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The punters guide to Malcolm Turnbull's form in leading the nation

A few days ago I was chatting with a good mate who talks a bit to Malcolm Turnbull.   

"Labor will slaughter him with all his climate change true believer stuff" I said, "He invented the ETS and people forget he crossed the floor for Rudd.  All his heartfelt speeches and blogs it's all there online.   How's he answer that?"

Malcolm's mate said dryly, "Malcolm now understands the difference between theory and practice."

It's a classic Turnbull line designed to get the smart people smiling and nodding.   But people pay more attention and think a bit more deeply about things at federal elections.

Smart lines for smart people won't get Turnbull through this campaign.   He's going to need more to lead the country.   Labor will attack him on the ETS but the purpose won't be to advance the cause of an ETS.   It's Turnbull's character that is his vulnerability and his performances on climate change are a good case study in exposing it.

Paul Keating, Tony Abbott, John Howard and Bob Hawke were conviction politicians.   We knew where they stood, why they wanted the top job and what they planned to do with it.

Turnbull is unlike any PM in memory except maybe Rudd.   He wanted to be Prime Minister so much he seems to have forgotten why.   That's if he ever knew at all.  

Malcolm didn't bring a plan to do anything as PM.  He put a lot of distance between himself and things he used to hold dear if  those things - like his climate change evangelism - threatened his ascendency. He talks a big game and claims credit for one idea  - innovation - but it's a bit threadbare up close. The dream of replacing income from the mining boom with new money from innovation fades fast when you think about what innovation means. It's easier to see when you use a close synonym. Improvement.  "Welcome to the improvement boom" doesn't have the semantic sizzle of its snappier synonym - but it means the same thing with the same economic effect.   At best incremental.

Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, Prime Minister remembered for incremental improvement is hardly worth the bother.  

So why did Turnbull bother?  Why did he do to Tony Abbott what he excoriated Labor for doing to Kevin Rudd?  He says it's because he's the best person for the job.  Millions might disagree, but regardless, his claim puts the Turnbull character and personal qualities up for exquisite scrutiny during his first campaign as leader.  

To become leader Turnbull had only to convince 54 people that their self-interest was best served by backing him and despatching the boss.  The backroom wheeler dealer was in his element doing that.   But staying PM with the support of the country won't be quite so easy. 

There are years of Turnbull form to study from the last time he asked Australia to follow him.

In 1993 Paul Keating appointed Turnbull Chairman of the Keating Government's Republic Advisory Committee.   Keating charged Turnbull with finding a way to fulfil Keating's dream of making Australia a republic - notably by removing the Queen.

Turnbull was Chairman of the Republican Movement for 7 years and was the face of the referendum's "Yes" campaign.

We will never know the extent of Turnbull's modesty, nor his generosity to the vanquished had he led the Yes vote to victory.   We can only guess at his ability, had he won, to unite the nation around a change many had fought hard to avoid.  But we can see Turnbull in defeat, unrestrained by the discipline of sticking to a script and maintaining the image.

In failure Turnbull took no responsibility at all, deriding the majority of the people in a majority of the states as "unthinking Australians". Incapable of magnanimity, Turnbull turned on those who stymied his ambition, accusing the Prime Minister John Howard of breaking the nation's heart.

Five years later the M&A lawyer announced his intention to acquire a parliamentary seat in the Party led by the national heart breaker.  Malcolm wanted Wentworth, blue-ribbon and comfortably held by a well regarded local Peter King.   But Wentworth and its local pre-selectors didn't want Malcolm.  To Turnbull Peter King's career and his relationship with the electorate were unimportant, getting rid of King was just a detail to be sorted so the person that mattered could complete the deal.

Turnbull kicked off a hotly-contested and expensive battle to destroy King.   In 2004 Turnbull won Liberal pre-selection knocking Peter King down but not out.   King's local backers urged him to stand as an independent and he did. 

The nett effect was bad all round.   Turnbull had taken a safe Liberal seat and put it into play.   In the federal election the seat came down to preferences with a three-person race between himself, King and Labor candidate David Patch. 

The Liberal primary vote fell ten per cent.   Turnbull won on preferences delivered by the man he set out to destroy.

It was a costly battle.

Turnbull spent $600,000 over 6 weeks during the election campaign.   That's $600K for the Liberal Party to retain what was a blue-ribbon Liberal seat with a popular local member.  $600K to reduce the primary vote by 10%.   But Malcolm got what Malcolm wanted.   Those around him suffered for his greater good.

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Turnbull's financial return tells the story of his campaign.

Spend $60,ooo to have someone phone electors to find out what they'll vote for (figure vi).

Then spend about $540,000 to package up smart marketing material that tells voters about Malcolm's passionate commitment to doing exactly what the research company said. Turnbull the barrister, the hired gun available to argue your case if the money's right was ideally suited to this style of politics.   He can be what you pay him to be.  In politics he can be whatever he thinks will get him what he really wants.

And what he always really wanted was the top job.   The Party, the seat, the policies, the destruction of people who stand in the way - all just means to an end.

In the military the top jobs are in the special forces.   At a special forces job interview, every applicant says much the same thing about their personal commitment, drive and enthusiasm.   Everyone smiles right, answers politely and looks sharp.

So how do they decide who gets in and who goes home?  

The military chooses its special forces by a selection course that lasts for weeks and is designed to wear people down.   The fatigue, sleep deprivation, hunger, discomfort and disorientation build and build.   With each layer of stress a bit more of the facade drops away until only the core character of the man is left.

Keen-eyed instructors are watching for the moments of truth when the real man is visible.    It's the real man they want to assess.

We can all act in a role for a while.   But you can't rely on an actor to be there in character when he's needed.

Delivering lines based on market research and seeming to care about things is easy.   Doing what's right and leading is not.

We saw more of the core Malcolm after months of steaming resentment in his un-united team spilled over in late 2009.  

On 1 December 2009 the parliamentary Liberal Party rejected Turnbull preferring Tony Abbott's leadership.  

Turnbull took it hard.   "I know how low I had sunk."

t was a nasty time.   And core Malcolm was on show.

On 9 December 2009 Malcolm Turnbull sat, composed and published this opinion piece to his blog while he remained a member of the Liberal Party and part of Tony Abbott's team.

While a shadow minister, Tony Abbott, was never afraid of speaking bluntly in a manner that was at odds with Coalition policy.

So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he won't complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition's policy, of lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.

First, lets get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money.

To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money.

Somebody has to pay.

So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, "bullshit." Moreover he knows it.

The whole argument for an emissions trading scheme as opposed to cutting emissions via a carbon tax or simply by regulation is that it is cheaper - in other words electricity prices will rise by less to achieve the same level of emission reductions.

The term you will see used for this is "least cost abatement".

It is not possible to criticise the new Coalition policy on climate change because it does not exist. Mr Abbott apparently knows what he is against, but not what he is for.

Second, as we are being blunt, the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion "climate change is crap" or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, its cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left wing conspiracy to deindustrialise the world.

Now politics is about conviction and a commitment to carry out those convictions. The Liberal Party is currently led by people whose conviction on climate change is that it is "crap" and you don't need to do anything about it. Any policy that is announced will simply be a con, an environmental figleaf to cover a determination to do nothing. After all, as Nick Minchin observed, in his view the majority of the Party Room do not believe in human caused global warming at all. I disagree with that assessment, but many people in the community will be excused for thinking the leadership ballot proved him right.

Remember Nick Minchin's defense of the Howard Government's ETS was that the Government was panicked by the polls and therefore didn't really mean it.

Tony himself has in just four or five months publicly advocated the blocking of the ETS, the passing of the ETS, the amending of the ETS and if the amendments were satisfactory passing it, and now the blocking of it.

His only redeeming virtue in this remarkable lack of conviction is that every time he announced a new position to me he would preface it with "Mate, mate, I know I am a bit of a weather vane on this, but....."

Third, there is a major issue of integrity at stake here and Liberals should reflect very deeply on it. We have an Opposition whose current leadership dismisses the Howard Government's ETS policy as being just a political ploy. We have an Opposition Leader who has in the space of a few months held every possible position on the issue, each one contradicting the position he expressed earlier. And finally we have an Opposition which negotiated amendments to the Rudd Government's ETS, then reached agreement on those amendments and then, a week later, reneged on the agreement.

Many Liberals are rightly dismayed that on this vital issue of climate change we are not simply without a policy, without any prospect of having a credible policy but we are now without integrity. We have given our opponents the irrefutable, undeniable evidence that we cannot be trusted.

Not that anyone would doubt it, but I will be voting for the ETS legislation when it returns in February and if my colleagues have any sense they will do so as well

He crossed the floor and sat with Labor to create a PR stunt in support of Kevin Rudd's ETS.   He became the leather bomber-jacket clad favourite of Q and A where he could always be relied on for the wink and nod or double-entendre running down his own side.

But he also learned from the experience.   His ambition was undiminished.   He and people close to him mapped out the mistakes that cost him the leadership first time around.  He vowed never to repeat the errors.  He took advice, listened to it and put plans in place to fix the traits that appeared to have worked against him.

Turnbull trained himself to act like a team player while he waited to lead again.   He learned how to counter his natural impulsiveness.   He trained his public personality to sit patiently and fill the time positively rather than indulging his frustrations in the negative way his character instinctively resorts to.   He was systematic in always showing public support for the leader while he privately schemed to dispatch him.

He did it well - but no better than any actor studying lines and method for a role.   The Actor is not Henry the 8th.   Malcolm Turnbull did not change his character.

The fire that burned within Malcolm, the deep-seated forces that shape his personality sometimes found cracks in the veneer to burst through.   In those moments a different, intrinsically truthful and congruent personality seemed to stand for a while where Malcolm Turnbull MP had been. 

On 13 November 2013 we saw that inner-Malcolm talking about things close to his own heart in this parliamentary paean to Rudd:

What I want to speak about tonight is Kevin Rudd, the man. All of us in politics experience great joy, great highs, and often suffer great lows and setbacks. I will never forget the day that you gave your press conference following your removal as Leader of the Labor Party by your colleagues. It is etched in my memory. It was one of the cruellest moments I have ever witnessed. I had lost the leadership of my own party but, frankly, that was in a dispute about policy. The current Prime Minister, the member for Warringah, and I and various members of the party had a difference about policy and it was resolved in a ballot. It was well flagged. We were bringing it to a head; it was something we had to resolve. It was, if you like, a very fair fight (in these sentences he appears a little more stilted, the Turnbull we see most of the time0

The betrayal of you as leader of your party was one of the most shocking events I have ever witnessed. I think it would be one of the most shocking events any of us have ever witnessed in politics—the scale of it. The idea that the man who had won, in this presidential campaign, an election against John Howard was then going to be disposed of, discarded like another course on a lazy Susan in a Vietnamese restaurant—the cruelty of it was extraordinary! I remember watching your wife, Therese Rein, standing there, as the political wives and husbands so often do, the mute spectator to the cruelty inflicted on her husband. As the Prime Minister has often said—and it is one of the truest things you have ever said, Prime Minister—all of us here are volunteers. Our spouses and families are conscripts. The way your family stood by you, Kevin Rudd, is something that also will never be forgotten. But your resilience and your determination— derided by so many of your colleagues and by people in the media and by people on our side as well—was, again, an example to all of us.

The member for Griffith was kind enough to refer to me as his friend. I am touched by that, Kevin, I really am. We did not have any relationship when I was Leader of the Opposition and you were Prime Minister, beyond the antagonistic one in this chamber. But after you lost the leadership I did get to know you a lot better. Initially, I was very worried about you, because I had known how low I had sunk in a much less difficult loss of leadership—a much less difficult loss of leadership. I was very worried about you. As I got to know you I realised what an extraordinarily tough individual you are. Your determination is unequalled by anyone I have worked with in politics. I do not know anyone who is so filled with energy and determination and a preparedness to overcome any setback. That is a triumph of the human spirit. Even if we disagree about one policy or another, it is an extraordinary triumph of the human spirit that you could overcome those setbacks, that betrayal that would have crushed so many other people.


We can see what's important to Turnbull by what he picked out as Rudd's great achievements.

But your apology to the stolen generation is, as the Prime Minister tonight said, one of those signal moments; one of those moments when a leader is able with his imagination to capture the tenor of the times and make a mark in history, a mark that will never be erased. All of your other achievements—about which we have differing views of course—that your colleagues in the Labor Party have spoken so warmly about tonight, including the handling of the global financial crisis, the National Broadband Network and others, will all pass into forgetfulness. But that apology to the stolen generation will never be forgotten. It is not just one of those marks in the sand of history to be blown or washed away by time, but carved into the granite—into the bedrock—of history. That is your achievement.

There is nothing there about what the apology meant nor how it improved peoples lives.   And that is a great insight into the Turnbull phenomenon.   What happened as a result of the apology is not the main game, it's not important and didn't rate a mention.   Rudd's achievement was to see an opportunity when "a leader is able with his imagination to capture the tenor of the times and make a mark in history, a mark that will never be erased".   I waited for the "and because of that........." but it never came.   Turnbull wasn't finished on the issue, however - he rammed the point home  "that apology to the stolen generation will never be forgotten. It is not just one of those marks in the sand of history to be blown or washed away by time, but carved into the granite—into the bedrock—of history. That is your achievement".

The achievement is to be remembered for a speech.   What happened as a result didn't even enter Turnbull's mind.


All the vaulting ambition and force of nature energy within Turnbull was created to achieve the goal Turnbull had set -  to become Prime Minister.   Having done that, there's no drive, no passion and no reason for him  to stay.

We deserve a leader who knows where to go and can take us with him.  For Malcolm, outstanding prime ministerial achievement is sensing the "tenor of the times" and giving a speech about it.

Malcolm doesn't know how to lead.   He doesn't know where to take us.   As a result we are in a position where the best we can hope for on important reforms is a story like this from The Australian, 24 April.

No swing to the right on industrial relations, says Michaelia Cash

Michaelia Cash, with Malcolm Turnbull, at a Canberra building site last week. Picture: Ray Strange

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has indicated the Turnbull government will not take major industrial relations reform to the election, saying unions, employee and employer groups were only prepared to accept “incremental but important change”.


Prime Ministers and governments are not elected to do only what lobby groups are prepared to accept.   They are there to decide what's right and to lead the rest of us to get there.

And that's never going to come from Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.