Despite the Coalition’s narrowest of election wins Malcolm Turnbull insists that his government has a mandate. Curiously, Turnbull claims no such mandate for his prime ministership. He remains as beholden to the right wing of his party as he was the day he wrested the prime ministership from Tony Abbott last year. He remains the incredible shrinking prime minister.
For those who believed that the “real Malcolm” would only emerge when he was returned to office in his own right, the upshot of the July 2 election has been a bitter disappointment. While full-throated in his claim of a mandate for his government, Turnbull is not so bullish when it comes to asserting his authority as prime minister. It is difficult to bring to mind a previous prime minister who has been so afraid to exercise power, who has had so little reason for being prime minister. Which begs the question: What’s the point of being prime minister, Malcolm?
Prior to pursuing his destiny in politics, Malcolm Turnbull had been a high achiever in every endeavour he applied himself to. His approach to journalism, the law, investment banking, business and advocacy for the republic was marked by self-confidence, courage and conviction. These are hallmarks noticeably absent from Turnbull’s prime ministership.
Malcolm Turnbull was the last person one would imagine as being content with being prime minister for its own sake, but that is precisely how his time as prime minister must be characterised.
There is no doubt Turnbull was personally crushed by the electorate’s lukewarm endorsement at the polls. Pride aside, Turnbull had hoped for a result that would have enabled him to break free from the hold of his party’s right wing. Instead he scraped in by the barest majority, a pointed public rebuke of his insipid prime ministership. Little did the electorate realise it had simply bought itself three more years of the same.
The initiative rests with Turnbull
Not only is Australia saddled with an impotent Prime Minister, but the Turnbull ministry is one of the weakest, least meritorious, most soul-sapping in living memory. The few individual exceptions don’t come close to tipping the balance. And while having Parliament’s resident goose as Deputy PM is not of Turnbull’s making, the National Party’s retrograde influence under Turnbull’s prime ministership has been allowed to flourish.
It’s hard to understand why Turnbull, presented with a one-seat majority, has not thrown his new-found pragmatism to the wind and adopted Gough Whitlam’s credo of “crash through or crash”. After all, if he feels emasculated by his government’s perilous hold on power, that situation is not going to change for the next three years. The initiative rests with Turnbull himself. He can either continue to tread water, or he can resolve to pursue the issues and causes that are dear to him and let the political cards fall where they may.
Turnbull’s abandonment of marriage equality, his silence on the republic, his refusal to face up to the human rights abuses of Australia’s asylum seeker regime, his disinterest in indigenous affairs, his championing of coal, his insensitivity to growing institutionalised poverty, his weakness in response to ministerial incompetence – how does he sleep at night?
Turnbull has become adept at not rocking the boat. The entirety of his prime ministership is dedicated to keeping himself in the job. In the past he has resolutely refused to accept that Australians have been disappointed in his lacklustre prime ministership – having expected so much more – but if the election result didn’t convince him, then the latest Newspoll should: voter satisfaction with Turnbull’s performance as Prime Minister has sunk below 30% for the first time.
It’s hard to reconcile today’s paper-tiger PM with the MP, narrowly defeated in the leadership ballot following the defeat of the Howard government in 2007, who stormed into the office of the newly installed Liberal leader, the tearful Brendan Nelson, yelling at him to man up. (Turnbull went on to topple Nelson for his first stint as opposition leader. Nelson has gone on to make notable contributions to the nation, first as Australian Ambassador to the European Union and NATO – appointed by the first Rudd government – and since 2012 as the visionary and indefatigable Director of the Australian War Memorial.)
It’s Malcolm…or who?
The answer for the Coalition government does not lie in a change of leader. Even if serious leadership manoeuvrings were to materialise, obvious leadership candidates are few and far between. Abbott’s return is possible, but highly improbable.
Unlike the Labor party which has several strong alternatives to Bill Shorten – and that is a space to watch – the Liberal party is a succession-free zone. The fact of the matter is that Malcolm Turnbull is the most qualified, most able person in the Liberal party to be leader. But his party won’t let him lead, and unlike his former self he lacks the courage to do so. A leader not permitted to lead, without a credible successor.
The Liberal party can thank its hero John Howard for the party’s leadership vacuum. He should have transitioned the party leadership and prime ministership to Peter Costello after winning the 2004 election. And there’s a very good chance that a Costello government would have been returned in 2007. Instead, through spite and obstinacy, Howard clung to office, unchallenged by his weak-kneed ministers who knew that Howard’s time had come.
Costello’s unexpected and not without spite decision to decline the Liberal leadership after the Kevin 07 rout threw the party into the turmoil from which it has not recovered.
While some may cling to the belief that there remains in Malcolm Turnbull the potential to be a great prime minister, it is hard to see Turnbull shaking himself from his self-induced torpor.
Australians deserve better than three more years of Turnbull’s timorous prime ministership. If those closest to Turnbull cannot inject in him the will to prove himself equal to the public’s expectations of him, the Liberal party could do considerably worse than to place itself on bended knee before Peter Costello and beg him to return to parliament to claim his crown.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via firstname.lastname@example.org