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Wronged hero or serial backstabber: history will judge our 29th PM

12 December 2018 109 views No Comment


Is former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull a wronged hero, as he obviously thinks he is? Was he a brilliant businessman who never really made the transition to politics, as some of his erstwhile admirers think? Or was he a dud who would have been better off in the Australian Labor Party, as some conservative Liberals think?

Right now, almost everyone has an opinion about our 29th prime minister but, as time passes, it will be the facts that shape history’s judgments. Here’s my stab at how history will see him.

Here are the principal facts of Turnbull’s political life. He entered parliament relatively late after a glittering career as a Rhodes scholar, journalist, barrister, businessman and leader of the unsuccessful republican push of 1999 (and two youthful attempts at Liberal preselection).

He successfully challenged the preselection of a sitting Liberal MP and entered parliament as the member for Wentworth in 2004. He was briefly a cabinet minister in the Howard government. He unsuccessfully contested the opposition leadership against Brendan Nelson after John Howard lost his seat in the 2007 election, then won against Nelson in 2008, only to lose the leadership in Dec­ember 2009 to Tony Abbott because Turnbull wanted the Liberal Party to adopt the Labor government’s climate change policy.

He was a cabinet minister in the Abbott government before seizing the prime ministership in September 2015 and banishing Abbott to the backbench. He lost 14 seats at the 2016 federal election but did legislate the government’s longstanding commitment to creating the Australian Building and Construction Commission, putting a “tough cop on the workplace beat”. He also carried through the same-sex marriage plebiscite that his predecessor had promised, increased some spending (the Gonski school measures) and some taxes (retirees and banks), but cut other taxes (small business and middle-income earners) before losing the prime ministership in August over a climate-focused energy policy requiring state Labor support (and that federal Labor appears likely to adopt).

Turnbull quit his seat and refused to campaign in the by-election that cost the government its one-seat majority. He publicly disagreed with his successor, Scott Morrison, on energy policy, preselections and election timing.

No previous former Liberal leader seems to have fallen out so quickly with the party that made him prime minister. It was not until December 1975, 4½ years after losing the top job, that John Gorton (who had left the party in May 1975) ran as an independent against the Liberals for an ACT Senate position. As late as 1993, a decade after leaving parliament, Malcolm Fraser was still a potential candidate for the party presidency, although he fell out with the Howard government and resigned his life membership in 2010.

Still, it’s only rusted-on Liberals who will assess Turnbull primarily on his relationship with the Liberal Party. History will judge Turnbull on two criteria: was he a successful politician and did he change the country for the better?

Becoming prime minister is a huge accomplishment, thus, compared with most MPs, Turnbull has been successful. It may be wrong to judge him too harshly over backstabbing a sitting MP to enter parliament, backstabbing a party leader to become leader and backstabbing a prime minister to become PM. Arguably, Howard and his rival Andrew Peacock backstabbed each other before Howard became the most suc­cessful prime minister since Robert Menzies. Successful politicians probably need a bit of mongrel.

What Turnbull conspicuously failed to do was keep the federal Liberals together. He tried to divide the conservative wing of the party by keeping more junior conservatives in his cabinet. And he lost the leadership twice, by partyroom ballot, while trying to get the Liberals on to a unity ticket with Labor on climate policy.

As prime minister, Turnbull largely maintained his predecessor’s successful border protection policy and his strong national security policy. He continued Abbott’s trade policy but wasn’t as good at finalising new free trade agreements. Fiscal discipline relaxed somewhat, although the Coalition government was within sight of a surplus by the time he left. He toned down the government’s low taxing, low spending, low regulating economic rhetoric but not to the extent that the pace of job creation fell below near-record levels. There were some important second-order wins such as largely deregulating the media and abolishing the road safety remuneration tribunal.

History is likely to remember the current Coalition government for stopping the boats, scrapping the carbon tax, finalising the big FTAs and facilitating (if not quite supporting) same-sex marriage. These are all measures Turnbull continued rather than initiated. None of the recent Liberal prime ministers will come close to Menzies, Howard and even Fraser in stature. Abbott is probably the most substantial.

Turnbull’s place in history will depend on the judgment that’s passed on the government he led. If the Coalition loses badly at next year’s election, it will be seen as the second poor government in a row; perhaps not as inept as Rudd-Gillard-Rudd but another government better at cannibalising itself than running the country.

Right now, Turnbull seems set on punishing his successor by speaking out against the government on an almost daily basis. In that case, the real loser won’t be Abbott, who at least led the Liberals out of opposition; or Morrison, who is trying hard to salvage things; but Turnbull, who cut down one Liberal prime minister, then sabotaged another.

It may go against his grain, but the best Turnbull can do for his reputation is to work hard to re-elect the Morrison government.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Australian, 12 December, 2018,p 12.

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