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Malcolm Turnbull anniversary: One year on, another leadership tragedy could be unfolding

Many have concluded Malcolm Turnbull simply wanted the job of prime minister more than he wanted to implement an agenda. Photo: Sanghee Liu Malcolm Turnbull faces dangers at every turn. Photo: Nic Walker

The big question after Malcolm Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott, this time last year, was simple enough: what did the new Prime Minister plan to do with the opportunity and the power he had seized?

In the weeks after the coup, there was an avalanche of advice on how to spend his seemingly bottomless bucket of political capital, from making big symbolic gestures to backing radical reforms. “Use it or lose it,” was the mantra.

Turnbull’s response was to bristle at the impatience of those who expected prompt action on the causes they assumed he would champion, from gay marriage and global warming to economic reform and injecting a dose of humanity into Abbott’s harsh border protection regime.

He was going to weigh the pros and cons of propositions very carefully, came the response, and consult widely before taking decisions. This would be a traditional cabinet government.

But the longer not much was seen to happen, the more disillusioned his supporters became.

What many took time to appreciate was the extent to which Turnbull had committed himself to Abbott policies to secure the support of conservatives in his cabinet and on his backbench.

When the penny dropped, many concluded Turnbull had simply wanted the job more than he wanted to implement an agenda.

But there was another factor that shaped Turnbull’s initial period in power and it went to the last time he was leader of the Liberal Party, when his impatience, impetuosity and arrogance alienated his colleagues. This time he was going to be more inclusive.

“He let the hares run, but let them run for too long,” says one colleague.

Now the political capital bucket is near empty and many of those who invested so much hope and optimism in the Turnbull ascension fear they are witnessing the unfolding of a tragedy as epic as the one that destroyed the careers of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

It is, of course, utterly premature to predict Turnbull’s downfall, not least because of the absence of a challenger, but there can be no doubting the level of cynicism and disappointment in the electorate, or the potential for sudden upheavals.

There will be no round of media interviews to mark Wednesday’s anniversary of Turnbull’s first year in power. Rather, the occasion will be seized upon by critics to chronicle the missteps (and there have been quite a number) and to highlight the absence of achievements.

Already, at the prompting of Andrew Bolt, Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin and the media-shy Jeff Kennett have struggled to nominate a single success, aside from winning the election by a whisker.

That is unfair, given the likelihood of defeat had Abbott remained in power, but the common temptation is to compare Turnbull’s standing now with his own standing in the first few months, rather than Abbott’s before the challenge.

As veteran poll analyst John Stirton puts it: “Mr Turnbull is less popular now than any prime minister starting their second term for the last 40 years – less popular than Paul Keating (who was thrashed at the next election); less popular than Julia Gillard (who was torn down by the man she deposed, Rudd).

“Across the spectrum, few people are happy,” says Stirton. “For conservative voters, Mr Turnbull is the outsider, the leftie who should never have been given the job in the first place. For progressive voters, he is the great disappointment, stymied by the right wing of his party and captive to the deals he made to unseat Abbott.”

It wasn’t so much the lack of grace that has stuck in the minds of voters, when Turnbull addressed his supporters after midnight on election night, neglecting to offer commiserations to the fallen and blaming the closeness of the result on Labor’s systematic “well-funded lies”.

Rather it was that, in the weeks and months since the election, there has never been any acknowledgment that the government failed to meet expectations and needs to do better.

“There’s a history of leaders who get an electoral shock acknowledging that they have heard the message, but not a hint of it from this government,” says social researcher Hugh Mackay. “They were crowing as if they’d won the Olympic gold medal and it didn’t matter what the margin was.”

Now the question of just what Turnbull plans to do with the prime ministership remains largely unanswered, but the degree of difficulty is much, much higher.

Unruly behaviour and ill-discipline from disaffected and recalcitrant backbenchers is one thing, and Turnbull has more than his share of them; direct attacks from the man he tore down are another altogether.

Having increased the pressure on Turnbull to act on donations and clashed with Scott Morrison on the Coalition’s superannuation changes, Abbott upped the ante on Friday by suggesting the Prime Minister acted “in panic” when he announced a royal commission into the Northern Territory juvenile detention system.

“They think he’s wounded and they’re going for him,” is how one MP loyal to Turnbull sums up the dynamic.

Faced with such internal insurrection and external disaffection, Turnbull’s response has been to concentrate on implementing the platform he took to the people and the “fundamental moral challenge” of budget repair.

The problem with this approach is twofold. Firstly, the agenda is inadequate, as the election result demonstrated. He needs to either recast it in more compelling terms or enlarge it, or both.

The second problem goes to the other issues vying for attention, like same-sex marriage and the case for root-and-branch reform of political donations. The danger in both is that Turnbull fails to lead the debate and that the result is shaped by Labor, the Greens and/or the crossbench in ways that leave him exposed.

The reality is that Turnbull faces danger whichever way he turns. A continuation of the risk-averse approach that ended the honeymoon invites the description of this government singer-songwriter Neil Young gave when introducing one of his songs: “It sorta starts off real slow and then fizzles out altogether.”

The other path is to be bold, to set down what he wants to achieve, make the government his own and be prepared to take on the internal critics. Young had a line for this approach, too; that it’s better to burn out than it is to fade away.

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