Engaging portraits of the men who would be PM

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Election campaigns now focus on party leaders. Two recent accounts of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shoten, with covers dressed respectively in blue and red, tell an engaging story about the two leaders.

David Marr's Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Pursuit of Power and Annabel Crabb's Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm TurnbullTogether they raise two questions: Do the qualities of leaders matter much? And what insight do the leaders' stories provide into the likely achievements of the government they would lead?

David Marr's Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Pursuit of Power and Annabel Crabb's Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull display the clear and lively writing, unostentatious research and strong argument that we have learned to expect from Black Inc publications and these two gifted journalists.

As the subtitles suggest, they differ in style: Marr's Caravaggio meets Crabb's Breugel.

Marr describes Shorten at work in the claustrophobic world of the Labor factions and the unions where great haters abound and, in their own words, constantly 'f... one another over'. Shorten's face is lighted in this dark environment, as he plays the game skilfully and ruthlessly, charming and betraying colleagues, while drawn also by higher ideals of a more just world.

Marr describes the factionalism of Victoria Labor in prose reminiscent of Tacitus' sardonic take on Imperial Rome: 'They do politics differently there. Wars are fought in the name of peace. Explosives are packed under the foundations of the Labor Party in the name of stability. They call the wreckage left after these brawls rejuvenation.'

Crabb has a much lighter touch. She describes the career of Turnbull, with all its energy, intellectual and tactical brilliance, and irresistible victories with obvious enjoyment and in sunlit prose. She celebrates the human foibles of her protagonists even when they are engaged in hand to hand combat. She constantly makes the human comedy of politics domestic.

'When he (Turnbull) arrived in Canberra (after gaining selection in Wentworth), it was to a Coalition scandalised by the scale of the violence: it was as if a genteel bridge party had now to contend with a barbarian wearing the freshly flayed skin of the deputy secretary for scones.' This is politics as sketched by Trollope, transcribed by Wodehouse, with etchings by St Trinian's.

 

"Marr discerns in Shorten a tension between two strands: the unionist organiser and the 'man for others' deriving from his mother and crystallised in his Jesuit education."

 

But Crabb, like Marr, writes with serious intent, identifying the qualities Shorten and Turnbull have shown in their path to leadership of their parties. They have much in common. Both men had mothers who had high expectations for them; both are highly ambitious and have risen to the top in any group they have joined. Both are charming, but have also lost friends in doing what it has taken to win. Neither man seems naturally self-reflective.

Each also has distinctive qualities. Turnbull is mercurial, with extraordinary intellectual curiosity, learning and tactical intelligence. He is also easily bored. Shorten has a strategic mind and is persistent in pursuing his goals. Marr discerns in him a tension between two strands: the unionist organiser pragmatic in making alliances and the 'man for others' deriving from his mother and crystallised in his Jesuit education. We are finally reminded of two proverbs: the tortoise and the hare, and the hedgehog and the fox. The proverbs favour Shorten, but in real life, of course, each member of this quartet wins a few and loses a few.

Both books invite the reader to ask why the history and qualities of political leaders matter. The edge of the question is honed by both men's readiness to do what it takes to gain and hold power. In the absence of clearly articulated philosophies, we might wonder whether they would try to recreate the world in which they found wealth and success. We might also ask which people and causes they will be ready to jettison if it proves expedient. The two stories leave hanging the question central in an earlier Jesuit education, 'What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?'

In order to predict with any authority what leaders will achieve in office, knowledge of their character is insufficient. Their effectiveness depends on a combination of circumstances and relationships. In a hung parliament or faced by a fractious Senate, for example, Shorten's experience in negotiating a successful path through the union movement and Labor party factions might enable him to preside over an effective cabinet and, like Julia Gillard, win support for legislation. A Turnbull freed from constraints imposed by his party, too, might come up with policies that make irrelevant current political restrictions.

But a hung parliament and a massive majority are no more than possibilities. Nor is surmise on how leaders would govern in them more than an educated guess.

Ultimately the character and story of leaders matter because they are vulnerable human beings. And election times remind us that all human beings matter, particularly the most vulnerable.

 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Annabel Crabb, David Marr

 

 

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Existing comments

Both Turnbull and Shorten favour pragmatism over principle on some vital issues, including their IMMIGRATION POLICIES. Turnbull follows the proven political success story of Howard who won elections with the Tampa and 'children overboard' issues, and Abbot with his simplistic, internationally illegal STOP THE BOATS policy. Not wanting to be wedged on the asylum seeker issue, Shorten has rubber stamped Turnbull's asylum seeker policies. Neither leader shows any compassion for the 1600 desperate asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. Turnbull repeatedly points out the division in Labor ranks on the asylum seeker issue. What he sees as a negative for Labor, I see as a positive. There are many humane Labor politicians who have expressed disagreement at the policy of keeping these asylum seekers in indefinite detention on offshore hell-holes. I pray and hope for a hung parliament where the Greens will pressure Labor to resettle these 1600 people in Australia. The Greens would hopefully also pressure Labor to be more serious about climate change mitigation, so that we phase our coal quickly and don't open any more new coal mines. Turnbull has shown himself very unprincipled on this issue. His inadequate emissions policy is hastening the Reef's demise.
Grant Allen | 01 June 2016


I would imagine being self-reflective could be rather dangerous for any politician, let alone a leader. He or she could very well go running out of Parliament House with a look of alarmed disbelief. Turnbull does have charm, and Shorten does have grit. But it is policies the electorate will have to digest...or stomach. Final two paragraphs sum it all up really.
Pam | 01 June 2016


Annabel Crabb is far more (Norman) Rockwell than Bruegel. A better match for her "sunlit prose", as you wonderfully note.
Armelle Swan | 02 June 2016


I'm happier about having to choose between Shorten/Turbull than I would be if the choice was Clinton/Trump.
David Healy | 02 June 2016


I believe that true leadership is desperately needed in Australia, by which I mean a party leader who will tell it "like it is" and get his/her party`s backing to do the hard things necessary. Both shorten and Turnbull seem constrained by having to keep factions and interest groups happy and so emerge as populist wafflers. I suspect that Turnbull finds this very hard to do, and he did start his PM role so well only to crumble, while Shorten has been doing this all his political life. But unless one of them or someone else can burst through and start changing how the government and society does things, we will be building up a huge legacy of debt, austerity, ruin, pain and trouble for someone else to manage down the road, who will have no alternative as the IMF, bankers etc turn up to run the place.
Eugene | 02 June 2016


The nature of politics these past few years, especially that practiced by the two main parties, reminds one of a bitter marriage struggle – one destined for the courts. So consumed are ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ by their anger, by their need for revenge, and by their need to win at all costs, they’ve forgotten the ‘children’. This toxic process, and breakdown of civility, leaves little room for the electorate. We get pushed aside as the bickering gets louder, as pettiness replaces depth, and as power and fear leave decency and humanity in their wake. Such leadership is disappointing because it undermines sensible and reasoned public discourse. We become wedged by emotive opposites: It’s left versus right, bleeding hearts v cold hearts, “stop the boats” v ”let them come”, populism v pragmatism. It’s all so binary, so black and white. Beneath this canopy of emotion and fear, people tend to become more tribal than usual; more susceptible to propaganda as well. Thus, when we are told that our borders or our hip pockets are in jeopardy; our natural response is to build a wall to keep the ‘enemy’ out. Before we know it, we find ourselves living in a sort of gated community: one that covets security, prosperity – the self. But what of sacrifice – that wonderful quality that politicians dare mention only on Anzac Day? Healthy families, healthy communities, healthy nations all have something in common: a strong sense of ‘other’: life revolves around we, not me.
Peter Day | 02 June 2016


I wonder whether Turnbull and/or Shorten may not ultimately metaphorically suffer the fate of the protagonists in the Kipling novella 'The Man who would be King'? They both seem motivated more by hubris than anything else.
Edward Fido | 03 June 2016


I'm curious as to why you relegate Jesus's question "What does it profit . . . ? " to an "earlier" Jesuit education, Andrew. Do you discern a shift from a transcendent vision of life's purpose to an immanent one, or even from sacred to secular in contemporary Jesuit education? Personally, I regard the question as perennially relevant, as I assume you do in raising it.
John | 05 June 2016


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