Former minister for industrial relations Peter Reith was back on the waterfront. But this time he was there only to enjoy a meal hosted by the Victorian division of the Liberal Party. Feral protesters were on the Melbourne waterfront too, shoving dinner guests and police, breaking a window in their so-called peaceful protest. A woman at my table, nursing a bruised hand from the fracas, would be forgiven for describing those who assaulted her as criminals, not protesters. While that must have brought back memories for John Howard, his address to the faithful was no remembrance of things past. Instead, it was a piercing reminder of what leadership looks like, be it 1996 or 2016.
On two fronts, the timing for a leadership chat was perfect. It came as we learned Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews said he was prepared to challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership and anointed himself an “intellectual leader” of the Liberal Party.
Not to make fun of Andrews, it’s silly to claim the leadership mantle when few people, beyond your base of loyal local followers, know your name. If you have to assert you’re an intellectual leader, it’s odds-on you’re probably not. You earn the mantle of intellectual leadership, you don’t proclaim it.
The conservative MP from Victoria has held portfolios in social services and defence in the Abbott government and ageing, workplace relations and immigration in the Howard government. But hand on heart, did Andrews shift the national debate on issues of importance in these portfolios?
Andrews is a decent man but he is part of the problem confronting conservative politics if he imagines he is an intellectual leader of that cause. An intellectual leader articulates his or her ideas, and more than that, draws people to those ideas. Not just the stalwarts. That’s the easy part. Intellectual leaders talk to people beyond the base, they draw new recruits to the cause, convince waverers about the rightness of their ideas. They take on the Left day in day out, understand the power of language and the difference between preaching and persuasion. They realise that the stereotypes of conservatives created by the Left need to be disproved and demolished.
Howard’s take on leadership resonated for another reason, coming soon after another dip in the Prime Minister’s personal ratings and the Coalition government’s poll numbers. Addressing the 1100-plus audience, Howard said he is often asked about the key to successful government. He recalled advice from his mentor, John Carrick, many years ago: “John, you’ve always got to remember one thing: government is a battle of values and ideas. It’s not a public relations contest.”
Howard lived that battle. He didn’t look for love from voters, instead recognising that respect counts for more. Howard used every opportunity to articulate his government’s stance on everything from fiscal repair, national security, border protection and the importance of the country’s history and cultural confidence.
The former PM told the audience that he never minded when someone said “I can’t stand John Howard”. And there were plenty of Howard haters. He said that as long as Australians knew what he stood for, that was the most important thing. Howard’s longevity as prime minister is a testament to that truth. No election was easy. His first year in office was marked with early chaos, but also a first budget that defined the commitment of Howard and treasurer Peter Costello to economic management. Howard’s convictions and persistence, his determination to take voters into his confidence by articulating Liberal Party values day in and day out determined each election in his favour.
Fast forward 20 years. The country’s need for successful, stable leadership has never been greater. After seven disastrous years under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and the removal of Tony Abbott, the expectations on Turnbull could hardly be greater. And the Prime Minister added to the already heavy burden of expectations by premising his takeover on being better able to formulate and articulate a reform agenda.
Howard melded ambition with conviction and confidence with humility. Turnbull has ambition and confidence in spades. But convictions and humility? After more than six months in office, those leadership traits are not yet evident. In his address to the same audience on Friday night, Turnbull alluded to “Liberal values”, then proceeded to talk about innovation and science and a fully costed defence white paper. He described changes to the Trade Practices Act as a signature reform of the Turnbull government. He invoked the lawlessness of the CFMEU to defend the need for an Australian Building and Construction Commission. He said the Liberal Party is “sunny, optimistic …. and filled with hope for the future”. He finished by saying the next election would be a contest of ideas and values as espoused by Carrick.
Notice the gap? Like the curious incident of the dog that didn’t bark in a Sherlock Holmes story, Turnbull’s failure to mention the core issue of fiscal repair offers telling clues about his leadership. When you mention “Liberal values” without mentioning fixing the nation’s debt of $400 billion and the $37bn federal deficit, there’s a leadership vacuum in this area. After all, if a Liberal Prime Minister can’t or won’t use every opportunity to talk about core economic challenges to curb spending, who will?
Maybe Turnbull will unveil a brilliant budget plan on May 3. When he addressed the Victorian Liberal Party state council on Saturday he alluded to tax changes, warning the budget will not be a fistful of dollars, but one of “prudence, fairness and responsibility”. Now Turnbull needs to sell the fiscal reform message with conviction and humility in every speech, at every press conference, during every interview, before, during and long after the budget. Assuming you’re smarter than everyone else in the room is not leadership. It can lead to delusions of grandeur where you suppose that just because you see greatness in an idea, those less smart than you will follow. Voters won’t love you, let alone respect you, for that.
Not for nothing has Rudd’s former adviser Bruce Hawker warned of the similarities between Rudd and Turnbull. As if that’s not enough, Abbott’s episodic attempts at wrecking the Turnbull government have also drawn comparisons with Rudd the wrecker.
It’s hardly a healthy state of affairs for the Liberal Party, let alone leadership of the nation, when the current Prime Minister and the former prime minister are both being likened to the former, former prime minister.