Turnbull: A poor man’s Hewson

Thursday, 18 September 2008 

It has been mind-numbing to read press comment on Turnbull’s win of the Liberal leadership.

Almost all of it has focussed on Turnbull’s personality. Probably the nadir was Tuesday night’s interview on The 7.30 Report, which O’Brien allowed to end up with Turnbull giving excruciatingly personal detail of how his father never rubbished his mother in front of him. No doubt his career suggests that he is bright, dynamic and full of beans. On the downside, he very well could be arrogant and a poor team player. So what?

Where there was political analysis, like yesterday’s Age editorial, it tends to be based on a basic misunderstanding about Turnbull’s ascendancy – that it represents a change in the party towards his agenda. It certainly doesn’t indicate the party’s support for his position on the critical issue of climate change. Only a few weeks ago the Liberals hardened their line against the government (where is Greg Hunt these days?), leaving Turnbull isolated against most of his fellow shadow cabinet colleagues and especially the Liberal party backbench. It doesn’t really represent a shift in the party on social issues or the republic either.

Turnbull got up because the old leadership had lost its grip on the party, not because a new leadership had gained it. Just as Rees became Premier of NSW after a short time in Parliament because of the collapse of the NSW Right, so Turnbull’s meteoric rise after barely three years shows that he does not come as a well-established representative of a party faction, but because of the collapse of the old leadership that so rigorously opposed him. His victory on Tuesday came from across the ideological mixture of the party’s left and (less talked about) the party’s right.

Here there are similarities to Rudd, who is not formally attached to any party faction. However, Rudd has his alliance with the left to manage the party. Turnbull has no real support that can do that job. The lack of base he has in the party is highlighted by the fact that the only two issues he is really known for, the republic and climate change, he can’t talk about because it would cause internal problems.

Instead, as he has told anyone who will listen, he is going to concentrate on the economy – as though he hasn’t been already as the Liberals’ economic spokesman for the last nine months. Over that time he has not landed a blow against a Treasurer who was struggling to find his feet, but instead been caught by inconsistencies in his attacks on Labor (over pensions, spending cuts) and with his own leader (petrol excise). You get the feeling that Turnbull is itching to be an economic dry like an earlier banker who led the party, but is coming up against the political reality that makes it even more impossible than it did for Hewson. Instead, Turnbull is stuck with the New Sensitivity gestures that he once objected to.

Political constraints mean that Turnbull can’t really represent anything more than himself and so we are hearing more about him than what he stands for. Again, there are similarities to Rudd, who complained about personal attacks against him last year, but personalised his candidacy like no Prime Minister before him. It is just that, despite Turnbull’s clumsy attempts on Tuesday, Rudd’s personal background proved more politically expedient.

Rudd knew how to use his background to appeal to coalition supporters and bolster his anti-political attack on the government. In contrast, Turnbull is on the defensive over his background and it is doubtful whether he has the political skill to know how to make use of it. He could make a virtue of his banking experience like Hewson did (for a while) but political conditions won’t allow it.

By leaving it to be all about himself, he is open to the charge of being out of touch because he represents no-one but himself. The press’s objection to Labor’s attack on Turnbull’s personal history totally misses the point. It is not ‘class warfare’ and it is irrelevant that Rudd’s wife has made him wealthy as well. Within a few days the government is already succeeding in portraying Turnbull as detached and it seems difficult to see how he can do much about it. Oblivious, Turnbull has walked into a political vacuum that gives him little real support in the party but little political space to build it as well.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 18 September 2008.

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