Republic;Sydney;980807;Photo;Robert Pearce;SMH NEWS;story;Tony Stephens.The Republican movement celebrated it’s seveth birthday with a cake in it’s Park St offices.Pic Shows;Malcolm Turnbull blows out the candles, watched by [left] Wendy Machin and Neville Wran.It’s our Prime Minister’s birthday today. In a spirit of charity, we should wish him many happy returns. We must acknowledge, though, that, at the moment, he’s not in a sweet spot politically. He never will be.
To thrive in the job, a prime minister must be a canny politician. Yet Malcolm Turnbull, even though he has held the office for more than two years, has only ever exhibited a limited mastery of the art and craft of politics.
Evidence of Turnbull’s fitful strike rate as a political performer can be drawn from past decades as well as more recent events.
Back in 1999, a masterful John Howard easily outfoxed Turnbull’s badly organised republican campaign. In an eerie near-reprise 18 years on, the poorly plotted same-sex marriage postal survey looks like being carried partly because Turnbull is running dead on the issue.
The tricky politics of energy policy undid Turnbull’s first stint as Liberal leader in 2009 and this issue is equally problematic for him eight years on. Highlighting the need for reliable energy was meant to embarrass Bill Shorten but has instead further emboldened Tony Abbott.
Abbott has every right to be cranky with Turnbull. Knifing Abbott in 2015 has led to endless complications. Abbott won a thumping victory in 2013. Three years later, it was Turnbull who called on an interminable double-dissolution election that ended in near defeat for the Coalition and produced an even more interesting Senate.
Turnbull twice tripped himself up when, in the early 1980s, he first sought to become a member of parliament – any parliament, in fact.
In 1981, a vacancy in the federal seat of Wentworth triggered a by-election. The Liberals needed to preselect a candidate. Turnbull ran, buoyed by his connection with media mogul Kerry Packer, for whom Turnbull had worked as a journalist.
Quite a few of the preselectors, though, were offended by Turnbull’s association with Packer, who was then seen as a friend of NSW Labor premier Neville Wran. Turnbull did not have the agility to brush the animus aside. He lost the preselection ballot.
In 1983, Turnbull settled for a tilt at being preselected for the safe Liberal seat of Mosman in the NSW state parliament. He ran his usual, unfocused campaign. His biographer, Paddy Manning, quotes Liberal Party notable Nick Greiner’s comment that Turnbull was “arguably petulant” when dealing with individual party members in Mosman. He lost again.
Turnbull was no good at retail politics but had many splendid qualities nonetheless. There was self-belief and a work ethic. He had married well. He was, to use words applied to him by Paul Keating, utterly fearless and brilliant.
Blessed with these attributes, Turnbull enjoyed worldly success after he switched from party politics in 1983 to focus on law and investment banking. He made heaps of money. He became richer than any one sitting in Federal Parliament.
Federal parliamentarians usually need to retire from electoral politics if they wish to truly beef up their material assets through consultancy or lobbying. With Turnbull, the exact opposite happened. He enriched himself before rather than after parliamentary life.
In the late 1990s, Turnbull began to use his own money in a bid to do good and buy affection along the way. Hence his involvement in the republic push.
In 2000, Turnbull again lacked the numbers when the Liberals held another preselection vote in Wentworth.
Three years later, though, he won a bitter preselection contest in the same seat. He now had the resources to barnstorm his way to victory. In retaliation, many local Liberals voted for his ousted predecessor, Peter King, who ran as an independent.
Turnbull invested more than $600,000 of his own money to become member for Wentworth with a reduced Liberal majority. This was a foretaste of the 2016 federal election campaign, which saw the Prime Minister reportedly donate more than $1.75 million as he sought re-election.
So we have a pattern whereby much money is spent to produce mediocre results. Something is wrong here.
Success outside politics propelled Malcolm Turnbull into The Lodge even though he lacks basic qualities needed to sustain success as a prime minister. He is very rich precisely because he is no good at politics. There is, as a result, a fearful asymmetry at the heart of n government.
On this day of all days, we wish Turnbull a happy and speedy retirement from politics, as well as a very happy birthday.
Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer. sjh[email protected]