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Learning from the Turnbull flop: why leadership spills almost always result in disaster

By Tim O'Hare - posted Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it.

This Edmund Burke quote is all too commonly quoted, however it is trite because it is true.

The Liberal Party appeared smarter than this when they came to office in 2013. They had watched, along with the rest of the Australian public, the revolving door of Labor leaders and knew that they had a responsibility to be better.


Unfortunately they weren't. Within six months they were down in the polls after a disastrous inability to sell the budget. It wasn't helped by, then former leader, Malcolm Turnbull's presence on the frontbench. People are always going to speculate about what might have been and it was clear to everyone that Malcolm Turnbull hadn't gone into politics to be the longest serving Communications Minister. His sticking around served as an enabler for those with axes to grind against Tony Abbott.

Abbott was always going to be a polarising figure but his cabinet, most of whom had been promoted there under Malcolm Turnbull, failed to, on the whole, put up a united front in defence of the government's policies. There were notable exceptions, but in many instances it became commonplace for Abbott's Ministers to dissatisfaction over government policy by leaking and positioning themselves post leadership spill.

The Coalition's 2013 post-election premise that 'the adults are in charge' was evaporating before their eyes. What should have been a wake-up call to retain order, turned into a license for sabotage amongst Turnbull supporters on both the back-bench and front-bench. When the spill came, it was sold on the basis of poor polling and an inability to frame a coherent economic narrative. Malcolm Turnbull must now eat his words.

What baffles me as someone outside the Canberra cabal is that the Coalition failed to learn from the lessons of Rudd and Gillard. Julia Gillard's Prime Ministership did not fail solely because of the leaking and undermining of Kevin Rudd, it failed because its entire rationale was sold on the notion of her better polling. When that proved to be no longer the case, her support crumbled.

It is worth remembering that the polling of the Turnbull government is not yet at the lows under Abbott, but the warning signs are clear. With the inflated deficit, strained Federal relations, hostile minor parties vowing to preference the Coalition last and an upcoming budget, the Turnbull government will be tested in the election. A possible scenario could be a hung parliament where the Coalition will have to further compromise itself for power.

The Coalition will enter the 45th parliament divided and disillusioned. If the Coalition is able to form government, then political gravity will be towards Labor, who will have defied expectations and have significantly wounded a first term government, while putting up a united front.


The best argument against a Shorten Labor government used to be the fear of a return to the dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard years. With the Coalition undergoing a leadership change only two years in, and a Ministerial turnover that rivals Labor, that argument is no longer viable. There is a natural dissatisfaction towards any government, but the risk for the Turnbull government is that the, quite rational, fear of a hung parliament could swing people towards Labor.

There was much expectation riding on the Malcolm Turnbull Prime Ministership. A belief that fundamentally he could break the cycle, govern for the best interests of the nation (not the latest opinion poll), repair the budget and restore consultative, cabinet governance. All of those aspirations grow more elusive with each passing day.

A persistent myth is that Australians suffer from 'tall poppy syndrome'. Australians aren't overly envious, but what they are wary of is pretension and back-seat criticism. Turnbull refrained from doing the latter publically right up until the crucial challenge where he criticised Tony Abbott's lack of 'economic leadership.' Now, six months later, after the Turnbull government abandons any changes to the GST and contemplates fighting an election on a miniscule change to industrial relations, Turnbull's credibility as an economic reformer has to be called into question. Moreover, his strained relations with his Treasurer, Scott Morrison show a Prime Minister unable to live up to his pledge to be both consultative and a champion of economic reform. If he can't offer any solutions then, in the voters' eyes, Malcolm Turnbull is part of the problem and as a result voters are already turning on him.

Malcolm Turnbull could have been, like Bill Hayden, Andrew Peacock and Kim Beazley, one of the great 'what ifs' of Australian politics. Had he retired in 2010, we would still be wondering what might have been. Nothing has destroyed the wonder about what a Malcolm Turnbull government would look like quite like his ascent to the Prime Ministership. Before he became Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull was a man for all seasons, a social liberal, a fiscal conservative, a dynamic innovator, a patron of the arts, a public transport enthusiast.

Malcolm Turnbull's appeal came from not being a typical Liberal politician. However the risks of having him as leader were that he would fail to convince Labor and Greens voters to vote Liberal whilst also alienating the Liberal base. Turnbull is the political equivalent of a McDonald's salad. People like the idea of it, but when you look at the overall calorie intake you're better off either living it up and ordering a Big Mac or staying home and making your own. He could very well be the first Prime Minister to earn the ire of both David Marr and Gerard Henderson on the 'Insiders' couch.

Whether or not voters are willing to give Malcolm Turnbull another chance remains to be seen. What's clear is that Liberal MPs in marginal seats will already be doubting that he's the saviour they had hoped him to be.

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About the Author

Tim O’Hare is a Sydney-based, freelance commentator, originally from Brisbane. He has written about a range of subjects and particularly enjoys commenting on the culture wars and the intersection between politics, culture, sport, and the arts.

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