Malcolm in the Middle

Monday, 1 September, 2014

Illustration by Amelia Lugg

As the Abbott government continues to fight battles on several fronts—engaging with anyone they label a ‘leaner’—and the public deepens its disillusionment with politicians, one member of Parliament has managed to remain uniquely admired. This is Malcolm Turnbull, former leader of the Liberal Party.

Turnbull consistently appears at, or near, the top of polls measuring Australia’s preferred political leaders. And having been defeated in the Liberal leadership ballot by a singular vote in 2009, his leadership aspirations remain a constant source of speculation.

So what makes Turnbull popular with Australians? Why does he at times appear above the fray and able to rise over partisan bickering?  To answer this, it is important to first acknowledge the distinctive dynamics of Turnbull’s supporter base. A significant amount of his support, or at least adoration, comes from individuals who would not typically see themselves as Liberal voters.

For some, Turnbull is held as a messianic figure whose beliefs and values transcend the Labor-Liberal divide and thus constitute a potential saviour of the Australian polity. This sort of thinking is typified by the fact Turnbull has received thousands of pleas to found his own party.

Superficially, the reasons for this are simple. Turnbull holds creditable positions on a number of issues close to the hearts of many Australian progressives. He is a believer of anthropogenic global warming and supports an emissions trading scheme as the most efficient mechanism to handle climate change. He is a supporter of same sex marriage and an Australian republic. Furthermore, he has acknowledged the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy as ‘cruel’ and keenly supports the editorial independence of the ABC. While these policies may be admirable, they are the stated positions of the ALP, and therefore indicate that Turnbull’s popularity must be founded on more than policy.

Crucially, Turnbull is not a typical politician. Unlike many members of parliament who have little experience beyond politics and related occupations, Turnbull has had success in fields as diverse as journalism, banking and law. This success has instilled Turnbull with a high degree of self-confidence and independent thought. Compared to nearly all politicians who endlessly repeat the party line, he is prepared to deliver thought-out perspectives on a range of issues. His popular performances on the ABC’s Q&A are demonstrative of his ability to articulately engage in reasoned debate, often accompanied by genuine humour. Importantly, his political identity is based on more than three word slogans, ensuring he stands out in a time when politicians, of all creeds, appear as carbon copies. Ultimately, these characteristics combine to allow Turnbull to appear above the political fray.

Two conclusions are commonly drawn from this. Firstly, Australia under Malcolm Turnbull would be a great place for a left-leaning urbanite to inhabit. And secondly, surely he is a member of the wrong political party.

Enhancing Turnbull’s position as a leading progressive voice is the identity crisis of the contemporary Labor Party. As its traditional working class base withers away, the ALP is attempting to reconcile the views of the union movement and middle-class, inner-city voters. For those inner-city progressives dissatisfied with Labor’s current policy settings, and not prepared to align with the Greens, Turnbull’s mix of social conscience and personal charm may resonate.

However, this position neglects the intellectual foundations of Turnbull’s politics. As the member for Wentworth, one of the most progressive seats in Australia, his politics clearly do not align with the conservatism dominant within the Abbott-led Coalition. Where Turnbull does align with the Liberal tradition though, is his disposition as a social liberal. His 2009 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, entitled Liberal Values and Policies, outlines his core political beliefs. In this speech, Turnbull valorises individual enterprise as the ‘Liberal spirit’ and contrasts this with the supposed ‘government knows best’ approach of the ALP. This distinction means Turnbull’s moderate stance fits within a Liberal tradition and should not be mistaken for the ultimate voice of inner-city progressives.

Moreover, Turnbull is an intelligent and self-confident individual who chose to be member of the Liberal Party. He did so after having been courted by the Labor Party, by no less a figure than Paul Keating. Any suggestion from someone other than Turnbull himself that he is in the wrong party is largely irrelevant.

Turnbull’s popularity is also indicative of the importance of personality and the centrality of leaders in Australian politics. His personal charisma has been privileged above policy considerations. While those on the left may understandably admire Turnbull’s approach to politics, it is his core beliefs and values which must ultimately be judged. Focus on personality and the individual will, in the long run, not solve anyone’s political dilemmas.

Clearly, Turnbull alone is not destined to save the Australian polity, nor is he likely to ever be Prime Minister. However, the presence of more politicians who speak their mind, have experience beyond politics and can engage in reasoned discussion would benefit Australian democracy.