Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett’s recent tirade against Malcolm Turnbull is merely the latest attempt to show the new PM is a lesser man than everyone hoped, but it may be the crudest in terms of projection - not the common form of imputing one’s own weakness to others - but the reverse form which sees oneself as a decisive leader rather than a bully.
It is easy to forget, when we read Kennett’s accusation of ‘gutlessness’ that his own leadership was beset with problems due to an imperious style and a perceived lack of respect for colleagues. Be that as it may, the daily papers and online journals are full of articles written in a similar if less vindictive tone - they reflect a mindset that Turnbull has already failed. An exception is The Monthly, with an ironic and amusing cover story by Don Watson.
What is missing in this debate is an informed and informative account of the views of Turnbull’s parliamentary colleagues on the policies he supports and is likely to support as well as the ideas they rest on. This will clarify what he can and cannot hope to achieve in a party riven by fault lines between liberal and conservative concerns and which must also maintain coalition support.
We might respond to this failure with a thought-experiment. Suppose Turnbull, for all his wealth, charm and talents, is actually a decent person who meant what he said to Leigh Sales shortly after defeating Tony Abbott viz., that a ‘key priority’ is ‘to ensure we remain a high-wage, first-world, generous social welfare net economy’ and that this will require ‘strong economic growth … we need to be competitive, we need to be productive, we need above all to be more innovative.’ (emphasis added)
So perhaps Watson is right when he suggests Turnbull could have assured himself a place in history had he joined Labor and been elected leader. Perhaps he does believe in the CSIRO and climate change and a price on carbon and same-sex marriage, a fairer tax system, a republic and a more balanced approach to relations with China and the US, and perhaps he does not share Abbott’s more extreme views on national security and refugees and Joe Hockey’s budgets, among others.
But suppose he was also serious when he said, after briefly flirting with Labor, that he could not abide a political party in which all members must toe the party line, and which now sees Labor ruling out a free vote on same-sex marriage, followed by Senator Joe Bullock’s resignation as a matter of personal honour and conscience.
The moral absurdity of this doctrine was seen yet again on the ABC’s Q and A for 7th March, when the audience was reminded - on this occasion with good humour - that Shadow Minister Penny Wong, known as much for the strength of her convictions as for her progressive social values, was forced to pretend support for so-called ‘traditional’ family values.
Finally, suppose Turnbull believes - as his comments suggest - that it is, in the end, possible to reconcile traditional liberal values of freedom and personal responsibility with Labor’s commitment to fairness and social justice and seeks - over time - to counter the polarisation which has degraded political debate and is now tearing the US apart.
No critic has yet shown that Turnbull’s sense of honour and decency is less than his own, or less than that of most politicians, political journalists, lawyers and academics. In which case we need to look at the options, bearing in mind the doctrine of joint Cabinet responsibility, which requires Ministers to resign if they wish to publicly challenge government policy.
One of the PM’s more attractive features is that he did not pretend to share his colleague’s views and journalists were rarely in doubt when, as a Minister, he differed with Cabinet. He would simply remind them of the convention and why reasonable men and women might disagree on difficult policy issues. This is a change from the moral self-subordination and dissembling required by doctrines of party unity.
We might, if we pursue this thought-experiment, also see that he is as much bound by Cabinet solidarity on certain policies as he was when a Minister, and that he clearly lacks the numbers to change policy on many if not most of the above issues. This is despite Julie Bishop’s self-serving but difficult-to-defend theory that joint responsibility means the Cabinet must support the Prime Minister not vice versa.
Perhaps he should resign and run as an Independent. But Turnbull has spent his professional life resolving difficult legal and commercial disputes and, when they end up in court, has been a resourceful and deeply committed advocate - witness the ‘Spycatcher’ trial. Neither (despite Kennett’s crude attack) is he short on personal courage - he risked and lost the party leadership when he argued in support of a carbon price scheme.
Many critics seem to think the PM need only walk into the party room and remind members of his talents and charisma, but we have yet to see a member of the press gallery challenge (or defend) the doctrine of joint Cabinet responsibility, much less explain what he or she would do given the factional divisions in the party and an election only months away.
Neither do they question the doctrine of party unity, although there is a good case that this is where most of the rot begins. They do, however, regularly criticise politicians for not acting in good conscience and, almost in the next breath, condemn them for failing to understand that dissension means death.
*Max Atkinson is a former teacher at the University of Tasmania Law School with interests in legal theory and and international law.