One of my greatest bugbears is getting off trains during peak period. As you’re trying to get off the train when it arrives at your station, there’s always a crush of passengers at the platform pushing to get on. If only they could wait until passengers got off the train, I always think, there’d be more room for them and easier for them to get on. It would be more orderly and, instead of trying to defy the laws of physics, they’d be saving time. But, no, they’re impatient and, I’d even go so far to suggest that they lack one critical aspect: judgement.
In the haste to get onto that train, they’ll push and barge, desperate to get that last surviving seat or, at least get onto that train, lest it disappears into the ether and they’re left behind, contemplating whether the next train will arrive in three or eight minutes. But, trains being trains, will wait until this exchange is complete: the train waits until all people that want to get off, are off, and all those people wanting to get on, are on. Whether it’s an orderly process, or chaotic, the train waits.
The behaviour of the media has reminded me of this chaos, ever since Malcolm Turnbull ousted Tony Abbott to become Australia’s 29th Prime Minister on 15 September. He’s number 29, but he may as well be number one, so enamoured is the media with him.
The media has seamlessly moved from the being the self-appointed sycophants when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister, to the self-appointed new Praetorian Guard of Malcolm Turnbull: guileless, defensive, fashionable, and prepared to fend away any criticism of the leader. This new Praetorian Guard is everywhere to be seen: we see it at the ABC, we see it at Fairfax media and, from an institution that should know better, The Guardian.
The reporting of Turnbull’s recent overseas ‘whirlwind tour’ by The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy is gushing journalism at its worst. Not only is the journalist embedded with the Prime Minister’s entourage, but embeds herself into the story.Less gushing, but who should also know better is Lenore Taylor, also at The Guardian. For Taylor, ‘intelligence’ again seems to be the key.
Also in The Guardian’s fantasy land is Osman Faruqi, who seems to feel that charm is far more preferable than policies of substance, and asking ‘why would Australians trust a former union boss [Bill Shorten] who smells like shady deals rather than an actual entrepreneur when it comes to startups and innovation policy?’.That’s a good one—where is this evidence of being ‘an actual entrepreneur’? Turnbull had the good fortune to invest in OzEmail and sell at the right time. He’s not an entrepreneur like, say Dick Smith, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. ‘Innovation policy’? Excuse me? Again, where is this evidence of ‘innovation policy’. That’s right, it doesn’t exist, unless you consider a few door-stop interviews discussing start-ups to be evidence of ‘policy’.
Another sucked into Turnbull’s charm offensive is Marius Benson at the ABC—his story titled ‘Voting for Mr T’is filled with repetitive gloating about the character of the new Prime Minister: “Turnbull just glided seamlessly into the post and set about gently adjusting the pulleys and levers of power to nudge the ship of state into new directions. Anything but daunted”.
This really is terrible journalism and signs off with: “he [Turnbull] looks good for two or three election wins from here”. Really? Why two or three? Why not four? Or one? Or seven? Critical analysis or just a hunch?
Also in the vortex and ushering in ‘a new era’is the ABC’s Barry Cassidy—although his more recent articles have shown more sensibility—and the even more seasoned journalists such as Paul Bongiorno have joined the caravan, defending another journalist in a Twitter spat (who was chastised for being too fawning) by replying: “So to recognise intelligent leadership is fawning! Utterly pathetic”.
There are many more that could be mentioned here (ABC’s 7.30 is a serial offender—no wonder former ABC presenter Kerry O’Brien decided to leave this sorry saga of a broadcaster behind) but my favourite for the most obsequious piece of journalism for the year (and possibly the decade) goes to (among very tough competition) Elizabeth Farrelly’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald,for claiming that Malcolm Turnbull will “be our longest-serving PM since Robert Menzies” and how “it is such a relief to have a leader who uses intelligence to connect with the rest of us”. Mmm. No mention of any of Turnbull’s many failures, which we’ll get to shortly. Be patient! Show some judgement!
I’ve only selected a few samples here, but you get the picture—it’s hard to avoid reading in print or on screen, or seeing on our televisions, or listening through radios—anything but blind gushing gonzo journalistic praise of Malcolm Turnbull, and it’s largely devoid of analytic perspective, or context of real political issues.
This sentiment is akin to groupies following a pop star, like courtiers waiting on every word, not quite like bumbling jesters from an early episode of Black Adder, but very close:
Increasing the GST by 50 per cent to 15 per cent GST? Don’t worry about that, we have an intelligent Prime Minister!…
…No fines for companies that fail to fulfill their superannuation obligations? Oh, come on, we now have a beautiful looking Prime Minister: he’s so good looking!…
…Inappropriate investments in the Cayman Islands? You disgust me, how dare you question the Prime Minister’s grand intentions!…
…Direct Action is still in place? Who cares, look at those loins… I want to bite them!
It’s a pity Gerard Henderson never heeds his own advice, but he recently did complain on ABC’s Insiders that he’d ‘never seen so much fawning about a new Prime Minister’, not since Gough Whitlam… ‘journalists are not meant to be barrackers’. Too right, Gerard and it’s hard to disagree on this occasion.
And all this sycophancy takes politics to a dangerous place, where personalities become more important for journalists to report on, rather than assessing, dissecting and analysing the real policies that affect real people. In other words, where the real politics exists. It could be argued that political reporting has always been based on the personalities that make up and play the game, but this has reached a new low.
So, why does this new level of fawning exist, and why this grand push to let the public know how ‘intelligent’ Malcolm Turnbull supposedly is? Shouldn’t we expect all of our prime ministers to be ‘intelligent’? I can’t recall much discussion in the media about Julia Gillard’s intelligence (oh, that’s right: better to talk about what she’s wearing, or about yet another moronic teenager throwing a Vegemite sandwich at her during a school visit).
Of course, it’s the old practice of political journalism: write the good stuff, journalist gets the access, and continues to get the leads, the stories—which keeps them in their jobs. That’s the way it has always been but more and more, the public interest has taken the back seat and, like a tragic opera, the interplay between personalities and infotainment has become paramount. But it’s much much more than that.
In her recent Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia: How we forgot to govern, Fairfax journalist Laura Tingle bemoans the loss of corporate memory within the public service when governments change and implement their respective versions of the ‘night of the long knives’, and the related issue of the cultural and political amnesia of mainstream journalists.
I’d also add that political journalists have become oblivious to their own inanity and partisanship, almost as though they’ve watched too many episodes of the US television series, The West Wing, and writing about political pantomime in the style of television scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin is a fiction far better to believe that what’s really happening on the ground.
So, what should the media be reporting? Instead of posting what they think Turnbull should be or could be, based on figments of the imagination (or attempting to conflate the fiction of The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet with the fiction of Malcolm Turnbull), what about writing about what he actually is?
Next time a journalist claims Malcolm Turnbull is ‘intelligent’, remind them of his track record, which shows anything but intelligence and, most importantly, a severe lack of judgement.
Let’s start in 2008.
Malcolm Turnbull was a disaster as Leader of the Opposition during 2008–2009. There’s no denying this. To get to the position, he hounded the previously elected leader of the Liberal Party, Brendan Nelson, on a regular basis, calling on him to ‘muscle up’ and ‘toughen up’, or resign.
When Nelson finally resigned and Turnbull became leader, Turnbull simply wasn’t up to the job. He overcooked his case. He was impatient. He lacked judgement. He had no reading of the character of Godwin Grech, the public servant at the centre of the OzCar affair who provided fabricated emails alleging Labor Party corruption, and was guided through this debacle by Senator Eric Abetz, a gormless conservative political partisan who brings little talent or skill to Parliament. To believe that he could bring down the Rudd government based on flimsy evidence (and, as it turned out, false evidence) from an ill and sad lightweight Treasury official says a lot about Turnbull’s political judgement.
When he was ousted by the Liberal Party in late 2009, he was only preferred by 14 per cent of the electorate to be Prime Minister, and had the Liberal–National Party battling at 43 per cent of the two party preferred vote (Newspoll 27–29 November, 2009).
I can see that there wasn’t much intelligence or judgement then.
The return of Blinky Bill
The Australian republic referendum in 1999, complete with recalling Blinky Bill (yes, Blinky Bill!) as the campaign’s mascot (why a political campaign needs a mascot was never fully explained, but Turnbull did state that Blinky Bill is ‘quintessentially Australian’), was another political disaster and resulted in a sound defeat—54.87 per cent of the electorate voted ‘No’, and the vote was not carried in any state (ACT voted 63 per cent in favour of becoming a republic, but being a territory, it doesn’t register).
Turnbull was president of the Australian Republican Movement and spearheaded the campaign. This was more evidence of Turnbull’s poor political skills—an issue that had clear support within the community at the time, but one which Turnbull allowed to be hijacked by the Direct Election camp, stubbornly refusing to consider any possibility of a direct election of a republican president, even though 80 per cent of people in polls said they would only support a republic if they could vote directly for the president.
Subsequently, Turnbull blamed then Prime Minister Howard for the defeat and said: “history will remember him [Howard] for one thing. He was the Prime Minister who broke this nation’s heart”. No, it wasn’t Howard, it was Turnbull’s intransigence, stubbornness and lack of ability to understand what was required to bring about the republic in Australia. If 80 per cent of electors preferred to directly vote for the president, rather that having the president appointed by two-thirds majority of the Parliament, then Turnbull should have worked towards this model, and codified the powers of the president to achieve this. Mathematical and political logic suggests that in this case, give the people what they want. But he didn’t.
Not much intelligence or judgement here either and this defeat in 1999 pushed the republican cause back by 20–30 years.
Old copper the way of Turnbull’s internet future
Not enough people in the electorate understand the difference between fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), and the difference between the plans presented by Labor and the Coalition at the 2013 federal election. If they did, Malcolm Turnbull would have been hounded out of office by now. To be sure, the National Broadband Network was a political mess that was passed onto Turnbull. I say a ‘political mess’, because Labor in office never effectively prosecuted the case for the importance of the NBN (understandable, since they were more intent on removing Kevin Rudd and consigning themselves to the Opposition benches again, than concentrating fully on promoting their policies). Technically though, and as a technological and social service, it was the correct path and correct project to build and, when completed, would put Australia on the same trajectory as South Korea, currently the country with the fastest broadband speeds in the world. It would replace copper wiring with fibre, however, at a huge cost—$90 billion in 2013 terms.
Turnbull’s management of the NBN as Minister for Communications was to introduce a hybrid of existing copper wiring, replacing some old copper wiring, and introducing fibre-to-the-node. It’s likely the entire network of copper wiring will have to be replaced at some point in the near future, meaning a government of the future will have to embark on this project again.
There is a perception of Malcolm Turnbull being a champion of the corporate world and private sector entrepreneurship, but the management of the NBN project under his watch has been another disaster. Fortunately for Turnbull, the technical literacy of the electorate is not high, and it’s hard to measure the political cost of something (such as super-fast broadband) that people don’t have as yet, and are unaware of what the technological benefits could be in the future.
During the 2013 election campaign, Tony Abbott introduced Malcolm Turnbull as ‘the man who virtually invented the internet in Australia’(yes, he actually said that, quite a few times).
Of course, Turnbull did no such thing—there’s a massive difference between being an investor (which is what Turnbull was with OzEmail) and having a firm understanding of technology. Just because Turnbull is adept at managing his HTC phone, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and knows which buttons he needs to press on his iPad (along with millions of other Australians), it doesn’t mean that he knows anything more about the internet than you or I.
Someone who ‘virtually invented the internet in Australia’ ended his tenure as Minister for Communications as the man who virtually destroyed the internet in Australia.
No sign of intelligence or judgement here either.
Nothing stands in the way of Malcolm
Intelligent? How about being an outright bastard, opportunist and prepared to knock out anything and anyone standing in his way, including an internationally respected Palestinian politician?
It would be interesting to hear Peter King’s perspective on Malcolm Turnbull. In 2003, King was the sitting Liberal member in the seat of Wentworth, and after being told by Turnbull to “fuck off and get out of my way”(strangely similar words to the ones that Turnbull kindly mentioned to Brendan Nelson in 2008—you can see that there’s a pattern forming here), suffered a political assassination at the hands of Turnbull and lost his preselection for the 2004 election—despite an unwritten protocol that sitting members of the Liberal Party should not be challenged in preselections.
The Turnbulls (yes, Turnbull’s wife Lucy, then Lord Mayor of Sydney, joined in the political attack as well)were out of control, doing whatever they could to win the seat of Wentworth, even going to the great effort of attacking and denigrating the recipient of that year’s Sydney Peace Prize, Palestinian academic, international human rights activist, and politician, Dr Hanan Ashrawi, to receive preselection favour from the large Jewish enclave that reside in the seat of Wentworth.
Ambition? Yes. Dignity and judgment? No evidence here. Perhaps if journalists could recover their memories, this sordid event could be replayed whenever Turnbull ever brings out the ‘international statesman’ card, or offers commentary on the Israel–Palestinian question.
Now, for all of this critique, Malcolm Turnbull could turn out to be a great Prime Minister. And, there’s always a possibility that he could become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Australia’s history, in the same way that anyone in Australia could. Admittedly, he would have a much better chance than you or I, but it’s still very unlikely. Elizabeth Farrelly decreed that Turnbull would become the longest-serving Prime Minister since Robert Menzies (yes, I’ll have what she’s having).
For this to occur, he’d have to remain Prime Minister until early 2027 (when he’d surpass John Howard’s 11 years and 267 days) and win the next four elections—he’d be pushing the age of 73, also making him the oldest serving Prime Minister in our history. In another fit of blind mindlessness, Farrelly also suggested that Turnbull could even surpass Menzies, meaning that he’d have to remain in office until 2034 (at the age of 80). To me, it seems like silly conversations at an eastern suburbs journalists’ soiree after a few too many drinks has ended up in the pages of a major newspaper. And, unfortunately, presented as serious political journalism.
The old Labor turncoat, former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, remained as a member of Parliament until the age of 90 (he died in office in 1951), but politics today is predominantly not the domain of the aged. To get a picture of decreasing levels of effectiveness in politics, look at Phillip Ruddock now, resembling a walking cadaver, to get an idea of how politics ages people. He’s currently 72 and the only reason why he’s still in politics is because he hasn’t got anything better to do with his time—certainly, his local Amnesty International branch wouldn’t be keen to take him in.
Aside from the issue of events that are outside of anyone’s control (remembering that although Robert Menzies was Prime Minister for 17 continuous years in his second stint—between 1949 and 1966—he almost lost the 1954 and 1961 elections. John Howard almost lost the 1998 election, and was seriously behind in the polls for most of the 1998–2001 period, before winning the infamous 2001 ‘Tampa election’), it’s impossible to predict what will happen next month in the world of politics, let alone the events of 2027 (or even 2034).
How will the wets–dries dynamic in the Liberal Party play out? Will there be a 2016 Budget before the next election and what will be the outcome of this? What about the hopelessly out-of-depth team behind Turnbull? The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, wouldn’t know Budget papers from a Mills & Boon novel, yet he’s the one with the finances in his hands. Christian Porter? A wannabe from the West Australia Parliament who has been earmarked as leadership material, but hasn’t handled the transition from state to federal politics very well. They might not be competent, but they have grand ambitions to be leader. Ian McFarlane has defected to the National Party—are there any more to come? If Turnbull’s ratings plummet, will we see a rerun of the Kevin Rudd disasters?
These are all questions that nobody knows the answers to, except for those sagacious media journalists who believe they hold the fount of all wisdom.
Certainly, Malcolm Turnbull presents as national leader in a way that Tony Abbott never could. We don’t feel the cringe or the same embarrassment when Abbott demanded world leaders at the G20 Forum address each other by their first names, or when he gave benign and meaningless economic statements, or endless megaphone-mouthing about ‘death cults’. That is a welcome change. But, Turnbull has been in office for less than three months. Three months! Aside from a change in what journalists love to call ‘atmospherics’, there have been no new policies, and all of the much despised agenda from the Abbott government is still in place. Now, that may be removed, but we don’t know as yet. Turnbull’s leadership was based on the commitment that there would be no change to climate change policy (including the largely wasteful and ineffective Direct Action plan), or to the Liberal Party position on same-sex marriage legislation, which is to hold a national plebiscite to amend the Marriage Act (incidentally, a change to the Act to permit same-sex marriage doesn’t require a plebiscite and can be amended by a vote in Parliament).
Mainstream journalists have a great national responsibility. Except for the people working closely with political leaders, most electors receive their political information through reporters, journalists and news editors, and form their political opinions through the presentation of this information. The community was badly let down by the media during Tony Abbott’s leadership. The man was obviously a foolish leader and totally unsuited to the position of Prime Minister. Despite this, he was supported by friends in the media and largely escaped scrutiny until close to the end of his departure. Turnbull, while he is a vast improvement on Tony Abbott, is still evading the type of scrutiny that inevitably surrounds Labor leaders, most notably during Julia Gillard’s tenure. If, Malcolm Turnbull is so clever, why do journalists feel the need to keep pointing this out? So they can acquire this intelligence through osmosis? So that people gloss over his disasters in previous stages of his political career?
And how long will the scrutiny be set aside? Already, the tentacles of the Turnbulls are starting to encroach, much like the Underwoods in the US television series, House of Cards. Lucy Turnbull has been appointed as head of the NSW Government’s new Greater Sydney Commission. Sure, Lucy Turnbull should be her own woman but, already, we’re seeing the overreach of the Turnbulls. There’s gushing praise for everything the Turnbulls do, but who will the first journalist with the courage to stand up to them when things start to go wrong? Will they be screamed down, in the same way Dr Hanan Ashrawi was, when she appeared as an obstacle to Malcolm Turnbull’s entry into federal Parliament?
I never had a great opinion of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister: I feel that she was in the position before her time and could have been a much greater Prime Minister at a later time, perhaps another two or three years after the point that she actually become Prime Minister in 2010. However, she performed as well as she possibly could under the circumstances of a hung Parliament and I don’t think any other contemporary Prime Minister could have survived for as long as she did—certainly not Tony Abbott. Compare the sexist diatribes, personal attacks, and relentless media pressure that Gillard was placed under, with the Hollywood-style fan-fiction kid-glove treatment of Turnbull—the gap is so great that we may as well be comparing reporting that might appear on a subterranean crevice on planet Mars.
In response to a question in 2011 from Channel 7’s political reporter Mark Riley about the responsibility of the media and media ethics, Gillard simply responded by suggesting a good starting point would be to “stop writing crap”. It can’t be any clearer than that.
The Turnbull government meandered for the rest of 2015. Riding high in the polls, and the media on tap to report every move in a positive light, Malcolm Turnbull would have expected this to continue into 2016. But momentum is everything in politics and Turnbull became complacent, firing off policy ideas into every direction and expecting the media to run with these ideas, no matter how foolish they seemed. But the public wasn’t fooled, and Turnbull’s star started to wane from February 2016. Turnbull was surprisingly inarticulate about many things and it seemed that he was not the man the public expected, but a hostage to the conservative wing of the Liberal–National Party.
1 Katharine Murphy, The Guardian, ‘Presidents, planes – and Paris. Inside the whirlwind of Malcolm Turnbull’s first world tour’, 20 November 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/nov/20/presidents-planes-and-paris-inside-the-whirlwind-of-malcolm-turnbulls-first-world-tour
2 Lenore Taylor, The Guardian, ‘Labor’s leadership dilemma as Turnbull’s star burns bright’, 30 November 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/oct/30/leadership-a-study-of-contrasts
3 Osman Faruqi, The Guardian, ‘Turnbull’s unstoppable charm can’t be beaten – only bypassed’, 29 October 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/29/turnbulls-unstoppable-charm-cant-be-beaten-only-bypassed
4 Marius Benson, ABC News, ‘Turnbull settles into his most acclaimed role yet’, 20 November 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-20/benson-turnbull-settles-into-his-most-acclaimed-role-yet/6957220
5 Barry Cassidy, ABC News, ‘Welcome to the new, positive era of Australian politics. No really’, 20 November 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-20/cassidy-welcome-to-the-new,-positive-era-of-australian-politics/6956820
6 Elizabeth Farrelly, Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Why Malcolm Turnbull will be our longest-serving PM since Robert Menzies’, 25 November 2015. http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-malcolm-turnbull-will-be-our-longestserving-pm-since-robert-menzies-20151125-gl7dy2.html
8 Brett Evans, Inside Story, ‘The Battle For Wentworth’, 19 September 2015. http://insidestory.org.au/the-battle-for-wentworth
9 Alan Ramsey, Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Here’s Lucy, caving in, taking flight’, 25 October 2003. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/10/24/1066974313719.html