For football supporters there’s nothing worse than a player who has so much obvious talent and potential for greatness, but who through stupidity, or lack of discipline never reaches the highest level. Supporters will spend seasons hoping that this year will be the year, but alas it is not to be, and thus the calls to sports-talk-back programs start calling for him to be dumped: the great draft pick who amounted to nought.
Which brings us to today and how after less than 6 years it is all over – the “stellar” (according to Dennis Shanahan) career of Malcolm Turnbull MP is finished. He announced it via twitter, and thereby crashed his own website as people madly clicked on the link to read his resignation letter.
At such a time it is good to hear what those around him have to say. Here’s Tony Abbott:
"Malcolm is the best person to lead our party," he told SBS. "I think he is the best person to lead us to the next election.
"He is better qualified than anyone – myself included – to take the economic fight to the government.
Oh wait, that was Abbott talking about Turnbull last July. Nice how things change in politics isn’t it?
There are others around who can do the summing up of Turnbull’s career, for myself I’ll just say he was never as good as everyone thought he could be. As Environment Minister he was undistinguished, and he had no impact during Question Time. As Shadow Treasury Spokesperson he got some good deliveries in early against Swan, but as soon as Swan got his eye in, he was rarely troubled. Here’s what I wrote back in July 2008 of Turnbull’s work during a Question Time:
Going back to the tennis analogy, many think Turnbull will be Federer to Rudd’s Hewitt (Howard being the past-his-best Sampras). The argument is that once he takes over, the numbers will turn and it’ll be an LNP Grand Slam in 2010.
I’m not so sure. Mostly this is because Turnbull has failed to ace Wayne Swan despite the Treasurer spending much of the first sitting period of parliament looking and sounding nervous and unprepared. In March, all the talk was about how soon it would be before Rudd replaces Swan. Since the budget, this talk has died. During the last parliament session Swan at times laughed openly at some of Turnbull’s questions. He appeared well-briefed, confident, and most importantly looked to be enjoying Question Time.
Such a performance by Turnbull really should not be surprising; he was a poor performer last year as a Minister in parliament. In spite of this, I thought he would be better in opposition (lawyers are good at asking questions), but too often he falls into the trap of trying to be clever, and instead comes across as being too clever by half. In retrospect this should also not have been surprising – it was the great failing of his performance during the Republic referendum.
It is in his nature. It won’t change if he takes over the leadership.
This was shown to be true in October when Turnbull over-reached himself in Question Time and pretty well demanded Rudd sack Ken Henry. I wrote then:
Malcolm Turnbull is a fine lawyer, but he is no politician - he is too interested in differences in the meanings of words instead of differences in policies.
Of course this all led to (what seems now) the inevitable conclusion of the Godwin Grech Affair. But Turnbull had lost me well before then, due to his low grade chasing of the far right with his asylum seeker position. In March 2009 I wrote of his decisions to advocate bringing back Temporary Protection Visas (a policy first advocated by Pauline Hanson) that:
I used to have respect for Turnbull -thought he could be a good leader once he got out from under Howard's thumb. But no more. I swear he would say 'God Save the Queen' is his favourite song if it meant he got another vote. I hope he survives as leader till the next election so I can see him lose. And lose by a lot.
Now obviously Turnbull (and probably Hockey) doesn't worry about China's influence on Australia - after all the Libs loved China when it was handing money to us hand over fist - and say what you like about Turnbull, he is a decent person. Which makes it all the more damnable when he plays this line. All he and Joe are doing is playing the old "Yellow peril" gambit. They hope to appeal to those who are suspicious that Kevin Rudd speaks Mandarin - the type who call him Chairman KRudd.
The main reason I was so angry about Turnbull’s position is that after 12 years we finally had a Liberal leader who could have taken the high road and not made refugees a political issue. It would have elevated politics in this country onto a much higher plane; he choose not to, and in the end paid the price, because by fawning to the right wing he was seeking approval from those who would never totally trust him. His shift on this issue only encouraged them to think they could use him like a puppet, and when he didn’t do their bidding over the ETS, all was lost.
That too of course was foreseeable. In September 2008 I wrote of the five Libs who changed their vote from Nelson to Turnbull: “Secret Seven Wins Through, or Five Get in a fix”.
According to Steven Lewis, the crucial voting block that switched to Malcolm Turnbull were seven MPs from NSW: Tony Abbott, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Bronwyn Bishop, Louise Markus, Alex Hawke, Joe Hockey, and Helen Coonan.
The big problem for Turnbull is that aside from wanting to have a Liberal Government, there are bugger all issues on which he would agree with any of the above infamous five [Abbott, Fierravanti-Wells, Bishop, Markus and Hawke](especially on social issues).
So why did they vote for him? Well obviously because they want to win government, and rightly believe Turnbull is a better chance than Nelson. But the important thing is Turnbull won by only four votes, and while that group of five desperately want to win the next election; as the right wing of the NSW State Liberal Party has shown, they can be more concerned with ensuring the party stays deeply conservative, even if it results in an election loss.
So what does Turnbull have to do? Well pretty much improve the Lib's position in the polls to the extent that he doesn't have to worry about those five (and other far-right wing MPs in the party) looking for another candidate. If he improves the polls, many of those who stayed with Nelson purely to give him a fair go, will quickly move to Turnbull's side and his majority in the party will be strong.
But even then, the five will be a vocal minority; and will not stand for too much Wentworth style "small "L" liberalism" from Turnbull, which is unfortunate, because that's who he is, and Turnbull does not have a history of changing for anyone. Interesting times ahead.
And they were interesting times, and for all the eulogies today, what really is startling is that Turnbull was only one lousy vote away from keeping his job – a lousy vote rendered even more lousy by the fact that a Turnbull supporter, Fran Bailey was in hospital at the time and unable to vote, and the weekend after the spill the by-elections in Bradfield and Higgins elected two MPs who also would likely have supported Turnbull.
But that’s politics.
On the day of the spill I wrote:
As an aside, I think this has done wonders for Turnbull. He loses, but loses with his credibility intact. My hope for him is that the lesson he takes from today is that he is at his best when he sticks to principle and policy. Turnbull lost his way by stupidly trying to bring Rudd down through some huge conspiracy and also a dumb tendency to go against his instincts and pander to the right – he never sounded credible on asylum seekers. Turnbull, if he chooses to stick around, may be later seen as a saviour of the moderates – and if he sticks to principles and policy he may actually become the leader everyone thinks he is capable of being. But that may be for another time.
You see, Turnbull worried me as an ALP supporter, because I thought if he could be as good as we all thought he could be, then he might make an excellent PM. Think of his excellent speech on the ETS made in February. It was a speech the country had been crying out to be made by someone in the Government, and yet it was left to Turnbull to make it.
But he was not made for the Westminster System. Turnbull was more suited to running for President (where he would obviously be a Democrat). His speeches would have won the nation over, his lack of need to toe the party line would have carried him to victory. Nothing about him suggested party man; that he is calling it quits after 6 years only reinforces that. True it is probably best for the Party that he leave – he could only ever be leader or back bencher, and he was never going to be leader again, so why take up space on the backbench – but that’s not why he made this decision.
In the end what really strikes as sad about his decision, is the lack of impact it really has on the political landscape. When Costello retired you could hear the sighs of relief throughout the Parliament from both Rudd and Turnbull. No one saw Turnbull as leadership challenger to Abbott, and so his decision doesn’t really solidify Abbott’s support – Hockey had already taken on the role of alternative leader; Turnbull’s light had well and truly faded away.
Turnbull may be one of the larger than life figures of Australia’s last 30 years, but in history of Australian politics he will be nought but a footnote: a cautionary tale for those who think they can rush to the top without caring about “politics”; and for many, someone viewed as the Mr Potential of Australian Politics.