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Malcolm Turnbull was right: Political disunity is death

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Malcolm Turnbull in happier times (image by Army Sgt. Clydell Kinchen via U.S. Department of Defense)

With the unceremonious end of Prime Minister Turnbull's tenure, it is time again to examine what went wrong with his leadership. Why did yet another Australian PM fail to live up to the public’s expectations?

Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership had such promise.

In his speech before taking the Liberal leadership, he assured us that he would run a consultive government that would “respect the intelligence of the Australian people".

This was, undoubtedly, an inspiring piece of oratory.

Yet less than three years later, our nation once again finds itself coming to grips with another change in the prime ministership. Again, the voting public had absolutely no say in who was chosen to ascend to the top job.

After starting out his time in the Lodge with such promise, how did Malcolm Turnbull end up here?

Turnbull pledged to unite the Coalition and the country

When he became PM, replacing Tony Abbott in 2015, many Australians were collectively relieved as Abbott’s “tin ear” leadership was ousted from power. Polling for the Coalition soared and they were put into an election-winning position overnight.

Australians from across the political spectrum put their faith in Turnbull. They expected him to take the Government back to the "sensible political centre". Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey – in their time as prime minister and treasurer, respectively – had pushed the Coalition noticeably to the right.

The anticipated unity in the Liberal Party never really materialised. Before long, Turnbull was under seemingly constant attack from within his own Party. Tony Abbott remained a constant thorn in Turnbull’s side, vengefully firing up the right wing of the Coalition against him whenever possible.

As Turnbull endured one humiliating policy backflip after another on what had been his own personal brand of centre-right politics, voters began to seriously doubt his self-created image.

Turnbull needed to stand up to the Coalition party room

Turnbull's time as PM was arguably defined by his ongoing struggle against the Coalition’s right faction. They were never happy about his ascension to the top job and his perceived betrayal of Tony Abbott — one of the movement’s favourite sons.

Turnbull was challenged repeatedly by his own party members. His plan to reach carbon emission targets was slammed, as was his endorsement of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s bid to become the UN Secretary General. On multiple occasions, after being publicly challenged, Turnbull was forced into damaging policy backflips again and again.

Signature Turnbull policies and ideological visions for the future were repeatedly jettisoned from his political platform. He was hounded by Coalition MP’s and senators, who were never going to be satisfied with his leadership, no matter what he did.

These backflips led to the rise of his image as a flim flam man — a politician with no ideological vision. He wanted to retain power at all costs.

Turnbull went against the wishes of everyday Coalition voters 

On multiple occasions, Turnbull’s Government ignored polling that illustrated the unpopularity of certain core Liberal-National policies. Not only was the electorate at large unimpressed, but so also were reliable Coalition voters.

For example, Turnbull repeatedly attempted to block the Financial Services Royal Commission, despite overwhelming public support for it. Turnbull made multiple statements, filled with pro-bank platitudes, that made him seem like little more than a hired suit pushing the party line. He didn't appear to be a sitting Prime Minister with any kind of power.

More recently, Turnbull’s Government showed that it had a tin ear to rival that of its predecessor, the Abbott Government. Despite polling showing serious opposition from every corner of the Australian electorate, the PM and former Treasurer Scott Morrison repeatedly pressed for company tax cuts. They have recently been brought up again by Scott Morrison, as Prime Minister.

Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership — a post-mortem

Malcolm Turnbull had a golden opportunity to become the John Howard of his generation — to serve multiple consecutive terms in office and make a mark on Australia with his singular political vision for the future of the country.

He let his own ambition to retain the top job get the better of him. Instead of pressing forward on his centrist agenda, attempting to wedge the Labor party on issues where Turnbull was strong, he allowed the right wing of the Coalition to scuttle his leadership.

Despite his own personal popularity and winning in the “would like to have a beer with” stakes against Labor Leader Bill Shorten, Turnbull never achieved a fraction of his potential as Prime Minister. He will be remembered as a PM who stood for the “big end of town”, a leader who never really had his Party behind him and his policies from the beginning.

Ultimately Malcolm Turnbull was right when he said: "disunity in politics is death".

Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and political commentator. You can follow him on Twitter @AvidCommentator.

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