With five weeks to polling day, a familiar political refrain has been reworked and restated: namely, let “the real Malcolm Turnbull” stand up. This follows the suggestion that the Coalition is not performing as well as it might be because the Prime Minister is not being himself.
The call for Malcolm Turnbull to be Malcolm Turnbull overlooks the fact successful democratic politics is all about implementing change following compromise. No political leader can afford to proclaim what they choose without negotiation and qualification.
In any event, the Turnbull government’s campaign is highly personal. At doorstop media conferences, the Prime Minister invariably stands in front of a sign that reads “The Turnbull Liberal Team” or “The Turnbull Coalition Team”. So, presumably the campaign directors believe Turnbull is being Turnbull, otherwise they would focus on the Liberal Party or the Coalition.
Some of those who want Turnbull to be Turnbull overlook the fact he is the leader of a right-of-centre Coalition administration. No Liberal Party leader can ignore the views of party operatives, parliamentarians and the rank-and-file members who keep the organisation together and do most of the work at election time.
On the right of centre of Australian politics, there is another dimension. In the modern era, only four Liberal Party leaders have won government from opposition: namely Robert Menzies in 1949; Malcolm Fraser in 1975; John Howard in 1996; and Tony Abbott in 2013. All four understood that the Liberal Party was likeliest to succeed when it worked in tandem with its political partner — initially the Country Party, now named the Nationals. A Liberal Party leader has to take into account the diversity of views within their party as well as those prevailing in the Nationals. Consequently, it is impossible for Turnbull to be completely Turnbull in a policy sense. Similar constraints were experienced by the likes of Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott.
This view of politics is not accepted by some members of the Canberra press gallery, many of whom have not worked in parliament, in a political machine or in the public service and, consequently, have no direct experience of the necessity for compromise.
Writing in the Fairfax Media last Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher blamed Abbott for what he perceived was Turnbull’s failure. Hartcher quoted Abbott as saying when launching his campaign in his seat of Warringah: “This is my legacy, this is Malcolm Turnbull’s legacy; and that’s why it is so important that we re-elect a Coalition government on July 2.”
Hartcher maintains that “to keep Abbott’s policies intact, Turnbull had to surrender some of his own” and added that the Prime Minister “broke faith with much that the Australian people expected from him”. According to Hartcher, because of Abbott, “Turnbull lost the approval of 3.25 million voters over the past six months”.
This analysis overlooks two central facts. First, Turnbull’s popularity was always likely to fall as the honeymoon effect of his leadership wore off, which is why there was a good case for the Coalition going to the polls late last year. Second, Turnbull had to make compromises to gain support for the votes he needed from Liberal Party conservatives to ensure he had sufficient partyroom support to topple an incumbent prime minister.
Hartcher and his Fairfax Media colleague Mark Kenny believe Turnbull should embrace a left-of-centre agenda, including advocacy of an emissions trading scheme or carbon tax and support for same-sex marriage. These are popular positions within the Canberra press gallery, but not to the same extent among the Liberal Party’s rank and file.
And then there are the Nationals. When Turnbull led the Liberal Party in opposition in 2009, he was close to presiding over a situation where the Nationals dumped the Coalition agreement. The issue turned on Turnbull’s support for an ETS.
Today the Nationals also support the policy that the same-sex marriage issue should be resolved by a plebiscite rather than a vote by parliamentarians. The fact is that Turnbull had no option but to make concessions to accommodate views within both the Liberal Party and the Nationals. If Turnbull wins on July 2, then he will have a greater opportunity to fashion the Coalition’s policy with reference to his own policy vision.
Following the views expressed by US political scientist James MacGregor Burns in his 1978 book Leadership, Hartcher divides leaders into two types: transactional and transformational.
The former says, “You give me your vote and I will give you something in exchange”; the latter “offers inspiration” and “seeks to satisfy higher needs”.
Hartcher reckons Labor’s Gough Whitlam “was Australia’s last truly transforming leader, an exciting moderniser who ended up being a little too exciting and modern for his time”.
Yet Australia’s most successful leaders across the past half-century were Labor’s Bob Hawke and the Coalition’s John Howard. Both won four elections while implementing significant economic reform. Yet they are dismissed as just transactional types.
Monash University political science professor James Walter has weighed into the debate. The author of the taxpayer-subsidised and overwhelmingly theoretical 2010 tome What Were They Thinking? The Politics of Ideas in Australia reckons Turnbull could have been a transformational leader, if only he had “stuck much more to the principles” he once enunciated “despite attacks from the right of the Liberal Party”.
In fact, very few (so-called) right-wing Liberal Party members have attacked the Prime Minister. Turnbull compromised on some of his previously held views before he became Liberal Party leader. It’s called modern democracy, otherwise known as real politics, and it operates quite differently to journalism and the academy. After all, the Prime Minister is the leader of the Coalition, not the editor of the Green Left Weekly.