Turnbull:An assessment

The announcement that Malcolm Turnbull will not recontest his seat is a big loss to Australian politics, though maybe not as big as some of his admirers have claimed. He is undoubtedly a man of great ability. But, all in all, I’d rank him below all those who’ve held the office of PM in my adult life (that is, from Whitlam to Rudd). On the other hand, I’d rank him above everyone else in that time who has been seriously mentioned as a possible PM, but hasn’t made it[1].

Looking back, Turnbull did surprisingly well in straight political contests – displacing a well-liked sitting member for Wentworth, forcing his way into the Howard Ministry, taking the Liberal leadership and most startling of all, coming within one vote of retaining it when everyone had written him off. On the other hand, he was far less successful on substantive policy issues, even though he was usually on the right side.

On the Republic, Turnbull and the ARM made the totally mistaken judgement that most Australians love the current system, and that the most saleable republic is one that changes nothing – with a president appointed, in effect, by the PM, just as currently happens with the GG. He managed to push this model through the Convention, thereby falling into a trap laid by Howard. For the average person (including me) the idea that we would throw the Queen over for a President, but then have the President chosen for us by a politician, is just silly.

Turnbull also made a bad misjudgement in taking on the water portfolio. I met him when he was in this job, and it was clear he understood the issues and that, left to himself, his policy line would have been identical with that of Penny Wong. But, with Howard as PM, he got nowhere. Howard’s National Water Plan set Australian water policy back a decade and Rudd and Wong are still trying to clean up the mess. Turnbull was in a strong position, and should have insisted on a free hand before he took the job on.

The Grech fiasco, I guess, could happen to anyone, and a large share of the blame belongs with other Liberals, notably Eric Abetz – Abbott is crazy to put this guy up as Senate leader, but that’s by the way.

Finally, there was the ETS. Turnbull’s decision to cut a deal with the government was strategically correct. Strategically, Abbott’s embrace of climate delusionism is a disaster that will haunt the Liberals for decades, if, indeed, they survive it. No matter how many talking points can be brought up, the fact of climate change will force itself on the attention of even the most wishful thinkers, and those who have denied and delayed will pay a high price. Tactically, however, Turnbull was out of luck. Oppositions are naturally predisposed to oppose, and the failure of the Copenhagen talks to come up with a binding agreement made this look like a winning strategy.

There’s no doubt that he leaves a great gap. Add up everyone whose name I can remember on the Opposition front bench (Abbott, Hockey, Bishop, Truss, Abetz, Robb, Joyce) and put them together. They don’t match Turnbull in ability or capacity to make a serious contribution to policy. For that matter, they don’t match up to any of the leading figures on the Labor side (Rudd, Swan, Gillard, Tanner, Faulkner). Put them all together as a tag team and they’d be a good match for, say, Steven Conroy or Jenny Macklin.

fn1. If you agree with this point, that the set of PMs {Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd} absolutely dominates the alternative set {Bury Snedden, Hayden, Peacock, Hewson, Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Nelson, Turnbull, Abbott} as well as the coulda’been contender set {Bjelke-Petersen, Costello, Elliott, B. Bishop, Hanson, maybe some others I’ve forgotten} it looks as if the Australian political process is doing a good job of putting the most able people into the top job.

Further point Taking this exercise back to WWII adds three PMs of exceptional ability (Curtin, Chifley, Menzies), one definitely sub-par (McMahon, who got the job by intrigue, and lost it at the first election he faced) and two (Holt and Gorton) who are hard for me to assess because they served brief terms before I was old enough to worry much about politics. Of those who missed out, Evatt and Barwick were both reminiscent of Turnbull. Calwell was a fair average opposition leader, comparable to the others I’ve listed, but not outstanding.

42 thoughts on “Turnbull:An assessment

  1. Fran Barlow :

    And frankly, speaking as a leftist, I couldn’t even see the marginal utility to working people that Australia calling itself a republic instead of a Commonwealth would yield.

    What about the sense of self worth and identity that comes from being in control of your own affairs, symbolically and actually?

  2. @Foib

    What about the sense of self worth and identity that comes from being in control of your own affairs, symbolically and actually?

    I already have as much of that as is consistent with being a middle class person living in a capitalist society. I can’t imagine workingclass people will get any more of it if the ruling class starts referring to its state as republican.

    Symbolism is not nothing, but even when it is something, it needs to be a worthwhile something. I’d sooner be part of a socialist federation in which HOS functions might be execised by anyone within the federation than part of a capitalist society in which the HOS could produce local papers proving citizenship.

    And nationalism is at best bunkum anyway.

    One person’s uplifting symbol is another’s sad joke it seems.

  3. Thats a fair assessment JQ – Turnbull’s resignation was a big loss to Australian politics and the conservative collective IQ went down by at least 50%.

    A small point, you have two x “finally”

    Fixed this now, thanks

  4. Given how much luck there is in the timing of becoming leader I’m surprised at the assessment that every PM has been better than every alternative. (Certainly this is not the case in terms of ethics, or benefit to the nation but I realise you’re talking about ability).

    I suspect that the act of winning makes many people look better in hindsight than being in opposition. Before he became PM Howard didn’t come across as particularly able – his career to that point had been less than stellar. Likewise, had Rudd become leader in 2003 he might well have lost the 2004 election (although by less than Latham) and might now be a footnote in history judged not to have been particularly politically adept. Perhaps some who lost would look much better if the timing had favoured them – Turnbull probably more than most.

  5. @Stephen L
    I always rated Howard as highly able, from the 80s onwards. He lasted long enough for his luck to change from unreasonably bad (eg Joh for PM) to unreasonably good (Tampa + S11)

  6. @Fran Barlow
    Nice summary Fran. I think exactly the same thing. I can’t, deep down, even stomach the idea of the nation state. It’s just a bloody accident, and I feel profoundly sorry for all the people that get worked up over the idea of “our” country and “their” country (the world over).

  7. I have many issues with calling Whitlam a great leader. He was no doubt a great orator, but a great thinker..uh, great strategist…uhh, great deliverer…nuhhh.

    An example (one of many). My sister was a signals officer at an Australian Army listening station in Singapore during the Vietnam war. Gough Whitlam felt a need to talk about this base publicly. Everybody knew that the base was there, especially the Singaporeans. But as long as nobody talked about it as though it was there it could be denied. But when Australia’s Prime Minister publicly aknowledged the presence of such a base it could no longer be denied. 2 weeks later the base was gone. Is this the doings of a great thinker, a great strategist? Nuhh. Did he last the distance? Nope. Great? Only in some peoples minds.

  8. Ken Lovell :
    I anticipate Turnbull following the Hewson path and writing scathing op-eds in the Fin in a few years time, tearing strips off the Liberal leader du jour.
    I don’t agree that Howard was significantly superior to Peacock in anything bar sheer dogged persistence. IMHO Peacock would have made an infinitely better PM.

    Though not quite down the same road as say, Latham 😉

  9. The Liberal party in Australia and other conservative parties such as the Republicans have effectively sealed their own demise, viz your comment John:

    “…Finally, there was the ETS. Turnbull’s decision to cut a deal with the government was strategically correct. Strategically, Abbott’s embrace of climate delusionism is a disaster that will haunt the Liberals for decades, if, indeed, they survive it. No matter how many talking points can be brought up, the fact of climate change will force itself on the attention of even the most wishful thinkers, and those who have denied and delayed will pay a high price. Tactically, however, Turnbull was out of luck. Oppositions are naturally predisposed to oppose, and the failure of the Copenhagen talks to come up with a binding agreement made this look like a winning strategy…”

    Having gained a the support of a small, but vocal segment of the electorate (climate sceptics/agnostics/deniers), they’ve committed themselves to a position in opposition to the science and growing body of evidence that climate change is taking place. What the conservatives will look like in 10 years is any one’s guess.

    The politics of climate change are going to radically transform political parties over the coming decades as we move from mitigation to adaption strategies.

  10. @BilB

    By any chance did you notice that Whitlam’s policy was to withdraw from Vietnam.

    Why wouldn’t the closure of an Australian foreign military installation associated with Vietnam be consistent with this and therefore perfectly normal.

    If everybody knew the base was there what is the point of denial?

    Maybe denial is the problem?

  11. Chris, the base was keeping people alive by learning in advance where risks were being established. Its simple logic, you don’t eliminate your support structures until you don’t need them any more. I wonder how many extra Aussies died because that intelligence source was dismantled prematurely.

    I’ve got lots of issues with Whitlam, as I’m sure do others. Remember that Balibo thing, and the big hush up. Another great Whitlam strategy.

  12. Turnbull’s effort was streets ahead of Lord Downer’s time as opposition leader…that was cringe-worthy, but bloody funny watching certain Liberal journalists running around in circles trying to put a good look on it before hatchetting Downer. At least Downer got being a possible prime minister out of his system early on, I guess.

  13. @BilB
    Yes

    There are far more concerns over E Timor. And all the files have not been released.

    However any alternative to Whitlam would have been worse.

    Whitlam’s 73-75 goverment was far more inspiring and achieved more than Rudd could ever dream of.

    I suspect no Australians died as a result of closing the Singapore station, as all deaths have been recorded and, if so, this issue would be in the literature.

    But all this depends on the date of decommissioning – plus whatever other arrangements were put in place for the residual function (whatever that was).

    So lets blame Whitlam for what he should be blamed for.

  14. I remember meeting him once in 1990
    when he was a partner of Whitlam Turnbull.

    He said the most useful thing he learned
    in his life was not Sydney or Oxford. The
    most useful skill for him was how to touch
    type.

    Tapen

  15. I think the voters of Wentworth are owed a better explanation than they got. As someone who spent 20 years and more money than most of us will ever see to get into a club whose rules he didn’t bother to learn and then quit the moment Turnbull PM became a distant reality, Malcolm justly failed as a politician and the only question we should ask is why he wasted everyone’s time. Nice bloke, shame about the lack of application. No doubt he has a genuine desire to serve the community when his interests match but he failed to do what even numbnuts like Wilson Tuckey can manage when it didn’t, and that just comes with the territory, no politician gets a say in which issues they deal with.

    Is he yet a loss? Well yes, in a public relations way for the Coalition, but in getting anything done, it’s clear he was a disaster, so in the long run, no. And he wouldn’t have lasted a second in Caucus had he joined the ALP. Perhaps he’ll be of more value to the commentariat!

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