So it’s all over.
I was hoping the rumours weren’t true, or that you’d have a last-minute change of heart. I was preparing an open letter imploring you to stay in politics. Not, of course, that my imploring or for that matter anyone else’s is of any moment to you, but I wanted to explain that Australian politics needs people like you, and your party, or at least the conservative side of politics in Australia, needs you, specifically. I wanted to explain how Malcolm Mark 2 could be a far scarier prospect for this Government than you were first time around, that you had a serious chance of challenging Labor in 2013.
Still, too late for that.
My favourite Turnbull moment is one that will probably be forgotten in the coverage that will ensue. It was your speech at the Apology to the Forgotten Australians last November. I challenge anyone to read the text of that speech and not be moved beyond words, not merely by the tragedy of what you described, but by the way you articulated both the anguish of those children who were betrayed, and the failure of those who let it happen. And when you spoke in particular of the “greatest tragedy”, of not knowing one’s mother, we knew you had a good idea of that pain.
But I’d couple that with another moment, when you called a press conference on the evening of 26 November, as your party crumbled around you, conservatives resigning en masse, Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin leading the charge. There was plenty of speculation you’d called it to announce you were resigning the leadership, because everything was that bad. On the contrary, you walked in and delivered a bravura performance defending the need to address climate change and honour the party’s commitment to vote for the CPRS. It incited open mockery from some MPs and amusement in the media that you thought you could defeat the forces arrayed against you. The following Tuesday, you came within one vote – one lousy bloody vote – of proving them all wrong.
And when you rose to cross the floor this year on the CPRS bills, your speech justifying action on climate change and the need for an ETS was far superior to anything heard on the issue from any parliamentarian for years. It was one of the great Australian political speeches.
I reckon if you’d ever returned to the leadership, Australians would have recalled that Turnbull, the Turnbull prepared to put his leadership on the line over an important principle, rather than the Turnbull of Godwin Grech fame.
Because, yes, despite, or perhaps because, of your vast ego, you had lousy judgement. You should have known Grech was too good to be true. But you were so convinced you could seize the top prize in one amazing stroke you failed to undertake the due diligence. And it wasn’t just political misjudgement. You allowed yourself to be gulled into opposing the second stimulus package by a parlour game for academic economists about tax cuts.
And there was personal misjudgement. Your blithe indifference to the opinions of others – based, admittedly, on the solid ground that you were usually right on pretty much any subject worth mentioning – wasn’t just a character flaw to be tolerated by colleagues, like it was in business and law, where only results matter. In politics it became a debilitating weakness as you lost control of a fractious backbench that had made it perfectly clear from the end of the Howard era onward that it wanted to be consulted and taken seriously far more than Howard ever did.
None of those were irreparable flaws – although I might be in a minority of one in thinking that. Malcolm Mark 2 could have been a more consultative, less intolerant leader, who still knew he was right, but who was a lot better at listening to the whingeing of his colleagues and appearing to give ground to them – and picking up danger signals that he would otherwise have missed. But that’s all a matter of “what if” stuff now.
The really sad part is, public life needs people like you. It needs people who have succeeded out in the real world. Politics is ever-more dominated by politicians pressed from the same mould, cloned and programmed and sent up the career ladder from Young Labor/Liberal ranks, into ministerial offices as advisers, then via preselection into Parliament, all clutching their talking points and trying to suppress any evidence of difference or natural human variability. They undoubtedly arrive in politics with more political skills than you managed to acquire in six years in the game, but very few of them have a capacity to think beyond politics, to work out how creatively to respond to major, complex policy challenges.
It’s worrying. Evan Thornley pulled the pin last year in Victoria. Peter Garrett has been battered and savaged. Now you’ve left.
I disagreed with any number of your policies – indeed, probably most of them – but I reckon you would have made a great Prime Minister. That speech to the Forgotten Australians showed why – for all the brilliance, for all the ego and aggression and bull-at-a-gate recklessness, for all the lifelong, burning desire for the top prize – your humanity, and a splendid capacity to give voice to it, shone through. Like Paul Keating, your flaws are great, but so are your strengths. Sadly, they’re now lost from Australian public life.