After the bushfire

As you look back over the past two years in federal politics, I wonder do you feel like the survivors of a devastating bushfire who, with bloodshot eyes and irritated lungs, stand stunned as they survey the smoking ruins of what was there before the inferno?

Do you wonder how such destruction could have been wreaked in such a short time, how just one man and his ‘team’ could have been responsible for lighting so many political fires, and far from trying to extinguish them, deliberately fanned the flames?

We always knew that political fires fascinated him, but how many realized how obsessed with them he really was?

When he displaced Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009, he already had a reputation for lighting political fires. He told us how much he enjoyed being part of a fire crew, but was it the fire itself, rather than putting it out, that fascinated him?

Let me elaborate.

Take ‘border security’, a concept conjured up to make us feel insecure and needing his protection. First there was the invasion. Armadas of leaky fishing boats bearing uninvited intruders from far away lands came in waves to assault our sacred shores, expecting us to welcome them, feed and house them, give them jobs, our jobs, educate their kids, comfort them with welfare. How dare they? “We will decide who comes to our country and the manner of their arrival” was a mantra he had learned long ago. He decided he would be the ruthless enforcer of this valiant doctrine. No matter how cruel he had to be, he would ‘Stop the boats’. And he did. Those that didn’t drown and got through he locked up in offshore detention: men, women and kids, and ‘threw away the key’. Whether such behaviour inflamed the fires of racial discrimination or hatred was irrelevant. He was able to boast, again and again, ‘I stopped the boats’, but the fires he lit among the asylum seekers, their advocates, Muslims and their leaders, and much of the general public burned on, sometimes smoldering, sometimes flaring into a threatening blaze.

But there were even more profound threats that our ‘firefighter’ could use to frighten us. The ISIS fire burst out and from a small blaze threatened to engulf those nearby, in Iraq and Syria. Although we were many thousands of miles away, he insisted that ISIS was ‘coming to get us’. He called them a ‘death cult’, and with his every utterance condemned their barbaric ways. Although acknowledging that their behaviour was a perversion of Islam, he insinuated that Islamic leaders here could do more to prevent young people from following them. He poured fuel onto the gathering conflagration, alienated the very ones whom he needed to quench the flames, and time and again reiterated his inflammatory message, effectively fanning the flames of fear, and even worse, hatred. Then, like the firefighter he insisted he was, he told us he was coming to our rescue with tougher laws to strengthen our borders and put out the fire of radicalization.

Take his first budget. He used a flamethrower to light a fire under the least well off: pensioners, those on low incomes, those receiving welfare, and the entire welfare lobby. They were the ones who would make the sacrifices that would enable him to reach his stated goal of a balanced budget. He insisted it was a dire necessity to ‘repair Labor’s debt and deficit disaster’ and the ‘fiscal emergency’ it had created. He used fire analogies to describe the situation Labor had left behind, reassuring us though that Coalition members were fire fighters and that its fire brigade, manned by ‘grown-up adults’, would come to the rescue and soon have Labor’s fire out!

It was not until his second budget that he acknowledged that the subterranean coals of the fire he had lit with his first were still smoldering, and that he had to do something to quell them. So he brought down a less inflammatory budget with goodies for small business. Suddenly the ‘emergency’ was no longer threatening to burn us all, and we could relax, put down our firefighting equipment, and begin to spend. Few believed this sudden turn around was for any other reason than the adverse polls. How could Labor’s fiscal bushfire, about to consume us all, suddenly disappear for no cogent fiscal reason?

Take the GP co-payment, part of his disastrous first budget. He lit a fire under the poorest in our community and under the medical profession, inflaming antagonism not just among them, but the entire community who saw this imposition, indeed the whole budget, as mean and unfair. The Senate crossbenchers agreed. Even many of his supporters saw it this way. Eventually he attempted to extinguish the blaze for fear of alienating his own. The smoke is still settling, and the embers glow quietly, needing only a modest breeze to fan the flames. He sought other ways of keeping the GP co-payment on the back burner, but time seems to have almost, but not completely, extinguished it.

Take tertiary education. He lit a fire under students at tertiary and secondary levels, and under many academics. Uncertainty, and student concern about their HECS-HELP debts spiraling out of control far into the future, fanned the flames. Student and public anger made him hose that down too, but the embers still threaten to flare with the least provocation.

Take the environment. He fanned the flames of the fires he lit here, there and everywhere among environmentalists and all those citizens who are concerned about global warming. In Beaufort he declared: ‘Climate science is crap’, thereby inflaming climate scientists. He tried later to put out that fire of denial, but never succeeded, such was the insincerity of his efforts.

He added fuel to the fire with: ‘Coal is good for humanity’ and ‘Wind turbines are ugly and cause ill health’. He even boasted that he had restricted the expansion of wind power. He lit a fire under the renewables industry, one that could have expanded onto the global scene. Businessmen and their workers had to lay down their tools. Billions of investment dollars were lost for fear that investors in renewables would be burned.

He was a strong advocate of the Indian-sponsored Adani Carmichael mine in far west Queensland. He inflamed landowners threatened by loss of their land, and environmentalists concerned about the dangers the mine posed to subterranean water and to threatened species. Rather than quell the flames, he accused opponents of the mine of using the law to threaten the project; his Attorney General called it ‘lawfare’. His faithful sycophant Greg Hunt has now approved the mine again despite objections; the fire is burning again. His successor has done nothing to quell the flames of dissent.

Take his multiple broken promises. With each one he lit spot fires among the myriad of people adversely affected by them - in health, in education, in social services, and in the ABC and SBS. And after anointing himself as Minister for Women, he ignored the substantial female talent on his backbench, appointed only one more to his frontbench, and thereby kindled fires of resentment among female politicians, advocates and feminists.

Take his wedging. His favourite political tactic was to wedge his opponents at every opportunity, to make them squirm as he lit political fires around them, hoping to burn them and their political position. Sometimes he did this in anticipation, knowing how much more difficult it is for politicians to achieve an objective with a fire pursuing them. Perhaps his most grotesque attempt at wedging was in March this year when he perverted what is normally an apolitical document, the Intergenerational Report, to deliberately paint Labor as profligate incompetents who were propelling the nation to irredeemable debt.

Even after he was replaced, he tried a back burn from the backbench to unsettle his successor, using his faithful print and radio shock jocks to try to convince the public that he could have won the next election, leaving the question hanging: ‘Why then did the Liberals bother to change their leader at all?’ If he thinks his firefighting prowess will persuade his colleagues that he deserves a second chance, as was afforded Kevin Rudd and now Malcolm Turnbull, he is sadly deluded. Delusion seems to be endemic though, if one can judge from his Treasurer’s valedictory speech. After the way his successor has doused many of the fires he lit, who would be brave enough to risk giving this man with his flamethrower a second go?

The nation is grateful to see the back of the one who has lit so many political fires, fires that have threatened so many. Their eyes are still irritated by the lingering smoke, their lungs still choked by acrid fumes from smoldering embers, their energy sapped by the constant threat of more fires breaking our here, there and everywhere. In a few weeks they have seen how much more comfortable political life is when fires are not deliberately lit, when small fires are quickly extinguished, when fuel reduction burns diminish the threat, when the leader pours water on the flames, not fuel.

After the bushfire, everyone is breathing easier as the threat eases, except of course the fire lighter himself!

What do you think, or more importantly, how do you feel now that the smoke is settling?

We would like to know.

The Turnbull enigma - Part 2

In Part 1 of The Turnbull enigma, we asked whether we might once more see the cavalier, reckless approach with which Turnbull was identified in 2009, and once more witness his lack of due diligence and his tendency to loquaciousness and gobbledygook when confronted with awkward or unfamiliar situations where he was unsure of himself. In this part, we will examine some of the even less desirable characteristics we saw last time around: partisan combat, wedge politics and personal insults. His impatience, his ego, and his recklessness governed his behaviour then. As in the first part of this piece, I will use as a template sections of The Turnbull endgame? published on The Political Sword in August 2009, and intersperse them with comments and questions.

Let’s look at a piece written in November 2008:
The emerging Opposition strategy posted on 13 November, described the strategy being adopted by Turnbull and the Coalition: attacking everything the Government did, criticizing everything Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan proposed, and attacking them personally, labeling them as incompetent and reckless. At the time Crikey’s Bernard Keane said “The risk with Turnbull’s tactics are that they backfire, and create a public impression of a smart-arse, someone who failed to get behind the Government as it tried to manage a global crisis...The risk at the moment is that he cruels his public image before that can happen. Once the public has an image of you, it’s very hard to shake it off. The TPS piece concluded: “So it’s hard to see any logic to Turnbull’s strategy and tactics other than his belief that if he throws enough mud, some will stick, and that by repeatedly attempting to discredit Rudd, Swan and the government generally, he will gain traction, the scales will fall from the voters’ eyes, and he will emerge as the indispensable statesman who can restore Australia to the ‘glory’ of the Howard years. On the other hand, as Keane suggests, his strategy may inflict so much damage on his image that recovery will be difficult, if not impossible. Some are already punting he will not survive as leader to the next election; what he’s now doing may ensure that this becomes a defining prophesy. Unfortunately for him, his impatience, his ego and his determination to use a ‘do whatever it takes’ strategy no matter how politically opportunistic, may be his undoing.

The pattern of Turnbull’s behaviour was becoming clearer."
Here we see the ‘whatever it takes’ approach, about which Annabel Crabb wrote so well in her Quarterly Essay Stop at Nothing. His ruthlessness and opportunism became apparent and threatened his statesmanlike image, yet his ego drove him on.

"The ‘deficit’ wedge posted on 25 November was written when the deficit and debt slogan was launched. The piece concluded “What this amounts to is an opportunistic ploy by the Opposition to wrong-foot and embarrass the Government about the much-talked-about deficit, and to paint it as incapable of sound economic management if it finally does go into deficit for the good of the nation. That the Coalition’s wedge campaign flies in the face of sensible economic management in these troubled times is of no importance to them; political advantage and the wistful hope of winning the next election is all that counts...Since his election to leadership Turnbull has posed as a financial guru, but he has gained no traction in two party preferred terms in the opinion polls...The people don’t seem to be buying his rhetoric...Turnbull needs to be careful that his blatant opportunism doesn’t backfire.”
Here we see Turnbull using pejorative language and wedge tactics to demean and corner the Rudd government, something perhaps we have forgotten about in the intervening years. Will he use the same tactics again?

Let’s examine now how Turnbull played the ‘debt and deficit’ tune:

The November 2008 TPS piece read:
"Turnbull’s benchmarks for failure of 30 November described his three benchmarks for Rudd Government failure: going into a deficit, rising unemployment, and recession. The piece concluded: “Economist after economist, commentator upon commentator agree that under the current economic circumstances a deficit occasioned by a well-targeted fiscal stimulus is necessary to limit the risk of recession. They agree with Rudd and Swan, not with Turnbull. His demand that the Government avoid a deficit, although this would be detrimental to the economy, to jobs, and to the nation, is irresponsible. But will contrary opinion be enough to stop him? Laurie Oakes doesn’t think so. Writing in the 29 November issue of the Daily Telegraph: in ‘Turnbull falls into deficit’ he suggests that even if he is wrong, Turnbull is never in doubt about the correctness of his position. So it’s unlikely Turnbull will change tack – no price is too high for him to achieve political traction. If one can judge from the latest opinion polls, Turnbull is spinning his wheels. He desperately needs traction. But his strategy is risky. The people are watching. When they see through his glib talk, he will be the one who fails.

"The ‘stop at nothing’ pattern was emerging."
Here we see Turnbull’s egotistical ‘I know best’ behaviour, even in the face of dwindling polls. The people were becoming disillusioned. Has Turnbull changed since then? Is he now more sensitive, more attuned to public opinion, more willing to listen to his colleagues? Commentators are watching with interest.

Turnbull's errors continued:
"The 2 December piece Why does Malcolm Turnbull make so many mistakes? concluded: “History may show that Turnbull’s biggest mistakes are underestimating Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan, perpetually insisting they ‘simply don’t understand’ financial or economic matters, consistently condemning their every move, changing his tune whenever it suits him, flying in the face of competent economic intelligence, failing to exercise strong leadership, continuing to make political points at a time of unparalleled financial turmoil and steadily losing credibility as he does, indulging in obfuscation and circumlocution while avoiding answering questions asked by interviewers, and most significantly failing to notice that the people are not behind him.

"Then on 24 February this year [2009] in Malcolm Turnbull’s intelligence it was argued that intelligence was not a uniform trait, and that his clearly demonstrated intelligence in his prior endeavours did not guarantee that he had political intelligence. It was written following Julie Bishop's decision to fall on her sword as shadow treasurer, and when Turnbull was faced with the choice of filling the spot created when he sacked the little-known (right-wing) Cory Bernardi for insulting fellow frontbencher (moderate) Christopher Pyne, and in the process got himself into a mess with his party. The piece concluded “So shall we stop repeating the pointless mantra that ‘Turnbull is highly intelligent’ and then express surprise when he makes elementary political mistakes? Shall we acknowledge that intelligence is not a uniform attribute, and that while Turnbull has intelligence in some areas, he has poorly developed political intelligence, acumen, or judgement, call it what you will. The real question for the Coalition is whether he has the capacity ever to develop it. Or will his universally acknowledged large ego and self-confidence render him incapable of learning from his political mistakes? There’s not much sign of that so far. If the prognosis is as poor as it looks, his party has a very fundamental problem.”
Here we see doubts arising about Turnbull’s undoubted intelligence with questions being asked about whether his intelligence included ‘political intelligence’, whether he possessed the political acumen that politicians require to steer them through the shoals of political life. The question still exists this time around. The people are watching, looking for the answer.

"On 11 April [2009] a piece Why is Malcolm Turnbull so unpopular? began “There’s not much need to emphasize Turnbull’s contemporary unpopularity – it’s all over the air waves and the papers. It takes only a few metrics to quantify it...He leads a Coalition that Possum’s Pollytrack currently shows has an average TPP vote of only 40. Pollytrack shows 60/40 in Labor's favour across several polls, and Pollytrend showing a steady trend away from the Coalition. Turnbull seems to be relying on the economy steadily worsening, unemployment rising towards 10% and with it anger rising too, anger that would be vented in many ways, not least against those in government. Then he believes the people will conclude they have been duped by an incompetent Rudd Government, and that a change back to competent economic managers, the Coalition, is the only solution. Indeed just this week he announced that only when he becomes Prime Minister at the next election would the economy be in safe hands.

"The piece described Turnbull’s Terrible Trifecta: Negativity-Arrogance-Disingenuousness and suggested that instead of the Trifecta, “...another choice for him and the Coalition would be to develop decent policy options and plausible alternatives to Government policy; introduce them modestly rather than insisting they are the only way to go; stick to the facts and avoid deceit. Public respect, now so profoundly lacking, might then be gradually restored. But at the moment Turnbull seems hell-bent on leading his colleagues, like lemmings, right over the cliff. Does he know how close to the edge he is?

"Stop at nothing – Malcolm Turnbull’s fatal flaw? posted on 24 June around the time of the OzCar affair, which is now at its zenith, used Annabell Crabb’s Quarterly Essay to ask if the ‘stop at nothing’ approach was Turnbull’s fatal flaw. It concluded “Many commentators have remarked on Turnbull’s impetuosity, his headlong incautious rush into situations that need careful thought, the absence of the ‘due diligence’ that one might expect of a legal man, his self-confidence and arrogance, and his lack of political nous. The Political Sword has long contended that Turnbull is a barrister, a banker and businessman, but not a politician.

Turnbull-in-a-China-shop posted on 13 July, not surprisingly at the time of the Stern Hu affair, described Turnbull’s insistence that the PM ring the Chinese President Hu Jintao at once and demand that Hu be released immediately, a diplomatically inappropriate move that exposed Turnbull’s poor judgement. It concluded “All this leads us to the question: “Does Malcolm Turnbull’s behaviour over the Hu incident fit him to be Prime Minister of Australia? Does it improve his chances from that of two weeks ago? Or is he behaving, as is usual, like a ‘Turnbull in a China shop’.

"To draw this long piece to an end, should we be surprised at the position in which Turnbull now finds himself? Looking back over a year or more a pattern of behaviour has become clearly apparent.

"Impetuosity, poor political judgement, ruthlessness and self-confidence not matched by political ability, that goes to his character, his integrity and his political wisdom, all of which are now highly questionable.

"Is Turnbull’s endgame upon him? ‘Endgame’ describes the last part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left. That looks like the right word."
The last long quote from The Turnbull endgame? has been left intact to highlight the extent of the adverse feelings and comments at that time. It seems incredible that this man, who now enjoys such public popularity and admiration, is the same one that evoked such adverse feelings and comments six years ago.

Is he the same man but clothed in more alluring cloth? Does he look good now because he strikes such a different image, such a contrast to the disastrous prime minister whom he replaced? Or is he the same old Turnbull as he was then: arrogant, reckless, ruthless, lacking political intelligence and judgement, politically inept and error prone, loquacious, seemingly oblivious to his manifold shortcomings, again running the risk of becoming unpopular with voters?

Only time will be able to answer these questions. He may be a totally reformed man. But it would unwise to assume that.

These two parts of The Turnbull enigma have been written to alert us to what Turnbull once was, to recall what was said and written about him, so that we can watch for the re-emergence of the characteristics and the behaviour that brought him down last time.

For the sake of the nation, which suffered so grievously under the destructive rule of Abbott, we can only hope that we will see a new Turnbull emerge, a balanced statesman and an astute politician who can paint a vibrant and inspiring vision for this nation and guide it to the equitable, peaceful, harmonious, cohesive and prosperous destiny we all desire.

What do you think?

The Turnbull enigma

The Political Sword is featuring a series of pieces that examine our new Prime Minister and ask the questions now in the minds of long time political observers. Has Malcolm Turnbull changed significantly since he was last leader of the LNP in 2009? Has his political orientation changed appreciably? How much is he bound to the policy positions to which he acquiesced in order to become Prime Minister? Has he the same flaws? Will he make the same mistakes? Will he end as he did last time – doing poorly in the polls and finally ejected by his Party? Will we simply see the same old Malcolm Turnbull we once knew so well?

2353 and Ken Wolff are contributing pieces on the main site of The Political Sword that address these questions. Already posted is Pass the Popcorn by 2353; next week there will be Same old, same old by Ken Wolff, followed by another by 2353: Won't be fooled. On TPS Extra, I will post these supplementary pieces. This is the first of two.

It is salutary to look back at what was written during Turnbull’s last time as Opposition Leader, one that extended for just over a year from September 2008 to December 2009.

There is a lot of goodwill around for Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. Many wish him well. For the sake of the nation they look forward to a period of strong, visionary prime ministership after the two years of disastrous administration at the hands of Tony Abbott. So much has been written about the destructiveness and incompetence of Abbott and the ineptitude of his government, that there is no need to elaborate here.

The idea behind these pieces is not to embark on a derogatory process aimed at eroding support for Turnbull and his government. Rather, the intention is to refresh memories of how Turnbull performed last time around, the mistakes he made, the personality flaws that became apparent, and how it ended for him, so that observers can examine his contemporary behaviour, attitudes and performance in the light of his past, and answer the key question: “Is Turnbull now a political operator who is significantly different from the Turnbull we knew six years ago?”, and “If so how?” For he would need to be radically different to sustain the public support he now has, and enjoy the continuing confidence of the 54 Liberals who voted him in.

I have selected as a template a piece I wrote in August 2009 that was titled: The Turnbull endgame?. Within four months, Abbott had replaced him. I have chosen that piece because it is heavily referenced with fifteen links to other pieces and articles, links that will enable the historian to explore Turnbull’s many missteps, flaws and foibles that led to his downfall. (Note that if you are not a subscriber to News Limited, some of the links may not work.) Renewing awareness of his past will enable observers to focus their attention on addressing 2353's and Ken Wolff’s questions.

I will replicate sections of The Turnbull endgame? below, and intersperse them with comments and questions. Because The Turnbull enigma is quite long, I will present it in two parts several days apart.

Let’s begin at the beginning of The Turnbull endgame? published on 6 August 2009.
"The Australian today abounds with talk of replacing Malcolm Turnbull as Coalition leader. Dennis Shanahan and Matthew Franklin wrote a piece Desperate Liberals look to replace Turnbull with Robb, and Shanahan has a blog: It's a loser or the last man standing. The sixty comments are pretty evenly divided between support for making a change and leaving Turnbull there as Robb would be no better. Jack the Insider has a blog Turnbull artistry no match for the numbers, which concludes “...that the hard heads in the Coalition will soon reach the view, if they have not already done so, that the continued existence of the Liberal Party depends on a change in leadership." Jack did not canvass Robb as an alternative. Most of the 240 respondents, even those with Liberal leanings, agreed that a change was necessary.
Shanahan and Franklin conceded that it was the OzCar affair and Godwin Grech’s admission that he had faked the email that accused Prime Minister Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan of seeking financial advantage from a supporter, a car dealer who loaned Rudd a ute, along with his refusal to apologise to Rudd and Swan, which finally undid Turnbull. They went on to say: "Concerned about an election massacre, Liberal MPs and strategists are now considering a "plan b" in which a new leader would lose "less badly" than Mr Turnbull, who is trailing the Prime Minister by 50 percentage points as preferred leader.” Sound familiar!

Here we have one of the most significant pointers to how Turnbull will be judged. Will he exhibit the same cavalier, risky behaviour; will he accuse his opponents or make rash statements without having undertaken due diligence? Will he be taken in by another devious informer, as he was with Grech? Or will he be prudent, careful, wise and circumspect in his language and actions? If not, will he meet the same fate as last time, from which there could be no return?

Let's continue with The Turnbull endgame?
”The Political Sword has long maintained that while Malcolm Turnbull was an accomplished journalist, barrister, businessman and banker, he was not a politician and would have difficulty in the political milieu.

“On 19 September last year [2008] in Will the real Malcolm Turnbull please stand up? it was argued that after starting so promisingly when he entered parliament, when this independent thinker and decision-maker was being forced uncomfortably into a political mould as a Howard Government minister, his authority faded and he became less convincing. He seemed to not have his heart in what he was saying.

“Then The Turnbull Report Card 10 days in posted on 26 September soon after he became leader, after acknowledging his pluses, concluded ”...where he falls short is when he is not on his favoured turf, when he’s challenged with uncomfortable facts, when he attempts to advocate causes in which he does not have his heart, and when he has to defend untenable positions. As political life abounds with such circumstances, unless he can overcome this flaw, he will have difficulty convincing the people of the merit of his approach and his capacity to manage a nation beset with many contemporary challenges and complexities. Leading a nation is so much more complex and demanding, so different from life at the bar and managing a merchant bank.”

"Then in Malcolm’s at it again posted on 15 October when he was beginning to qualify his support initially given to the first Rudd Government stimulus package, he began to sound less persuasive, became circumlocutory, and arguably lost his audience. The piece concluded: “Kim Beasley was criticized for his prolixity, and unable to overcome it, eventually people stopped listening. Indeed this was a major factor behind the move to replace him as leader. Leaders who lose their audience – Beasley and Howard are examples - lose elections. Turnbull’s minders would be wise to point out this defect to him, and try to rectify it, always providing Malcolm’s ego will tolerate such a move."

"To quibble or not to quibble posted the next day when Turnbull again quibbled about his support for the stimulus, concluded: “As said so many times in this blog, when Turnbull does his own thing and promotes his own views, he looks impressive and sounds authentic; but as soon as he’s forced to toe the party line, he loses his lustre and becomes an ordinary politician...When will the Coalition learn? When will they realize that sometimes it’s better not to quibble.”
You can see a theme emerging. Last time around, when he was unsure of his position, he began to waffle. He wandered around the subject, trying to use his loquacious barrister-speak to get himself out of a difficult position or answer an awkward question. As he did so, he became less convincing and lost the attention of his audience.

Are there signs of circumlocution already emerging? Given that he has just entered his fifth week of prime ministership, and has had to face a variety of challenging questions, people will cut him some slack, but if this phenomenon re-emerges he cannot expect his political opponents, journalists, or for that matter the voters, to give him much leeway. This will especially be the case among those who voted against him at the leadership ballot.

Watch this aspect of his behaviour carefully to see if he has identified his tendency to circumlocution, to talk gobbledygook when unsure of himself, or when uncertain of what answer he should give. He would need to recognize this defect and practise being more certain in his language, more definite in his opinions. So far he has been confident when speaking of Australia’s need to be ‘innovative’, ‘agile’ and ‘creative’, and to take advantage of emerging technologies and opportunities. He sounds convincing when he uses well rehearsed lines such as : “We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, that volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.” It is his ‘off the cuff’ remarks that are less convincing. They will let him down if he is careless in his language.

The next excerpt from The Turnbull endgame?, which will appear on TPS Extra shortly in The Turnbull enigma - Part 2, will describe Turnbull’s strident criticism of the Rudd government and the negativity he exhibited towards its attempts to manage the turmoil created by the GFC. His impatience, his ego, and his recklessness governed his behaviour then. Will we see it emerge again?

What do you think?

The man who mistook his Party for a toy

When Oliver Sacks wrote about ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’, he was describing the clinical manifestation of a neurological disorder that goes by the name of visual agnosia, where there is impairment of visual recognition of objects, in some cases recognition of faces, which however is not due to deficits in vision, language or memory, or low intellect. It has a more complex neurological cause.

Our recently departed prime minister does not suffer from visual agnosia, but he does seem to have many persistent ‘blind spots’, perceptual defects that have become even more obvious as he does his post hoc rounds of accommodating radio outlets trying to validate his and his government’s performance, making the case that he was unfairly toppled by a bunch of malcontents bent upon personal advancement.

We ought not to be surprised that he has done this, as he has been known as a sore loser since his early days in university politics. When, immediately after his loss of leadership to Malcolm Turnbull, he promised that: ‘There will be no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping’, sceptics were disbelieving. They were right to question his genuineness.

Despite his widely publicised assurances of gentlemanly behaviour, he was soon in the comforting arms of Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones, and more recently Neil Mitchell, lamenting his loss, complaining about self seeking plotters and subterranean plots to unseat him and replace him with his arch-rival, whose name he refuses to utter. He believes he has been hardly done by and unfairly treated, and the sycophantic bunch of shock jocks he chose to press his case, reinforced this belief. They gave him no incentive to reflect honestly on his fate; instead they shored up his blind spots, accentuated his political agnosia - the inability to interpret political events and situations - and hence have not assisted him to recognize his shortcomings. Abbott’s comments to these shock jocks have received wide press, so much so that only the politically disinterested would be unaware of them.

Whilst it is unsurprising that he feels aggrieved and hurt, and therefore feels entitled to complain publically, and while some are prepared to show some understanding of his distress, and as Mathias Cormann said, willing ‘to cut him some slack’, such latitude does not address what seems to have been Abbott’s longstanding central problem: lack of insight into what is acceptable behaviour, what is reasonable action, what is fair and sensible policy, and what is constructive communication. His political demise, heralded via death by a thousand cuts over many months that concluded with a speedy execution in just six hours from woe to go, seemed to come to him as a surprise. This is a startling measure of his lack of insight.

Abbott mistook his Party for a plaything – a toy to be played with at his discretion. His multiple and deeply flawed ‘captain’s picks’: his now defunct PPL; his selection of Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker and his protracted defence of her; and his knighting of Prince Philip, immediately spring to mind. No consultation, no insight into the likely effects. The LNP was his toy, and he and his Chief of Staff felt entitled to play with it autocratically, in any way they wished.

He also saw it as a toy with which to play his ideological games. His first budget, built on a spurious ‘debt and deficit disaster’ narrative, was punitive to the less well off, yet easy on the top end of town. It was an expression of his neoliberal belief in free markets, ‘trickle down’ economics, the ‘end of the age of entitlement’, the need to slash spending no matter who suffered, and the imperative of ‘a balanced budget’. He seemed to be blind to the well-reasoned arguments of even-handed economists who repeatedly discounted the trickle down theory, who insisted that our nation had a revenue problem, not just a spending one, and who countered his obsession with having a balanced federal budget.

These ideological blind spots are not unique to Abbott. Just listen to Cory Bernardi. Just listen to his colleagues who deal with finance. The newly minted Treasurer Scott Morrison is still denying that we have a revenue problem, and is pushing for tax cuts, which will result in less revenue.

Where Abbott seems to be away with the fairies is when he insists that his was such a ‘good government’ that ‘stopped the boats’ and ‘axed the taxes’, as if that was all that a good government needed to do. He still insists, as ‘the infrastructure prime minister’ that he embarked on massive infrastructure endeavours. Yet the data shows that less is being spent on infrastructure since the Coalition took office than was during Labor’s time. He can take credit for concluding free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China, but do you ever hear him acknowledge that it was Labor that carried out the groundwork? When the sum total of Abbott’s ‘good government’ is totted up, there is not much to show that validates his wild assertions. Does he really believe his own words? Or is this yet more Abbott hyperbole?

He blames Labor and the cross benches for holding up many measures in the Senate, yet has no insight into the reasons: the flawed policies he presented and the poor communication skills he used in attempting to ‘sell’ them.

Abbott mistook his Party for a toy. He can’t understand why he can’t throw his toys around the room and play with them his way; he lacks the skill to encourage others to treat them with care. So they have said to him: ‘we don’t like your toys, and we won’t play’.

He still insists that his government was so well regarded that despite his own unpopularity, he would have won the next election if only his Party had kept him as leader. He cited Liberal Party polling that ‘showed that the LNP would have easily won Canning’, and asserted that this is why the saboteurs moved quickly before the by-election date. He seems to be comfortable blithely discounting thirty consecutive losing Newspoll results, and many other poor polls, still insisting that his adult, grown-up government had been doing a great job, and deserved to be re-elected with him at the helm.

Abbott mistook his Party for a plaything, a ventriloquist’s toy that he could manipulate for his own ends. But the people stopped listening to his babble.

And from what has transpired since Abbott’s downfall, it seems that many of his colleagues have also stopped listening. One by one they have come out to agree that he needed to be replaced because he was not ‘cutting through’, and was steadily becoming discredited in the electorate, even ridiculed. Some have tried to be kind to him, but their message has been unmistakable – he had to go. He was becoming the butt of social media jokes, derogatory cartoons and media ridicule. Yet he seemed to be either unaware of this or unwilling to accept the validity of these views, and how they reflected the feelings and attitudes of the wider public, which sighed with collective relief when he was toppled.

His sheer ruthlessness has also been exposed. He mistook his Party for a toy, his toy, to be used as a plaything as he desired. In a desperate attempt to save his own skin, he was prepared, to use Morrison’s words, to throw his good mate Joe Hockey, who had stood by him so loyally as Treasurer, ‘under a bus’, and give the prized toy to Morrison. He is said to have offered Julie Bishop’s job to Morrison too. Of course Abbott has refuted Morrison’s claim. Believe whom you will.

To me, the most astonishing facet of Abbott’s behaviour long before his exit, and even more so afterwards, has been his lack of insight, his political agnosia, or his ‘tin ear’ as some would have it. Does he really have political agnosia at a pathological level, such that like Oliver Sacks’ patient who mistook his wife for a hat, he has no insight into his political blindness? Or is this apparent lack of insight simply a compensatory psychological mechanism closely related to denial, one that Abbott has engaged to protect his ego from the awful truth: that he was an abject failure as a prime minister and as leader of his Party, and such a disappointment to all those who supported him to gain power?

Fundamental to his downfall was the fact that he mistook his Party for a toy, a plaything to amuse him and achieve his ends. Fatally, he lacked insight into his own behaviour. It was his political agnosia that finally brought him down, and seemingly still bedevils him.

What do you think?