Image credit: Lukas Coch/AAP

So, sic transit gory mundanity. Malcolm Turnbull, the dashing Sydney lawyer, venture capitalist, republican, art collector, who promised the Liberal Party a leadership they and the nation could get behind, and in the end departed in the same way all three of his predecessors have, two-thirds of the way through their sole legitimate, elected term. Having begun with a series of striking political moves, which were largely about undoing the idiocy of the Abbott-Hockey period, and encouraging many — this writer included — to think that he would be a solid liberal-conservative one could attack on the ideas, Turnbull turned out to be almost nothing at all.

The wheeler-dealer son of a pub broker, having spent decades tap dancing through courtrooms and stock deals, finally ended up in a room he couldn’t pass through on the way to something else. The buck stopped with him, and he stopped altogether. He was faced with the most difficult of challenges: an insurgent intra-party who would rather lose power than lose a hold on the political apparatus, and he did not have even the beginnings of the skills to take on the party right, tame it, divide it, and scatter it.

Indeed it became clear to all of us – and perhaps, painfully, to Turnbull himself – that he lacked the ability to develop the key ability of the professional politician: the aptitude and appetite for a slow drilling through hard timbers, the ability to look the waste and absurdity of political life in the eye and say, “yup, I’ll give myself to that. I am willing to be destroyed by my failure if that’s what it takes.” The lack of actual executive skills was simply an add-on. By about six months ago, it became clear that he was now simply in it for one thing only: to get to a full term, and either resign on the eve, or be turfed by the electorate, not by a cabal of lifers who always saw him as a blow-in and a bullshit artist. He didn’t even get that, poor sod. He joins the stretch of post-Howard PMs whom historians will look on as a weird interregnum like a stretch of minor Caesars.

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Malcolm joins their paradoxical number, people who have been raised up and – save for Gillard – humiliated by the prospect of glory on offer. They are the jokes of history, lured into the killing jar of fame to have their dignity and self-regard suffocated. Malcolm is rich as Croesus, and a fixture of Australian history, yet I have the same sympathy for him as I had for Abbott — for the terrible thing about failed ambition is that, like the scissors of the Fates, it works backward through a life, undoing all. What was it all about, this life, that led up to this, three years of directionless premiership and fumbling political amateurism, concluded by an unnecessary auto-da-fé? This is the fate of our leaders, who, on both sides, lack the courage to address the real issues that confound us: the destruction of the planet, the shifting global order, the dizzying rise of inequality. Had they the courage to take it on, to draw support from all sides, their failures would be tragedies. Instead they are the other thing. Sic transit ingloria Malcomity.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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