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Turnbull friendly fire is mostly undeserved



Malcolm Turnbull continues to cop plenty of friendly fire. He has both a leadership and a Coalition problem. He is blamed for the ills of the Coalition government whether or not he can be reasonably held responsible for them.

Malcolm TurnbullThe government is behind in the public opinion polls so he must be the problem. Same sex marriage passes without enough religious protections so he must be to blame. The Coalition loses a state election so he must be at fault.

Leadership is not easy. As Barnaby Joyce, standing beside the Prime Minister at the Southgate Inn in Tamworth last Saturday night after his by-election win, proclaimed: 'Running a country is a little harder than running sheep through a gate, I can tell you that.' Compared with running a country Turnbull must find running a party, much less a Coalition of parties, like herding cats.

After the same sex marriage legislation passed the Senate he was blamed by Nationals' MP for Mallee in Victoria, Andrew Broad, for not doing enough to protect the interests of conservatives on his own side.

According to Broad he showed a 'complete lack of leadership' by not consulting with conservatives enough and for allowing a bill drafted by Senator Dean Smith to go ahead rather than a compromise bill which incorporated the views of 'No' campaigners. Yet Turnbull was reflecting the clear majority of parliamentary and community opinion in favour of same sex marriage.

After the re-election of the Queensland Labor government, in an election where One Nation polled 14 per cent to damage the chances of the Liberal National Party, he was criticised by the Nationals' New South Wales Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, for claiming that the election was fought on state issues.

Speaking to radio shock jock Alan Jones, Barilaro called on Turnbull to resign before Christmas because he was the problem. 'You've got a party in disarray, a Coalition government in disarray and a community not unified, and that is all at the feet of the Prime Minister of Australia.' Yet Turnbull said little more than the standard mantra by federal leaders that they should not be blamed for state losses.


"Turnbull's problems are not his alone and should be seen in the light of a much bigger context in which leaders are damned if they are decisive and equally damned if they are cautious."


Queensland Nationals undermined Turnbull's opposition to a banking royal commission forcing him to backflip. George Christianson, MP for Dawson, toyed publicly with the idea of quitting the government benches altogether before texting Turnbull to say that he was staying now that there was to be a royal commission. Yet Turnbull's stand had been supported by former prime minister John Howard who had described a bank royal commission as 'rank socialism'.

While the Nationals are causing most of Turnbull's current leadership problems, over the course of his prime ministership members of his own Liberal Party have led the way. His arch-rival Tony Abbott has been supported by a clutch of conservatives, including Kevin Andrews, Senator Eric Abetz and, until forming the Australian Conservatives, Senator Cory Bernardi. The Nationals can be disruptive but only the Liberals can directly depose Turnbull because the critical decision on his leadership will be taken in his own party room, not in a joint Coalition meeting.

Most of the friendly fire criticism of Turnbull is unfair. His weaknesses and failures may contribute to the defeat of his government at the next election. But many of them have been caused by the deep-seated divisions between conservatives and moderates like himself within his party and his government. The Coalition agreement between the Nationals and the Liberals signed after the September 2015 leadership contest and confirmed again after the July 2016 election enshrined these divisions.

Some are also an inevitable consequence of deep divides within Australian society. They make exercising any leadership devilishly difficult. Most of the state premiers are also struggling. Annastacia Palaszczuk only scraped back in Queensland against an uninspiring opposition. Barilaro's own NSW government led by Gladys Berejiklian has executed extraordinary backflips of its own over issues such as banning greyhound racing and amalgamating local councils. Jay Weatherell in SA is suffering the politics of energy supply. Daniel Andrews in Victoria has presided over bitterly divisive assisted dying legislation.

The divisions are political, social, cultural and religious. They include urban-rural, religious-secular and traditional-modern discord which make compromise difficult and social consensus rare. Turnbull's problems are not his alone and should be seen in the light of a much bigger context in which leaders are damned if they are decisive and equally damned if they are cautious.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Malcolm Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce, The Nationals, Tony Abbott, Liberal Party



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Existing comments

A good assessment of the rapid decline and fall of Western Christian civiiisation at the hands of the "I want and have a right to" humanist mentality.

john frawley | 05 December 2017  

There are plenty of meanings to the word 'lead'. To lead someone on, to lead someone to do something, to lead up to, lead off with, lead someone astray, lead someone up (or down) the garden path, and lead with one's chin. An ambiguous word and a big responsibility. Turnbull, in my opinion, is a charismatic leader who presents better than his opposition. He must know that leadership sets him apart and it is never easy. When I was last in London I visited Churchill's underground war rooms and he couldn't afford to be claustrophobic. Nor could his aides.

Pam | 05 December 2017  

How quickly people forget! Malcolm Turnbull was replaced by Tony Abbott as Leader of the Opposition because he demonstrated how useless he was in that role. He could never lay a finger on Kevin Rudd, but he pathetically attempted bring him down with the phoney Oz Car affair. His failure to check the authenticity of the Godwin Grech email showed his unfitness to govern. And remember how, after he had a falling out with his former boss Kerry Packer, it was reported by Four Corners in 2008 that Turnbull had leaked confidential information to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal that forced Packer to withdraw his bid for the Fairfax newspaper group. Turnbull never denied the Four Corners story. That episode showed his vindictiveness. He then plotted Abbott’s knifing in the back, but once in the top job he didn’t know what to do, and still doesn’t. Malcolm Turnbull is symbolic of all that is wrong with most Western leaders today.

Ross Howard | 05 December 2017  

How refreshing and yet more challenging is an article which looks systemically at the complexities of our malaise rather than pointing a finger at one person. Is there also a missing element describing the influence of corporations and political donations, post parliamentary lobbyists and Newscorp? Maybe we need to think more about who governs government these days. Thanks anyway, John.

Michael D. Breen | 05 December 2017  

A very good analysis. Politics has become polarised, with Greens pulling the ALP markedly leftwards under the chameleon Shorten, while One Nation threatens the Libs from the right. Turnbull though has not moved rightwards on most issues in the way that Shorten has tacked left, but he has been unable because of the mess , not of is making, to get to grips with most of the the really serious economic and energy issues that face Australia. I don`t think that he general population is fractured in the way that big P Politics is, and a re-alignment to see a "common-sense" centrist party emerge would be logical...though unfortunately unlikely to happen. At least until some really big international event shakes some sense of reality into Australian public life.

Eugenew | 06 December 2017  

I think that is a very charitable assessment on Turnbull and the divisions within the Libs. However if you add to the mess the inexorable pressure on workers, disabled, pensioners, refugees, students, TAFE- who would all like a fair shake of the dice. Then I am afraid to say that the nub of the political doubt has not been addressed. Mix that with unending measures of capitalist hubris- gives the reason of why the electorate is so fractured and unsure except the wish for a pox on both houses.

Reinder Zeilstra | 06 December 2017  

Yes, I think of the 'waterfall' of meaning heading 'south' and separating into so many downward sprays to fragment on the rocks below. And Teilhard de Chardin's image of the doomed "rising eddy on the descending current" of our evolutionary, entropic destiny. What to do, what can any leader do? Or is it up to us who look for leaders to look for kindred spirits, twos and threes, here and there, and in a limited way seek to be 'successfully' rising eddies on the downward current of expanding, individual, invincible ignorance. After all, it is towards Christmas.

Noel McMaster | 06 December 2017  

A perspective on social justice finds PM and D/PM wanting. Both are "Catholics" but former RC and now Anglican Bill Shorten leaves both for dead in this critical area for less well off citizens. Coalition MPs are more concerned about the needs of big business and miners like Gina Hancock than pensioners and indigenous Australians.

John Cronin | 06 December 2017  

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