Malcolm in the middle

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(Image via abc.net.au)

Mark Hipgrave analyses the 2016 election campaign and Malcolm Turnbull's leadership performance to date.

POOR MALCOLM. He lost the Liberal (LNP) leadership in 2009 when the party decided he was leaning a little bit too far to the left.

Now in 2016, he may lose it again if the Australian people decide he has moved a little bit too far to the right.

Poor Malcolm. He needs to find the middle.

But he won't get a third chance. If he loses this election, he won't survive as leader of the Coalition. Someone else will put his or her hand up — and the job will go, quite likely, to La Cucaracha (Julie Bishop).

When he took the Liberal leadership and the job of PM in September, we all gushed and swooned — even me. One of the comments posted on a Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) article on 23 October suggested that ‘he could be PM for as long as he wants’. I thought so too.

In disappointing both the right and the left of the Coalition, Turnbull has proved to be a double dud. He may very well outclass John Hewson who lost the "unlosable election" to Paul Keating in 1993.

So where did it all go wrong? Hindsight is a wonderful thing but here is my summary.

No vision, no plan

The Prime Minister's primary job is to articulate a vision of where he wants to take the country, sell that vision and then provide the leadership to realise it.

Turnbull promised a fresh start and made some encouraging statements but then became hostage to the hard right of his party. He promised sunlit uplands but has become "Abbott Lite".

No sales pitch

Abbott admitted, in February 2015, that he was good at fighting Labor, but not so hot at fighting his own party. He couldn’t make the switch from opposition leader to PM. It was his comeuppance. He had a "sort-of" vision in his head, one of a united "Team Australia", living with monastic-like austerity to end a declared debt and deficit disaster. 

However, he couldn’t articulate this and he and Joe Hockey certainly couldn’t sell it.  His reliance on three word slogans worked while in opposition, but his wooden style, own goals and "captain’s picks" made us first smile, then cringe and finally laugh out loud. Even News Corp turned against him.

Turnbull is no better a salesman. 

The Australian’s Caroline Overington summed it up nicely when she wrote:

Malcolm Turnbull is not Australia’s CEO. He’s Australia’s prime minister ... He behaves sometimes like he’s forgotten. 

It looks sometimes like he really believes that he can say: "Hey, let’s do this" and the people around him will rush to get it done. That’s how things work when you’re the boss in business. The CEO makes a decision, and those lower down the ladder scurry away to carry out your orders.

This isn’t business. It’s politics. [He] he has to charm [voters]. Cajole them. Convince them. Cut deals to get things done. None of which he did, or seemed to want to do.

As Abbott found out, for an Liberal leader, it’s bad when The Australian criticises you.

No respect from his team

Abbott famously appointed himself captain of "Team Australia", then dropped the title soon after when he realised it was a dumb self-appointment, especially after declaring that team members could pick a new captain if they decided. We did — and then the LNP did.

Abbott had control of his right flank but left himself exposed on the left. Turnbull rallied the left, but to seize control, had to make that Faustian pact with the right, losing credibility with, well, everyone.

The LNP right certainly don’t respect him and the progressive left are just shaking their heads in despair.

No discipline

There have been people needing slap downs left right and centre over the past few weeks — Christensen for declaring no refugees in his backyard; Dutton for, well, everything; La Cucaracha (Bishop) for supporting him and Abbott for openly campaigning for the return of the Abbott – Turnbull Government.

Even Peta Credlin, once El Supremo in the PM's office, has turned into "Feral Cheryl", now playing bad-cop to Abbott’s good-cop — and needs a quiet talking-to. Warren Entch volunteered "we knew this would happen" — which begs the question, if these guys are so smart, how come they couldn’t find a job to keep her inside the tent, at least until after the election?

By contrast, Shorten has at least shown some managerial gumption for his handling of the unbelievably stupid David Feeney for not declaring his pecuniary interests in full. Feeney deserves to lose his seat and probably will.

Of course, there is a long way to go until the election. But at the very, very best, it is looking like a reduced majority for the Coalition. Turnbull has no chance of getting the mandate he wants and needs, which means another three years of instability. He will have to deal with two oppositions — an emboldened Labor Party (perhaps with a new leader) occupying the centre left and an equally emboldened Tony Abbott leading the hard conservative right. 

Even if he wins on 2 July, it will be a tight squeeze for "Malcolm in the middle".

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