Malcolm Turnbull’s loyal remaking
As the year’s last sitting weeks for this unhappy federal government and its unloved budget tumble past, Malcolm Turnbull has been forced to break cover from his usual, blameless, “Who, me?” performance. No more determinedly playing with his phone through question time while his colleagues endorse contentious policies. Or falling abruptly tweet-silent when his treasurer announces a budget of extraordinary ferocity. Whether he’s arrived at the front of the line by dint of portfolio or been deliberately stranded there by envious colleagues, in recent weeks Turnbull has had to defend policies that very few voters like and with which, alas for him, people are all too aware that he has strongly disagreed.
It’s a little awkward being Malcolm right now.
After being dumped as the Liberal Party leader and abandoning his political career, Turnbull washed the salt from his wounds and rejoined politics a chastened backbencher. Eventually he returned to the frontbench, where he demonstrated admirable loyalty to his party. Observers were impressed – or taken aback – by his piety. Was he playing a long game of revenge or was he honestly reformed? Surely he wasn’t tamed? It was only during repeated appearances on the ABC’s Q&A that, mendaciously or mischievously, he allowed himself to stage – or at least did not avoid – opportunities for the inevitable beseechings to lead the nation. His demurs were consistent and passably noble.
But because he’s been so good at managing it, few have noticed the highwire upon which Turnbull has been perched ever more precariously since the federal election. Only now is the wobble beginning to show. He has worked up a lovely public persona: as cultured as Keating but blessed with a kinder sense of humour; as intelligent as Rudd but far from as malevolent. And somehow, with his green-froth-drinking diet success and his endearing leather jackets and business shirts, his Stephen Fry-like adoration of gadgets and mastery of social media, his raffish smile and mellifluous voice, he has formed the perfect personality for most popular, and probably most trusted, politician in the nation.
His persistent attractiveness in polls is perhaps a combination of this formidable personal charm and his occupation of a political middle ground that voters find generally agreeable and otherwise vacated. In a government thrashing about in a desperately unpopular legislative morass, Turnbull’s inclinations are pragmatic, informed, centrist and – well – liberal. It is his misfortune that most of his admirers are of the left and centre, but it is his luck that they are many.
The problem is that as a minister Turnbull has settled his conscientious, good-humoured self on a frontbench among colleagues who now prosecute, rather than merely fantasise about, projects that surely must – his fans insist – repulse him. Those who like him don’t like the policies, and are thunderstruck to discover that he will act as though he does. For a figure whose popularity rests greatly on his perceived integrity, this is a strange investment.
Most obvious of his current conflicts is climate change and carbon pricing, which cost him the leadership in 2009. At the time he dramatically crossed the floor, and later penned a cogent criticism of what was then only a mooted policy of Direct Action. He called it “bullshit”. For clarity, he added this: “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… 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.”
Later, in a 2012 lecture called “Liberty in the digital age”, he spoke passionately on the rights of citizens to fully delete data, the jeopardy of data retention powers then proposed by the ALP, and its “chilling effect” on freedom of speech. He deplored that proposal and raised sharp questions about accountability and possibility of error. By the time he had been dragooned by a hapless attorney-general into introducing this government’s metadata retention bill, however, he had this to say: “Metadata plays a central role in almost every counterterrorism, counterespionage, cybersecurity, organised crime investigation.”
While the government has set about attacking the ABC and its lack of “basic affection for the home team”, Turnbull has been a warm and eloquent defender of the broadcaster. Amusing quips about Peppa Pig brought Malcolm into the family living room; he staunchly protested the editorial independence of the broadcaster after the prime minister cast aspersions on its patriotism early in the year. The same afternoon he found himself launching an efficiency review into the network. Last month, he was explaining why cuts aren’t really cuts, or if they are cuts why they don’t represent a broken promise. Or if… Actually, forget it.
Turnbull has had a particularly useful relationship with Q&A. This is his most prominent public platform apart from Twitter, and he rarely fails to enjoy himself. His episodes are masterclasses in tactical charm. He will use, variously: self-deprecation; sarcasm; disarming candour; obscure cultured references; cutely stammering exasperation; sleight-of-hand distraction; attack in defence; friendly interruption; indignation. Occasionally a sterner voice emerges, over painful tragedies or ethical issues. And there will commonly be some attempt to corner him on a question of Liberal Party policy: a gambit Malcolm usually turns adroitly into an opportunity to evoke his points of difference with his colleagues while appearing to endorse their activities; and to ever-so-delicately remind viewers of the vulnerabilities of his leader.
This was most evident on his recent appearance with a panel that included English comedian and writer Ben Elton. But on this occasion, things were a little less satisfying. Turnbull looked exhausted. Elton pricked him again and again to defend himself on climate change, on Abbott’s leadership, on the impending ABC funding injuries. Turnbull pulled out all the tricks. He was genial, amusing. He used his “grown-up” voice that makes every explanation sound plausible. He gently mocked those who disagreed with him and deftly switched focus. Malcolm, Malcolm, such an amusing fellow.
But there he was, straight-facedly defending the Direct Action policy, indignant on behalf of Abbott, and conceding that a 5 per cent cut to ABC funding was on its way under his ministership. It was only luck that no one asked about metadata retention, legislation for which he had introduced a fortnight earlier.
When Elton provided the customary invitation for Turnbull to save the nation, Malcolm barely even bothered with the traditional refusal. It certainly wasn’t the moment for that kind of frivolity. By the end of the week he’d announced his ABC cuts and admitted rather too late that they were indeed cuts. The social media backlash was savage. Polite Quentin Dempster called him a “bullshitter”.
Turnbull’s first problem, of course, is that he is an intelligent individual attempting to be part of an apparently disoriented, not to say anachronistic, group. Even if the group is the vaunted “broad church” of the Liberal Party, Turnbull is, with some subtle exceptions of his character, a liberal among libertarians; a former leader among would-be leaders; a genuinely charismatic personality in a parliament of career politicians. He is a latecomer, an outsider.
He implied, in the lead-up to last year’s federal election, that a vote for the Liberal Party wasn’t so alarming a prospect, because the party included him. Rational, civilised, urbane Malcolm. But his ameliorating influence is not really apparent in the budget devised by his frenemies in that party. Worse, he appears to be catching from Abbott the dreaded derangement of truth.
He’ll get few thanks from his party. The twitterati are furious. The sanctimonious might say it serves him right for speaking out of both corners of his mouth. And all the precious personal political capital he has cultivated is being paid out – for this.
If he doesn’t believe in these policies, it’s craven, not loyal, to defend them, says the left. If he does support them, then he’s gone to the dark side. If he doesn’t support them, says the right, he’s the tricksy fellow we always suspected; if he does agree with them, why did he say he didn’t?
If Turnbull doesn’t resolve these questions, the trust and faith of his followers in the public will ebb, just as leadership speculation in his party begins to rise. The more he reassures one group, the more suspicious – and scornful – the other becomes.
Yet he stays, dug in. He has not made the break to form his own party. He has not fomented conditions for his restoration to leadership. Apparently, if implausibly, he does his duty, weathers humiliations, sits stolidly on the frontbench with a reasonably eminent portfolio, and appears satisfied with everlasting celebrity as Abbott’s Man Who Virtually Invented the Internet. Many would like to add, “bides his time”, yet no one but Turnbull can confidently write that sentence.
Sometimes Turnbull evokes Shakespeare’s Caesar, thrice ostentatiously refusing Antony’s proffered crown only to plan for higher glory. There is some grand classical narrative in Turnbull’s story, and Caesar was undone, after all, by his envious peers. Yet the past few weeks might instead put one in mind of Cinderella. Malcolm may well be cast into the ashy fireplace of his usurper’s household, forced to do the drudge work. But right now he more resembles the Ugly Sister who cuts off her toes and heel to cram a bloodied foot into the slipper she will never fit.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Agreeable and vacated: The Malcolm Turnbull story". Subscribe here.