So just what kind of a national leader is Malcolm Turnbull? How does he compare internationally and with leaders of our own past?
If the count goes against him this week and Bill Shorten becomes prime minister, Turnbull will go down as the most electorally unsuccessful Liberal prime minister in Australian history, governing for a near record short period and taking a landslide electoral and parliamentary majority and turning it to ash in nine short months.
But assuming he hangs on as Prime Minister, either leading a minority government or with the barest of majorities in the House of Representatives, what have we learned about him from his time at the helm that helps us judge how he will perform?
In nations with similar political cultures to our own — the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and a few others — and indeed in our own history, there are two basic types of leader: conviction leaders and transactional managers.
In modern democratic politics, the two great recent centre-right conviction leaders were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Thatcher was a conservative her whole life. When she became prime minister she decided to break her nation’s economic enfeeblement brought about by union power, to free up its internal economy and to reassert its military strength, its solidarity with the US and international presence. She transformed Britain, and no one ever doubted what Thatcher stood for.
Reagan started life as a Democrat but for many decades before entering the White House was a conviction Republican. Like Turnbull, Reagan came to politics after a satisfying and successful career. Then he was for two terms governor of California and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, before winning the presidency in 1980. No one ever doubted what Reagan stood for — he was a social conservative, economic reformer, low tax advocate, small government proponent, national security hawk and avatar of US power.
In recent Australian history, the nearest equivalent is John Howard. From earliest life he was an activist in the Liberal Party. He entered politics much younger than did Turnbull but had been a successful city lawyer with a big firm. He was always a social conservative and economic reformer, associated with financial deregulation, industrial relations deregulation, lower taxes and supply-side liberalisation, as well as strong support for the US alliance.
Like Reagan and Thatcher, Howard never left the public in any doubt where he stood. Reagan, Thatcher and Howard were all practising and successful pragmatic politicians, who had to win elections, and who did win elections, repeatedly and by big margins. They had to compromise a lot; every day was filled with tactics. But there was never any question of their purpose, where they wanted to take their societies.
Even his best friend would not claim that Turnbull resembles a conviction politician. It has been observed by wiser analysts than me that he lacks the emotional range of a conviction politician. Insofar as the public has any long-term sense of what Turnbull stands for, it is around the republic, gay marriage and perhaps climate change. The first two of these issues are not central matters of national politics and on the third, climate change, his party bitterly and trenchantly rejected Turnbull’s proposed mechanism — an emissions trading scheme — when he was opposition leader.
In terms of broad economic debates, national security, border control, health, education and countless other matters central to national politics, no one has any idea what Turnbull is really all about. It’s not that a political leader needs a checklist of policy positions before he gains office. It’s rather that if he has an integrated world view and a long participation in national politics, there will be an organic coherence to his views and his values.
It is no disrespect to Turnbull at all to conclude that he is squarely outside the conviction politician class and squarely in the middle of the transactional manager class.
This is not a dishonourable category. Among its successful practitioners are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bob Hawke. It’s notable that these are all on the centre-left of politics. On the centre-right, transactional managers are probably best represented by John Key of New Zealand, David Cameron of Britain and perhaps George HW Bush, who succeeded Reagan in 1988. The only one of those who can be seen as an unequivocal success is Key.
What is interesting with Clinton, Blair and Hawke is how their transactional pragmatism took them, in office, from left to right on core economic policy. They challenged their left-wing parties to embrace economic rationalism and reform, which made their parties uncomfortable. In return they gave the left of their parties victories on symbolism and some elements of social policy.
Perhaps Turnbull sees himself as a centre-right mirror of these types, in the way Cameron clearly did. But Cameron went to war with his conservative base over Europe and has now had his leadership savagely truncated as a result.
Clinton, Blair and Hawke all produced pretty good results for their societies after showing fairly heroic ideological flexibility. Clinton began life as governor of Arkansas as a left liberal. He lost office after two years and reinvented himself as a centrist and held office for several continuous terms thereafter. He was elected president in 1992 as a centrist, even interrupting his campaign to go back to Arkansas to oversee an execution to show he supported the death penalty.
But seduced by the Washington chattering classes, he governed for his first two years as president as a left liberal, then suffered a shocking midterm congressional defeat in 1994. Thereafter he became a Democratic conservative, embracing all kinds of market reforms, declaring that the era of big government was over, balancing the budget and imposing tough limitations on welfare.
Blair took a British Labour Party that, under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, had run hard to the left and got it, above all, to accept the Thatcher revolution. Famously, in backing George W Bush in Iraq, he was a national security hawk.
Hawke had been a firebrand left-wing union leader. He became ACTU president as the candidate of the hard left against the right. He had a genuine ideological conversion, though I can recall the Labor politician Dick Klugman at one point backing Bill Hayden against Hawke’s leadership challenge because he thought Hayden had a deeper commitment to centrist economic policies. In office, Hawke, under the rubric of pragmatism, implemented deep, far-reaching, pro-free-market reform of the Australian economy, slashing corporate and personal tax rates, slashing tariffs, cutting government spending. Of course, all this was actually done by Paul Keating as treasurer, and Keating was supremely a conviction politician.
The successful transactional managers all had several traits in common — a near flawless sense of how to present themselves as operating always in the national interest, an ability to reconcile their base with whatever centrist or base-challenging policies they needed to adopt, very strong heavy lifters in their cabinet, and an absolute mastery of the day-to-day tactics of politics. Also, though assiduously portraying themselves as “father of the nation”-type statesmen, none was above fierce partisan campaigning. And though each of these leaders was at least at some points very popular, none was so transfixed by his own popularity as to be incapable of making necessary and at times fundamental adjustments.
It is fair to say that though plainly a transactional manager, Turnbull has not really demonstrated any of these skills at a high order so far. Not all transactional managers are successful.
The Republicans chose the veteran and formidable senator Bob Dole as their presidential candidate to take on Clinton in 1996. Dole was a very accomplished politician with a wonderful backstory of personal heroism in World War 11.
But he made one remark that just about killed him. When trying to reassure conservative Republicans that he was really one of them, he said: “I can be the new Ronald Reagan if you want.”
That was transactional politics at its absolute worst. No one who offers to adopt the persona of Ronald Reagan is in fact anything like Ronald Reagan, for Ronald Reagan could not have adopted any political persona other than his own.
So far, Turnbull has not conveyed the psychological traits of the successful transactional managers. Though they conveyed an image of consistency and steadiness, they were certainly capable of making big course adjustments. This involved the agonising psychological process of admitting they had made big mistakes.
One of the most obvious things Turnbull needs to acknowledge, at least to himself, is just what a god-awful campaign he ran. Barely surviving, if that, he needs much greater firepower in his camp. I firmly believe that he must bring back Tony Abbott to cabinet, yet after his extraordinary rant on election night, Turnbull’s next statement seemed to indicate he was ruling that out. Turnbull needs big cats in his cabinet, free to undertake big actions backed by the Prime Minister in hopefully a well co-ordinated cabinet process.
Hawke had a lot of big cats in his government — not only Keating but John Button, John Dawkins, Gareth Evans and, initially, the man he defeated for the leadership, Bill Hayden, as foreign minister. Blair had Gordon Brown. TB and GB loathed each other with a splendid, festering passion that makes our political animosities look tame. But in his last election victory, the only one Blair was in danger of losing, Blair used Brown as a central player.
The successful transitional managers have superb emotional control, so that they can manage their colleagues and reassure and motivate the public. Turnbull does not so far demonstrate these qualities. He looks much more like Kevin Rudd than like Hawke or Howard.
Turnbull has been Prime Minister for nine months and he has had one really bad day, election day. How a leader performs under pressure is one of the best guides to his character. Turnbull’s one bad day in office led to what was, quite frankly, a pretty bizarre prime ministerial rant well after midnight.
But the correct speech was surely not a mystery. At 10.30 or 11pm, Turnbull could have made a fine speech, thanking the people for giving him the honour of being Prime Minister, thanking his fallen colleagues for their courage and dedication, saying that while he still hoped to govern in a majority, no one could definitively call the election result that night, but whatever happened surely the things that unite us as Australians are greater than the things that divide us, and so on.
Then the universal reaction would have been along the lines of: the Prime Minister certainly shows grace under pressure, his campaign may have been weak but his dignity was intact, and so on.
Instead we got a rambling rant, calling in the police, whingeing about the result, and for the first time in the entire campaign a passionate rave about union misbehaviour on building sites.
Past midnight on election night? Que?
A transactional manager always works hard on conveying a sense of sober personal service and good humour. Turnbull is often quite good at this but the decision to continue living in his harbourside mansion and shunning the poor-white-trash Kirribilli House official residence is a very bad one.
Kirribilli House has a beautiful view but is indeed a modest and not altogether commodious residence. As a man of the people, Turnbull should endure the unspeakable hardship of these lodgings in order to convey his sense of duty. Every TV picture of him emerging from the gates of his private paradise accentuates the distance between Turnbull and ordinary Australians.
The successful transactional managers — Clinton, Blair and Hawke — all came back from savage setbacks in office. These were tests above all of character, temperament, judgment and self-awareness.
Does Turnbull have those necessary, rare qualities?