Monday, October 26, 2015
Everyone has high hopes that Malcolm Turnbull will be the successful, long-lasting prime minister so many of us have been seeking. Business people are hoping he'll deliver the economic reform we need to rejuvenate and energise the economy.
Though his performance won't fail to disappoint those hoping for a perfect politician, it's reasonable to hope for a big improvement on his immediate predecessors, Liberal and Labor.
Turnbull is so intelligent, so articulate, so self-assured it's become possible to believe he can do something that, until now, seemed impossible: reverse the continuing decline in standards of political behaviour.
It's doable if he uses his present commanding lead in the polls to keep the political "conversation" positive, adopts some necessary if controversial policies and devotes all his effort to explaining and defending those policies, rather than incessantly telling us how terrible his political opponents are.
He starts with much goodwill and needs now to turn it into abiding respect by the way he conducts himself as the nation's leader, not a barroom brawler. A leader who brings us together in a common cause, not one seeking to divide and conquer.
It's already becoming apparent that when a new and popular leader chooses the high road, his opponents feel a need to match him, putting up a contest of ideas and policies, not negativity and electoral bribes.
As the election approaches, Turnbull should protect his credibility by keeping promises to a minimum, being sure those he does make are deliverable or setting out up-front the circumstances that would oblige him to abandon them.
Turnbull is no political apparatchik. He came to politics late after successful careers as a journalist and a barrister, having made his fortune as a merchant banker.
This is a good sign. The guy could have retired to count his millions – or make a few more – but entered and stayed in politics to have a crack at being PM.
Why? It's more likely to be because he hopes to be seen as one of our great leaders than because he wants to keep the seat warm for as long as possible.
This suggests he'll be more willing to run a few calculated risks in the interests of notching up some memorable achievements.
It's true Turnbull has already had one short-lived and undistinguished stint as leader of the Coalition. But that's just as true of the Liberals' most long-lasting and celebrated leaders, John Howard and Bob Menzies.
As with those two, Turnbull's first, abortive attempt will prove an asset provided he's used his time in the wilderness to correct the personal weaknesses that caused his initial failure.
If a high IQ is Turnbull's greatest strength, his greatest weakness is a low EQ – a shortage of emotional intelligence. He can be charming when he wants to be, but mostly he prefers you to stand back and admire while he demonstrates his towering intellect. Hardly endearing.
All successful politicians understand that, though they hold more power than most, in any democracy power is widely diffused, so you must always be trying to add other people's power to your own to ensure you've got enough to prevail.
To this end you need to consult widely, include others in the decision-making, listen patiently while people give you free advice, and school yourself to suffer fools gladly.
But if Turnbull really wants to make a difference, his notion of reform needs to be a lot more creative than simply bringing to reality all the rent-seeking "reforms" long advocated by big-business people and their economist handmaidens, who've never had an innovative, intellectually agile policy idea since they encountered the neo-classical model in first year uni.
Turnbull's unlikely to get far if he allows himself to seen as a rich man delivering for his well-off mates at the expense of the rest of us. Every new PM promises to "govern for all Australians"; more than most, Turnbull must demonstrate he really means it.
Paul Keating and Bob Hawke made their names as micro reformers by implementing changes that gave their own supporters more heartburn than the other side's; by doing things the Libs should have done but weren't game to.
Similarly, Turnbull needs to show up his opponents, proposing reforms they could only dream of – but can't now oppose without losing all credibility.
The key is to look for reforms that improve equity at the same time as they enhance efficiency. There are plenty if you look.