, a wooden public persona and an unrelenting campaign of misogynist abuse.

Abbott was the odd one out. He came to the prime ministership offering little of substance, and delivered even less. Of the three, his prime ministership was the worst, and comparisons with Billy McMahon have already become hackneyed.

Will Turnbull become the latest in this line of prime ministerial disappointments? Among the post-Howard leaders, he brings by far the most diverse background and experience. His mother was Coral Lansbury, a figure known to people like me as a talented historian who wrote a good book on images of Australia in the colonial era. Lansbury departed from the family home when Malcolm was a boy, leaving his father to raise him; after living in New Zealand and remarrying, she went on to a successful academic career in the United States.

Following a Rhodes scholarship, Turnbull became moderately rich and famous in the 1980s, and predictions began circulating that he was a prime minister in the making. His fame came from his role as counsel to Kerry Packer, especially after a leak to the National Times suggested that the Costigan royal commission was investigating allegations that the media magnate – thinly disguised as “Goanna” in the paper’s report – had been involved in a series of lurid activities, including drug-running and importing pornography. None of this proved true, and Turnbull played a critical role in Packer’s successful defence of his reputation. But, as Paul Barry has shown, Packer’s efforts to shield his elaborate tax affairs – “well-organised” is the usual euphemism – were hardly likely to allay the suspicions of a royal commission that had already found corruption and criminality in so many dark corners of Australian life.

Turnbull went on to defend former British intelligence agent Peter Wright – then living in Tasmania – against the Thatcher government’s efforts to prevent him from publishing his (ghost-written) memoirs, Spycatcher. Having won a most difficult case, he produced a book about the experience that many thought was a better read than Wright’s.

Turnbull’s rising wealth came from shrewd deal-making at the merchant bank he had formed with Labor-aligned figures Nicholas Whitlam and Neville Wran. Early work included helping a new regime at the Fairfax media group, led by the twenty-six-year-old Warwick, locate emergency finance during its ill-fated takeover of the family company. (You might recall the joke: How do you create a small business in Australia? Give a big business to Warwick Fairfax.) In many ways, the wreckage Turnbull confronts in the federal Coalition bears a resemblance to the failing media companies – the Ten Network was another, owned for a time by Frank Lowy’s Westfield – that were his opportunity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whether this kind of deal-making is good training for the prime ministership, it is hard to say. But like the activities of his opponent Shorten as a union leader, they will have left a rich trail for future enquiry by investigative journalists and unauthorised biographers – although probably not, in Turnbull’s case, royal commissions.

All of this means that Turnbull has been working in very public roles for a long time, something that has become increasingly rare among arrivals in the prime ministerial office. Most electors knew precious little about either Rudd or Gillard when they assumed the top job because neither had been in the public eye – or even in parliament – for very long. We thought we knew Abbott better since we’d had more of a chance to see him in action, but his personal flaws proved so great that they more than counterbalanced whatever reassurance familiarity might have bred.

In reality, though, to know Abbott was never to love him, for most voters anyway. He came to office with few positive ideas and a bag of silly rhetorical tricks that were so obviously part of his conservative political he-man persona. His only real theme was that Labor had wrecked the country. Those with memories of the anti-Whitlam rhetoric of the 1970s know exactly where this stuff was coming from. Abbott’s problem is that, in contrast with attitudes to the Whitlam government at the time (as opposed to rosy memories decades later), few people really believe that the Labor governments led by Rudd or Gillard were truly the most incompetent ever.

Abbott’s own government, meanwhile, looked increasingly like a dysfunctional university student union taken over by an alliance of the rugby team and the Beer Appreciation Society. In Canberra, Abbott had a reputation for courtesy in his dealings with public servants and staffers. Apart from that, one of the few things likely to be recalled in his favour is that he showed sufficient forbearance not to award himself a knighthood as his last act in office.

Abbott fell for his own rhetoric and imagined that he could do what he liked because no one could stand the thought of having Labor back. In reality, many people voted for him through gritted teeth in 2013, and once they had their wish – the removal of Labor – the string of Coalition failures meant that many of them were soon looking for an alternative, either within the Liberal Party or outside it.

Voters clearly like Turnbull more. He is a good advocate, he looks and sounds like a grown-up, and he seems to realise that voters don’t relish being treated as imbeciles – increasingly the default position in recent years, and especially so under Abbott. He also has a very high opinion of himself, which he likes to paint over with calculated self-deprecatory remarks at media conferences and on Q&A. Many of his quips have a clear message: I’m not really a politician as much as a businessman engaged in politics; the day-to-day gossip and trivia of political life is beneath your contempt and mine; I’m really smarter than you and everyone else here but for the sake of appearances let’s pretend you’re my equal; I’m the last man standing with a sense of proportion.

The media love this kind of thing because they largely share his combination of progressive social values and market economics. So far, they have managed to persuade themselves that this former journalist and media lawyer is in some manner one of them – despite his huge ego, immense wealth and vaulting ambition. Their gratitude while he was helping them produce amusing stories and colourful copy was understandable. But the danger is that it will wear thin now he is in charge, which means he will need to find another way of communicating what he is about.

In this, he has made a good start: the ministerial reshuffle has moved things decisively back to the centre, his clean-out of Howard-era ministers and influx of women and younger members giving the government a much fresher look than most commentators would have imagined possible a few days ago. •

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Malcolm Turnbull’s return to the Liberal leadership means the next election will be more like other first-term polls, writes Paul Rodan. But Labor has been seduced by the possibility of victory


Alternative leaders? Labor’s Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen. Daniel Munoz/AAP Image

Alternative leaders? Labor’s Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen. Daniel Munoz/AAP Image