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Malcolm Turnbull's confidence trick


The vitriol with which much of the liberal mainstream media responded to Tony Abbott's Margaret Thatcher memorial speech last month confirmed what many rightwingers have been claiming: that the scorn towards the former PM was a result of his conservative social values and that the problem was not his policies, but rather, his inability to sell them.

Man in suit pulls ace of hearts out of sleeveAfter all, as Abbott was lecturing European Tories on the virtues of his 'turn back the boats' policy, current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — the man currently implementing that very policy — was enjoying unrivalled popularity.

Their competing fortunes and popularity couldn't be more divergent, yet they both agree that the leadership switch hasn't ushered in any significant policy changes.

Fresh from his first round of international summits as prime minister, the polls suggest Turnbull is (for the moment, at least) untouchable. 

Labor's efforts to paint him as 'out of touch' didn't get much traction, but they'll likely try again before the next election.

Significantly, the reaction to Senator Sam Dastyari's decision to use parliamentary privilege to query Turnbull's investments in that infamous tax haven, the Cayman Islands, says much about Australia's political discourse. Fairfax slammed the move, calling it 'lame' and claiming Labor has flicked the switch on 'class warfare.' The media class almost universally agreed the 'tactic' had failed. But by whose measure? Well, their own, of course.

All the 'system is broken' punditry that had become an obsession for the mainstream media in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott days is apparently obsolete now that Australia has a prime minister who talks and dreams big. (Remember when Tom Elliott declared that 'democracy isn't working right now. It's time we temporarily suspended the democratic process and installed a benign dictatorship to make tough but necessary decisions'? Ah, good times.)

As communicators, Turnbull and Abbott are poles apart. His refusal to start 'spinning your way into somebody you are not' is refreshing because there's a growing frustration with the current crop of wooden politicians who are so scared of saying something stupid that they say nothing at all.

But for Turnbull to decry the professional wordsmiths and manipulators is somewhat ironic. After all, he should be their poster boy. Having done nothing other than change the messaging, he's turned the Coalition's fortunes around.

It's not that I want to underplay the significance of the leadership change. Indeed, Turnbull looked instantly comfortable among the world's leaders last week, in stark contrast to Abbott, whose cringe-worthy performance at the G20 had many Australians squirming with embarrassment.

And, of course, eventually a Turnbull-led government will introduce new policies that will be divergent from those of the Abbott government. But the leadership change is a band-aid solution that has been greeted by broad sections of the electorate as somehow revolutionary.

Turnbull's ascension has in fact done nothing to address some of the most significant challenges facing Australia today: rising job insecurity, an anemic economy, a growing gulf between the richest and poorest, unaffordable housing (particularly in Melbourne and Sydney), inhumane border protection policies, climate change, a political class more divorced than ever before from the everyday struggles of the majority of Australians and a fragmenting society, to name but a few.

Yet you wouldn't know this from reading the mainstream media. How did it come to be this way?

The armies of 'communication specialists' are now so immersed in the political system that it's almost never acknowledged that spin — which is essentially massaging or distorting the facts to manufacture a more attractive product — is undemocratic. The policies or ideas have become less important than the packaging and salesmanship.

But the spin-doctors aren't exclusively to blame. If they could be banished from the political system, the media would still remain a tool of the powerful, with dissident and unpopular views rarely given a voice.

The relationship between the mainstream media and politicians and their minders is symbiotic. They rely on each other for information, access and exposure. It's a club and, like any club, joining is conditional upon certain values: namely, being socially liberal with a belief in the almost divine power of the free market. For those who sign up and sing from this song sheet, affluence will be assured.

These are the people that frame the national debate and, inevitably, manage public opinion. In Turnbull they seem to have found a kindred spirit.

Thus, it's become acceptable for pundits to declare 'class warfare' when questions are raised about Turnbull's investments. But, as Ben Eltham pointed out, the fact that the PM 'is a multimillionaire, with a household wealth in excess of $100 million' is 'by any normal standard of democratic discourse, a legitimate topic of debate'.

To date, the most striking achievement of the Malcolm Turnbull confidence trick is that he's rewarded for his apparent progressivism, even when he speaks explicitly against it. The media barely batted an eyelid when he said: 'Coal is a very important part, a very large part, the largest single part of the global energy mix and likely to remain that way for a very long time.'

He even suggested that if Australia stopped all coal exports, global emissions might actually increase because Australia's coal is cleaner than that of other countries. So much for his lead-by-example approach from yesteryear.

While delivered with less machismo than Abbott's 'coal is good for humanity' comments, they're not all that different. Yet they went uncriticised by the media.

The same is true when he extols the virtues of the government's direct action policy, despite being a long advocate of an emissions trading scheme. Perhaps it's because the media know he's just reading from a script that he doesn't believe in. It's just spin to placate the right within his party. Yet somehow he's managed to retain the image of himself as some kind of conviction politician.

This current wave of Turnbullmania is a symptom of a shallowness of the mainstream political discourse in Australia, where a leadership change can be seen as a kind of solution, while the fundamental problems with the system can be, once again, wilfully ignored. At least with Abbott in charge those problems were laid bare for all to see.


Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Abbott's talk seemed designed to make us all feel worse; more worried, more scared & etc. He did not seem to be worried himself, just wanting us to feel alienated and unhappy. One expects this from enemies not someone who is paid to care about you so it is not to be wondered at that we would prefer to listen to Turnbull.

Rose | 24 November 2015  

All reasonable points but surely the huge vacuum in the centre of political discourse is also to do with ALP behaviours. It is not all smoke and mirrors by Turnbull. Where are the appealing, articulate visionaries of the opposition? At this stage I am finding it hard to begrudge someone with a middle name "Bligh" his time as PM of this colony.

Pickworth | 24 November 2015  

Malcolm Turnbull certainly seems to be comfortable in the spotlight and is an assured and charming figure. He is easily outperforming Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, in the polls. Both major parties are driven by poll results even if strenuous denials are made about their relevance. We need to remember that Turnbull leads a conservative party and I would agree with Tim that his emissions trading scheme may have been ditched to placate his party room. Pragmatism, always handy in the party room. I also wouldn't make too much of his personal wealth - if he was driven solely by money he would be doing something else, rather than being the subject of potshots as PM.

Pam | 24 November 2015  

Big relief - He will not Embarrass us (greatly). People expect his own agenda will come into play after next election.

Julie | 24 November 2015  

And the dynamic duo of "Turnbull and Gretch" are just waiting in the wings for a rerun. Turnbull's trust in his own BS and 'smartness and smugness" will bring him down again.

Laurie Sheehan | 24 November 2015  

While Tim's analysis is entirley valid, I think a great many people, journalists included, are happy to cut Malcolm Turnbull plenty of slack in the short to medium term out of a sense of relief and gratitude that he has rescued us from a dysfunctional national leadership

Paul | 24 November 2015  

When elected Turnbull stated his faith in the forces of the free market. I shuddered. All the rest is froth. And he knows that he is there by ten votes from his party mates. Not a resounding endorsement. But better than the one vote which Abbott gave himself and got in. Turnbull has the persona of someone with civil courage, but as you say in the article there is little evidence for anything but pragmatism. Climate change is more vital an issue than terrorism. Broadband which he seems to have stuffed up still needs fixing. He had to be reminded by Ban Ki-moon about suffering asylum seekers. Nah not much to hope for at this stage, he used be called "The Minister for the Rich" and his health, tax and education postures suggest truth to form. His main strengths are not his, they are the national sigh of relief after Abbott and the effete Shorten. Today one of his Queenslander back benchers called for the death penalty for terrorists. Turnbull's response?

Michael D. Breen | 24 November 2015  

Turnbull is very smooth and Shorten is cold and unpopular. However, it would be great if the general public would focus on the policies of each party. I am sick of the personality contest and want to get down to some of the policy facts, which Tim has highlighted beautifully.

Kate | 24 November 2015  

Why is it that Malcolm who seemed to be a voice or reason and the fair go doesn't change policy wholesale to right all of the wrongs that so many are concerned about. It's because he is a politician and knows that change happens slowly. Abbott took us a long way down the gurgler as a nation. I'm prepared to wait and see what Malcolm can do. Perhaps we may see a statesman instead of a politician. Menzies was no pauper either.

Paul | 24 November 2015  

Don't let's forget Malcolm Turnbull leads a coalition. Dealing with three economic groupings within his own Liberal Party - wet, dry and dribbling - would be hard enough but with the agrarian socialist Nationals thrown in he needs to employ all the political tricks of a latter-day Machiavelli. To say nothing of the economic nous of a John Maynard Keynes. The fact that the PM is fortunate enough to be a self-made millionaire gives him some grunt in financial management. It certainly gives him self-confidence. I hope for his sake, and the sake of the country, it doesn't lead to hubris. Of course the practice of democratic politics involves more than parliamentary negotiating skills and economic credentials. Tim's points about the role of the mass media (against Abbott and pro-Turnbull) are well made. The media that can put a person on a pedestal can just as easily drag that person down.

Uncle Pat | 24 November 2015  

For the moment, I don't see a problem with Turnbull not instantly changing lots of policies. Just as Gillard had to do a pragmatic compromise with the Greens to form government then feel her way once she got there, Turnbull also for the moment has to placate the Abbott zombies, still occasionally baying for blood. For now he has to tread warily. But there has been a huge and revelatory difference in style, in that the Turnbull Liberal Government is now again starting a real discussion with the Australian people. It's no longer "Panic, they're coming to get us all, run for the hills, and don't vote Labor!" I have found it delightfully surprising that Liberal ministers and spokespeople on various recent TV appearances have suddenly shown themselves in discussion as capable of really intelligent, informed, and a surprisingly liberal (as opposed to Liberal) approach to a range of issues. And these are often the very same people who, under the Abbott spell, could previously only mouth endless repeats of three-idea mantras. So, if they're not all stumbling around, arms outstretched, and lamenting "Brains, brains, brains!", I can live with it for now.

PaulM | 24 November 2015  

Well said Tim. I would add that, while Turnbull calls for a calm and reasonable approach to the question of how best to combat IS, he does not address the belief that Australia should combat IS and his government still runs scare campaigns around the 'radicalisation' of Muslim youth

barry hindess | 24 November 2015  

At least I'll be dead before it really hits. But I'm sorry for my grandchildren.

gavan | 24 November 2015  

Mr Turnbull comes across as sensible and honest. I am happy to give him the benefit of any doubt on that for the moment, and suspect that that is the general feeling. Which is healthy. I would also say that objectively his analysis about coal is q

Eugene | 24 November 2015  

I don't think he can last. He did not which party to join originally and that says he is so middle he will not appeal to the liberal mainstay , ever. He should have been a labour PM. He would have been a good one. His wealth will start to impact voters when he implements everyday policies that effect the pockets of the workers. He would spend $2,000 a month on a/c in the summer and he would not even know that he does. Good for him but bad for perception when the nuts and bolts starts to emerge. Politics is a funny business. i know lots of people that say they are so much happier with Turnbull. I ask them what policy changes he has implemented make them more happy ? Hmmm. The follow up therefore is by what criteria are they more happy. The answers are way to long for this post but needless to say not many are very thought out beyond "speedo" and "impression". Iron ore at 40. Oil at $41 which makes all the fracking businesses on the east coast sub economic. Unemployment is coming to a town near you. Governments have pulled interest rate lever as far as they can and markets do not much appetite for fiscal deficits.. there are not many options and in the meanwhile, the head of the unions ( past ) tell the royal commission that they were unaware of what awards were being struck ( down ) for workers. Show us your hand Malcolm. What are the policy solutions.

luke | 25 November 2015  

same policies better salesman...watch it

Ben | 25 November 2015  

I think there's a great difference between Abbott and Turnbull. Turnbull's intellect and articulate speech puts him streets ahead. He has a relaxed, warm, communicative presence, and that had made the people generally more relaxed. His policy changes will emerge before much longer. It's just the bleedin' right he has to watch - for a while. Turnbull us a SMALL L Liberal, which Is what I am. And he's heaps better than Shorten!

Louw | 26 November 2015  

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