22 May 2016
by Peter Hartcher
The 28 words that sealed Malcolm Turnbull's fate
Tony Abbott endorsed the government's re-election this week with the words: "This is my legacy, this is Malcolm Turnbull's legacy, this is our legacy, and that's why it's so important that we re-elect a Coalition government on July 2."
Malcolm Turnbull wants to talk jobs and growth, the media wants to ask about Peter Dutton and refugees. Michael Koziol tells us how it unfolds. It cost Turnbull a very great deal to earn that endorsement. To keep Abbott's policies intact, Turnbull had to surrender some of his own. To keep faith with his party's conservative elements, he broke faith with much that the Australian people expected from him.
In earning those 28 words of approval, Turnbull lost the approval of 3.25 million voters over the past six months, based on the fall in his approval rating in the Fairfax Ipsos poll.
There are two types of leader.
One is the common, or garden variety, politician who offers voters a transaction – you give me your vote, and I will give you something in exchange: "Vote for me and I will give you a tax cut. Or a handout. Or a highway."
Or, "Vote for me and I will cancel something you hate. An incompetent government. Or unchecked boat arrivals. Or a corporate tax cut."
This is the transactional leader and you know him well. And you know her well, for that matter.
The other is a much rarer breed - the transformational leader. The US political scientist who first described these categories, James MacGregor Burns, wrote that "the transforming leader looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower."
The first type of leader is the politician seeking power with a promise of deliverable goods. The transformational leader offers inspiration: "The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents," MacGregor Burns wrote in his major work, Leadership, in 1978.
When he first took the Liberal leadership, Australia looked to Malcolm Turnbull as this type, a transforming leader who would energise the government and the people to achieve great change together. That's why an exceptionally big proportion, seven out of 10 respondents, told pollsters they approved of him in his early months as leader.
This made him as popular as Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten combined – one transformational leader is as good as two transactional ones, in this instance.
A promising start
His initial popularity translated into an astonishing lead for the government in the polls. If the Coalition's 57 per cent share of the vote in November's Fairfax Ipsos poll had been translated into an election result, it would have been one of the two greatest election victories in the modern political era that began with the creation of the two-party structure in 1949.
The only election victory to compare with Turnbull's early standing would have been the dashing Harold Holt's 1966 rout of Labor's decrepit Arthur Calwell. It was an economic boomtime and the country was caught up in the early popularity of the Vietnam War, ideal for an incumbent conservative government with a stylish new leader against a 70-year-old confirmed loser. Holt won with 56.9 per cent of the vote.
Whitlam was Australia's last truly transforming leader, an exciting moderniser who ended up being a little too exciting and modern for his time.
Australia looked to Turnbull to modernise and rejuvenate the country in his own image, a man who represented self-made prosperity, technological modernity, an energy revolution to solve climate change and power a renewable future, and a new social tolerance, even, perhaps a republic.
"A transformational leader is trying to carry the people to something different," says Professor James Walter, a political psychologist at Monash University.
"It was a reasonable conclusion that Turnbull would be a transformational leader if you thought he was committed to the sorts of things he'd advocated in the past.
"A truly transformational leader would have stuck much more to the principles he'd enunciated, despite attacks from the right of the Liberal party."
Doomed to fail
But it was never going to happen. Turnbull had entered a Faustian pact from the outset. To win the support he needed to take the leadership from Abbott, Turnbull promised some of his party's conservative MPs that he would retain key Abbott policies.
In the frenetic hours leading to Turnbull's challenge, Abbott's numbers men confronted some of the conservative MPs who had decided to support the challenger. "How could someone like you possibly support someone like Malcolm Turnbull?" one demanded to know, accusing the defector of ideological treachery for supporting a known social liberal like Turnbull.
The answer was that "Malcolm has given me iron-clad guarantees" that he would keep Abbott's policies on same sex marriage and climate change. And because Turnbull was such a popular figure, he represented an irresistible package for this MP. His conservative priorities would be protected and his chances of re-election would be improved.
Said an Abbott loyalist who worked the numbers for the outgoing prime minister: "Malcolm would never have got the five extra votes he needed to beat Tony if not for the deals he made with conservatives."
This was Turnbull's Faustian bargain. Though it was not obvious to the electorate for months, he had traded his long-standing political persona for the votes he needed to take the leadership. In taking power on the conservatives' terms, he had surrendered the basis for his popular appeal.
The new Prime Minister found a very neat way of explaining publicly why he would keep Abbott's policies, despite his own political history: "I was a member of the Abbott cabinet." He was a participant in the decisions of the Abbott government and now led the same party.
A leading member of the Liberals' conservative faction delivers this harsh judgment: "Malcolm said he wanted to be prime minister by the age of 40, but when he turned 60 and he hadn't made it he decided that he'd do anything to get the job."
Says James Walter: "A truly transformative leader would have crashed or crashed through." Instead he found himself in a difficult position as Prime Minister: "The party expects him to do two things. One, win the support of the public. Two, keep the party in line, including its right wing. These are incompatible demands."
Turnbull surrendered his transformative potential on taking the leadership. The people, disbelievingly at first, gradually understood that Turnbull no longer supported the causes he had long championed and his popularity plummeted.
He became what we see today in the election campaign – a transactional leader, the common or garden variety. He no longer holds out the promise of a great national modernisation.
He does what transactional leaders always do. He asks for your vote and, in exchange, he offers "jobs and growth" through a company tax cut. He offers a $6 a week income tax cut if you earn over $80,000. He offers to keep the borders secure and asylum seeker boats at bay. He offers to keep you safe from Labor's supposed assault on your home, as represented by its negative gearing policy.
In short, he has fallen back on the Coalition's traditional brand identity, the party perceived as best for the economy and national security, the so-called "daddy party" persona that conservative parties worldwide commonly represent.
Bill Shorten, too, is a transactional leader, falling back on his party's traditional brand identity, the party perceived as best for providing education and health care, the so-called "mummy party" persona that progressive parties worldwide commonly represent.
And the two of them go from electorate to electorate, handing out grants and promising money, sometimes identical grants for the same projects, as they did on consecutive days with the Appin Road funding in Sydney's south-west this week. Seeking votes, seat by seat, promise by promise, transaction by transaction.
Saturday's Fairfax Ipsos poll shows that, after two weeks of the campaign, the two parties are exactly as they were at the beginning – deadlocked in a statistical tie on their share of the vote.
This is good enough for the Coalition to hold onto power, but with a smaller majority. Labor needs something a little over 4 per cent to win in its own right, assuming a uniform swing.
Taking the average of the past three Fairfax Ipsos polls, the swing against the government since the last election stands at 2.8 per cent now. That implies that the government will lose seven seats if the swing is uniform, though a net six if you assume Clive Palmer's seat of Fairfax reverts to the Coalition. Either way, the government would retain a workable majority in the House of six or seven seats.
If Labor is to win, it needs to do something powerful to generate momentum against a government that still has, despite everything, a more popular leader than Labor. Unless, of course, the government should visit some disastrous blunder on itself, which is the other possibility.
When Turnbull walked into the politics in the pub session in Darwin this week, one astute member of the crowd asked him a question. Did the prime minister look forward to winning the election so he'd have a mandate in his own right, able to implement the sort of progressive policies he'd always stood for instead of the conservative ones he now represents?
Turnbull evaded the question splendidly and moved on to the next transaction.