Turnbull: The ballad of the small government and the big nothing

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Jed Hutchinson discusses whether Malcolm Turnbull was the man to reverse the Liberal party’s fortunes after all.

THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom regarding an unpopular leader being replaced is that the successful challenger will receive a "honeymoon" period of good polling for a brief period of time afterward.

During this time, the incoming leader has a grace period to settle in some, find their feet and set about correcting the sources of public sentiment flowing so strongly against their party.

In the case of Tony Abbott, you had an unpopular PM yoked to a plethora of unpopular policies. When Malcolm Turnbull strode out of Parliament House to challenge for the Liberal leadership, glowing and exuding an aura of victory in September 2015, it seemed the only logical choice for the good of his party and the good of the people.

Abbott had been given his tap on the shoulder previously – in February 2015 – and consecutive polling up until September showed an inexorable downward trajectory for the Liberal Party, pointing towards utter annihilation in the next election. Between those crucial probationary months, Abbott stood by his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, thereby angering his party and made no meaningful policy concessions to appease voters.

Turnbull seemed to be sitting back patiently, waiting for the party that rejected him only a few years earlier to beg him back to the leadership. He courted a protracted and finely executed campaign of public relations to woo the public to him, with leather jacketed Q&A appearances spouting moderation and doorstop interviews to the effect that he was the leader his country needed. All that was required for Turnbull to take the leadership, it seemed, was for him to sit back and let Abbott continue on his path toward complete political self-immolation.

Perhaps it was hubris or the resolution of a six year saudade but although Turnbull was victorious in taking over the prime ministership, he fatally misjudged the circumstances under which he won. At first glance, Turnbull’s numbers seemed solid at 56-45 in his favour, two party preferred polling in the following weeks reversed the fortunes of Labor and Liberal parties (somewhere in total wipe out territory at the time). There also seemed to be a sense that sanity was being restored to our highest offices. Australian politics had never seemed so embarrassing as during the two years of the Abbott Government.

But if only six of those MP’s sworn to Turnbull’s cause has shifted allegiance to Abbott, we'd have had a result in Abbott’s favour. It seems less likely that the Liberal party was begging for Turnbull to return — rather that Turnbull had pulled the trigger at the first available opportunity. Despite public appearances of a man with all the time in the world, the parity of the Turnbull victory implied a different scene: one of quick tapping heels through long marble halls, quiet whispers behind closed doors and endless shoring up of support. Turnbull suffered from the Rudd "curse" — popular with the voters but despised or distrusted by his party.

The massive swing of voter intention towards a Turnbull-led government was more fuelled by the palpable sense of relief that Abbott was no longer in charge than the fact that Turnbull was prime minister. A sense that Captain Turnbull might change course and steer the ship away from the looming iceberg. Turnbull’s popularity was like an inflated balloon of hot air, buoyed on success, charm and the same "don’t look down" mentality that allows Wile E. Coyote to defy the laws of physics for a few moments after running off a cliff edge. The metaphorical cliff edge in Turnbull’s case was inheriting the legacy of Abbott policies, a belligerent senate with $18 billion worth of backed up legislation and the job of convincing both his hard right he was a reformed man from his "Grech" days and likewise centre-progressive voters he would curb the ideological excesses of Liberal party policy.

For a smart man, Turnbull seemed strangely oblivious to the dangers he faced. The now famous photograph of his walk into the Liberal Party caucus, flanked by supporters such as Mal Brough (of Ashbygate fame and under police investigation), Wyatt Roy (ditto), Arthur Sinodinos (famous for memory loss) and James McGrath (recently accused of bed wetting by Alan Jones on national television) painted a surreal picture of Turnbull ascending to power surrounded by instruments of his own doom. Brough has since stood down due to police investigation, Roy most likely voted out by his constituency and Sinodinos desperately hoping the Australian public has powers of recollection akin to his own. For all the hyperbole about being "an exciting time to be an Australian", Turnbull seemed to walking out on thin ice.


For a time, Australian politics was exciting but not in the good way that inspires hope and trust. Instead, it was interesting in the way one might watch incredibly bad movies with friends, to mock and eviscerate. Abbott and co were fun for a while to mock on social media but the time had come for us all to return to our regular programmed viewing. At least give us a show where the players pretend to get some work done for a change.

So we waited. Turnbull the progressive small ‘l’ messiah was in charge now — we could rest assured that order was being restored. And we waited. Any minute now, the affable bloke we saw on television would arrive on the scene and start kicking some serious ass. Faintly, a strange noise could be heard, the sound of someone squeezing the neck of a balloon and slowly letting the air out — Malcolm was not the messiah. Malcolm was a dud.

All of his effort seemed to be spent in the bid to become PM — that PR, manoeuvring, twisting of arms, quiet promises, backroom deals, assessment of complex sets of data, building momentum and gazing of pig innards. If his plan to become prime minister was a Magnum Opus of political achievement, then his next plan seemed to be jotted down hastily on a post-it note saying ‘Get elected’. Maybe in his mind it was the only logical extension of his achievement over Tony Abbott: an afterthought. Maybe he thought he could coast to victory on the laurels of being Malcolm Turnbull.

You can follow Jed Hutchinson on Twitter @JedDotH.

Cartoon of Malcolm Turnbull by John Graham. You can order this original cartoon from the IA Store here.

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