This piece was originally published on February 8, 2007.
On Tuesday, newly minted Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull experienced the parliamentary version of his first day of school.
Of his debut ministerial performance in parliament, he told The Age: “Getting up for the first time was very daunting… Courtrooms can be quite intimidating for the first time, too. But, of course, people are polite in courtrooms.” Turnbull also said he’ll be reviewing the tape of his first time.
Michelle Grattan said he sounded a little too much like a barrister in a courtroom, but the man has obviously been studying his book of Churchill speeches, and while he might’ve strayed into hyperbole with this:
Every day when pensioners pull muscles, crack backs lugging heavy buckets to water their gardens in Brisbane, when they look at their dry and desiccated lawns, their dead roses, they remember, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition. It was him, it was him and Wayne Goss in 1989 that chose not to build the Wolffdene Dam.
It was thundering, sermon-on-the-mount statements like this, that made sleepy backbenchers sit up and take notice:
Some new form of totalitarianism — the edicts from the Opposition, the gospel according to the Labor Party — cannot be questioned.
Standing up in parliament is not an easy task. Turnbull might be an experienced public figure well trained in the ways of the media and presenting a case but the House of Representatives is a strange forum in which many great lawyers before him, like Garfield Barwick and Bob Ellicott, have failed to shine.
The task of being and looking comfortable became even more difficult when proceedings were opened up for coverage by television. A speaker now must make his impression not only before his peers on the floor of the House but on the public in their sitting rooms at home as well.
The first often requires an assertive manner, a raised voice and flights of rhetoric while the second is better suited to reassuring and conversational tones.
Being a man of considerable ambition, Turnbull appears to have his manner directed at his Liberal Party parliamentary colleagues and that is perhaps understandable. Their impression of his leadership potential will be determined primarily by how they judge his performance on their stage and the initial judgment will surely be favourable.
For a new Minister he has shown a solid grasp of the facts and figures relevant to his portfolio and there have been no silly slips and stumbles. The man’s confidence in himself has seemed well placed.
On the score of winning future votes for his party rather than himself the verdict is not so clear cut. The message is very much tailored to the climate change cynics that fill the talkback airwaves and the letters section of your local tabloid.
“Self-inflicted restraint”, he told the Parliament yesterday, “will have no effect at all on global warming unless it is matched by a similar reduction around the world.”
That message, if repeated often enough, will appeal to the Howard battlers but it will be better heard when delivered in a quieter manner. It will be interesting to see how the Turnbull technique adapts to tonight’s debate on Kerry O”Brien’s ABC program.