My friend Evan Hughes, art historian and former law student is standing for Parliament at the next election. And in many ways he’s the model of a modern Labor candidate – clean-cut good looks, easy charm, natural speaking skills and a first-rate mind vouchsafed by a Cambridge University degree. At a fund-raising dinner in Sydney the other night he was doing the rounds of the room with his baby son cradled in his arms. Great photo ops for the local paper. In any marginal seat you’d have to say Evan was a shoo-in. But there’s a problem: his opponent in the blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth is none other than Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. And as we all know from experience, Malcolm’s no slouch himself when it comes to intelligence and charm.
Even so, the fund-raiser at the Rose Bay RSL Club was a cheerful occasion. A solid turnout, a happy crowd, and an underlying mood of quiet optimism – if not exactly confidence. There were some good lapel buttons (“Let’s Make Point Piper Great Again”), and Chris Bowen, the shadow treasurer, made a powerful speech in which he described Malcolm Turnbull as a Marxist. No, not your dreaded Karl Marx, the father of communism, but the much more likable Groucho, who is credited with the line: “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them I’ve got some others.” Next day I happened to be reading Pamela Hansford Johnson’s 1970 novel The Honours Board, in which a character has this to say: “The whole point of having principles is that they can be changed. A man who never learns enough to change his principles is a silly clot” (p. 189 in Scribner’s New York edition, if you’re interested).
The idea that principles are expendable, or at least replaceable, would appeal to Malcolm Turnbull. The question is not so much what his principles are, but whether he has any. With most prime ministers, we know pretty well what they stand for when they take office. Curtin for the war effort, Hawke for consensus, Keating for the republic, Menzies for free enterprise after all those Chifley years of welfare-state-building and nationalisation. When John Gorton took office in 1968, he made no secret of his centralist tendencies from the outset, and it took a couple of old-style Liberal premiers (Askin and Bolte) to pull him into line for the greater good of the party. With Malcolm it’s a different story. We all thought we knew what he stood for – action on climate change, affordable housing, marriage equality, the republic, generous foreign aid, and an end to Tony Abbott’s three-word slogans. What we’ve got now are two-word slogans – hard-working Australians, battling families, innovation and creativity, jobs and growth – and precious little action on any of them.
How do we account for Turnbull’s inactivity, his government’s timidity and inertia? There’s a widespread belief, especially among his supporters, that Malcolm is playing a shrewd political game. As a pragmatist and realist, he can’t afford to alienate the right-wing zealots in his party. But wait for it: as soon as he wins an election in his own right, the real Malcolm will emerge in all his messianic glory – bold, agile, innovative, a true reforming spirit. Malcolm’s big mistake – so the theory goes – was not to call an election last year and claim a mandate (just as Kevin Rudd missed his chance by squibbing a double-dissolution after the defeat of his emissions trading scheme).
Well, I don’t believe it. For one thing, I don’t think Turnbull had any policies he wanted to implement – apart from getting himself into the top job. And if he did have genuine ambitions, and convictions he didn’t need another election before he could proceed with them. In September 2015 he was riding a wave of public goodwill, and the malcontents in his party room wouldn’t have dared bring on another leadership challenge so soon after the last one. It’s a myth, too, that he needed their support in the first place. He had the numbers in the party to win, and there nothing the Abbott loyalists could do about it.
Instead of action, we’ve had a string of thought-bubbles, trial balloons, and things that go on and off the table (if I may mix metaphors for the moment). A rise in the GST was mooted and quickly knocked on the head. Tax-dodging multi-nationals were targeted, but we’ve heard no more about them (except from Bill Shorten). Small businesses were given a boost in the budget by the simple device of redefining big businesses as small ones. And out of a clear blue sky at a suburban sports field one April afternoon came the biggest Big Idea of all – transfer taxing powers to the States to pay for health and education. Predicably this got nowhere with the premiers, and I don’t think Turnbull was in the least surprised. If he was really an old-fashioned Malcolm Fraser-style states-righter we’d have known about it already. There’s a simple explanation: stung by accusations that he led a dithering, indecisive government bereft of ideas, he needed at least one big, flashy gesture to prove his critics wrong. Any big gesture would do – but preferably one that was doomed to fail.
There are few more powerful emotions in political life than disappointment. Most people can forgive governments for mistakes and incompetence – but disappointment is something else. They feel betrayed. Gough Whitlam stuffed a few things up, but we were ready to forgive him. Paul Hasluck, in his memoir The Chance of Politics (1997), was charitable to Whitlam, though he still considered him a smarty-pants: “When he became prime minister I welcomed the change and predicted he would be one of our great prime ministers and certainly the first leader of distinction and capacity since Menzies.” Many felt the same about Malcolm. Many saw in him the makings of a great prime minister – a man with presence, style, courage, a way with words. To quote Hasluck again (on Gough), foreign leaders saw him at his best – “a large, urbane and well-posed leader who was interested in ideas and could understand what other people said to him.”
I’ve never met Turnbull or talked to him, and I don’t like making sweeping judgments about people I hardly know. But rightly or wrongly, politicians are fair game. It’s the nature of the sport. I’ve no doubt that Malcolm can be a lovely bloke when he tries. But I keep hearing disparaging stories about him. Read Paddy Manning’s “unauthorised” biography of Malcolm, Born to Rule, published last year, and the picture emerges of a devious and calculating money-trader for whom financial wheeling and dealing was second-nature (and indeed his only skill). My contacts in the business world (admittedly few) speak of a guy who could only be trusted to look after himself. John Menadue recalls a conversation with a very senior figure in the Liberal Party, whose advice he sought on whether Malcolm Turnbull might assist on refugee issues. He replied, “John, Malcolm is never there when you need him.”
Whether he’s here when Australia need him is a question still to be answered. Will he bring his formidable talents to bear on the issues that matter – issues unmentioned or downplayed in the recent Budget – climate change, housing, social inequity, the republic, the status of women – or will he settle for the prestige and perks and comforts of office? How long before the electorate tires of the glib phrases, the practised charm, the phony displays of emotion? On the 30th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, there was Malcolm in Tasmania laying a wreath on the tomb of the victims – a duty more properly left to John Howard, who was relegated to background status at the ceremony. At the same time Malcolm was telling us we shouldn’t be “misty-eyed” about the plight of asylum-seekers. A tear for the Port Arthur victims is okay, but misty eyes for homeless and desperate refugees aren’t called for.
Preparing this piece, I was trying to think of the last time we had a prime minister in the Turnbull mould. Which of his predecessors in the modern era does he most resemble? Not, of course, in manner or appearance, but in the expectations people had of him and the outcomes he left behind. Not Menzies, not Whitlam, not Gorton, not Fraser. Then it came to me. A rich, well-connected Eastern suburbs socialite with a prominent wife, skilled in financial affairs and economic management, and hailed by his party as a pillar of stability after a rocky ride with a discredited predecessor. Of course, Billy McMahon! Perhaps, like Billy McMahon, Malcolm Turnbull will lead his party to a well-deserved defeat. Perhaps he will earn the epitaph that he bestowed on John Howard: “The prime minister that broke Australia’s heart.” I wish Malcolm well, but somehow I’m hoping history will repeat itself.
Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist. He wrote speeches for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and a succession of NSW premiers. He headed the NSW Government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001, and for 33 years wrote regular film reviews for The Australian. He is a Member of the Order of Australia.