Political Clod: Malcolm Turnbull and Nemesis

Feb 9, 2024
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers the key-note address to kick off the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue summit meeting June 2, 2017 in Singapore. The summit is an Asia-focused defense meeting. Image Alamy/ DOD Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

From the time Kevin Rudd romped into office as Australia’s first Labor Prime Minister since Paul Keating, the life of Australian Prime Ministers has been dangerous. Party hacks, factional gangsters, and pollsters shadow, stalk and linger, attempting to note signs of the weakness. A decline in the polls is treated as genuine political calamity, the equivalent of a famine to an ancient, superstitious civilisation. And as for policy – what of it? Weak leaders will be cut down, their legacy laid waste.

The orgiastic blood-letting ritual of doing away with the prime minister mid-term was meant to be a Labor specialty. The Rudd-Gillard years were brutal, denigrating, embarrassing with one unintentionally constructive outcome: the need to deal with minor parties and independents because of minority government. Then came the pugilistic Liberal Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. And the habit of cutting the leader down, mid-stride, repeated itself.

Nemesis features the raging battles in the Liberal-National Party coalition from 2013 till the tenure of Scott Morrison, an account of the nutty and still nuttier. It shows how irrelevant the Australian elector was, estranged and exiled from Canberran plotting, jostling and, finally, palace coups. Forget the people: the only show that mattered was whether Abbott, Turnbull and, finally, Morrison, would come to power to conclude their terms.

Of the three, two agreed to participate. Abbott declined. Of the three, Turnbull wishes to look the smartest, the brightest, the most sagacious. Unfortunately for the merchant banker, lawyer and businessman (“I had to fund the Liberal Party’s own election campaign”), he, at times, seems none of them. In terms of politics, Turnbull could seem cloddish.

Nemesis also suffers from various omissions. The first episode, featuring Abbott, mentions his desire to send Australian soldiers in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 over Ukrainian territory by Russian separatists in July 2014. But the series omits a similar suggestion by Abbott in November 2014 that 3,500 Australian troops be sent, without a UN Security Council resolution, or the assistance of other countries, to rescue the imperilled Yazidis being slaughtered by Islamic State in Iraq. Lunacy and idealism can be lusty bed mates.

In the second episode, which we might notionally call “The Turnbull Show”, the program fails to mention the High Court decision in 2013 that made the need for having a plebiscite on gay marriage redundant. Marriage, the High Court confirmed, was not an institution frozen in time; the federal parliament was perfectly entitled, indeed exclusively empowered, to change it. That this matter ever went to a costly, divisive postal vote before becoming a bill suggested a lamentable abdication of parliamentary responsibility.

While Turnbull aspires to Olympian heights in thoughtful facility, he is also prone to being small. Towering vanity makes its appearance. Instead of, for instance, giving the pro-marriage equality backbencher and campaigner Warren Entsch the chance to give the third reading speech on the altering bill, Turnbull nabbed the limelight. Entsch snarled at being cast aside; he was “pissed off”, ripping the text of his speech. Turnbull is coolly dismissive: Entsch was “an ungracious guy”. Former Queensland Liberal Member for Brisbane, Trevor Evans, adds the balancing antidote: “Malcolm was not the active participant in making it happen that history reflects that he would maybe hope”.

An essential Turnbull tendency, and vice, is that of self-praise. He takes pride in mollifying the unpredictable US President Donald Trump, notably over the ghastly deal brokered with the Obama administration to swap refugees between Australia and the United States. “Big, bullying billionaires, they all think they’re God’s gift to humanity, and if you suck up to them or knuckle under, they just want more.”

In that now infamous January 2017 conversation with Trump, Turnbull’s own role is hardly glorious. He defends the brutal, inhumane policy of sending unauthorised naval arrivals to Pacific concentration camps. “If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here [in Australia].” Obscenely, Turnbull describes the asylum seekers and refugees being tormented, tortured and brutalised on Nauru and Manus as “economic refugees”.

As for what Australia was offering the US, Turnbull ingratiated: “We will take anyone that you want us to take.” Not enough has ever been made of what the fawning PM goes on to say. “The only people that we do not take are people who come by boat. So we would rather take a not very attractive guy that help[s] you out than to take a Noble [sic] Peace Prize winner that comes by boat. That is the point.”

Turnbull’s lack of sound political judgment proved continuous, and eventually fatal. It was spectacularly on show in the 2016 double-dissolution election, leading to an eight-week campaign described by former minister Linda Reynolds as “madness” and the veteran Liberal MP Russell Broadbent as “suicidal”. The Coalition proceeded to lose 14 seats. Left with a majority of one, Turnbull blamed Labor for its “Mediscare” campaign, one that accused him of wanting to privatise Medicare.

The lack of acumen was again on show in his crusade of moral apoplexy that led to the “bonk ban”. Having had the deputy prime minister onside as a member of his “praetorian guard”, Turnbull proceeded to alienate the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce with his public declaration that his deputy had made a “shocking error of judgment”. Joyce, Turnbull huffed, had “definitely lied” about his relationship with then staffer, now wife, Vikki Campion. Here was the PM as teacherly priest and lacerating wowser, not merely of a colleague, but of the leader of the Nationals and coalition member. Misjudgement, thy name be Turnbull.

The ultimate feature of Turnbull’s leadership was his inability to marshal the foot soldiers and convince them that, for instance, the national energy guarantee had legs. It was mocked as the Neg by members of his own party. Senator Michaelia Cash gave her characteristic snort. Abbott called it a “crock of shit” and attacked the PM in the party room. “If you’d just let me finish my sentence,” Turnbull whined. “You should have let me finish my prime ministership,” came the deadly retort.

Held hostage to the Right, who never trusted or forgave him, Turnbull lived on borrowed time. And he proceeded to shorten it by satisfying the aggrandising aims of the thug incarnate Peter Dutton, along the way creating the needlessly vast Department of Home Affairs. The decision by Turnbull to pre-emptively spill the leadership in order to ambush Dutton had the opposite effect: it showed him to be terminally weak. All the time, Morrison was waiting, counselling the man he would abandon, drumming up his own numbers even as he claimed, “I don’t control numbers.”

The crisp one-word descriptions of his various colleagues are not inaccurate. For Dutton, the term “thug” comes to mind. For Morrison, it is “duplicitous”. If only Turnbull had seen that just that bit earlier.

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