Is Malcolm Turnbull breaking the binary?

One month in, are we seeing a new type of Liberal leader?

by Todd Winther

New party leaders are the political equivalent of a blank slate. We can project any image of them we want. They can be a great reformer, modernising a tired party organisation that does not reflect community values.

Alternatively they can be a great stabiliser, righting the party ship after an extended period of turmoil. Remember Mark Latham? Plenty thought he could perform both these unrealistic tasks. However, no one thought John Howard could lead the Liberal Party to four consecutive election victories.

In today’s chaotic leadership environment it might seem overly generous to give a new party leader a year’s grace to see if they can do the job. However, a month into his Prime Ministership, commentators appear to be quickly judging the performance of Malcolm Turnbull, and designing the template in which all his decisions will be judged. However this version of Turnbull is far more complex than these snap judgments would have you believe.

He is not the Turnbull of the past, and for good reason.

The Binary Liberal Leadership Characterisation.

In recent decades, the description of Liberal Party parliamentarians, and by extension their leaders, have been characterised in binary terms.

They are either ‘conservatives’ or ‘progressives’.

John Howard (L) and Andrew Peacock (R), photo: Wikipedia Commons.

This was a particularly dominant theory during the 1980s when the Liberals were mired in leadership instability during a lengthy period in opposition. Between 1983 and 1990, the Liberal leadership vacillated between Andrew Peacock, Howard, and then back to Peacock.

During this period, Peacock was repeatedly labelled as the more socially progressive leader in line with the ideology of the party’s founder, Robert Menzies. In contrast, Howard was viewed as socially conservative, which was the dominant ideological force of the day given the success of President Ronald Reagan, and the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

After a long period of successful government for the Liberals under Howard between 1996 and 2007, binary opposites in the media once again emerged when Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership in 2009. As with the 1980s, the Liberal Party was struggling in Opposition, and searching for a political identity to carry them forward. Popular opinion held that Turnbull was carrying Peacock’s legacy as a progressive liberal, while Tony Abbott was promoting conservative Howardism. The Liberal Party has yet to shake these tags, despite Turnbull recently claiming that there are no factions in the Liberal Party.

Turnbull’s demise as Liberal leader in the final parliamentary sitting week of 2009 was precipitated by a difference over ideological opinion, specifically over the issue of a carbon trading system. Turnbull failed to read the mood of the party room, and acknowledge that a disagreement over pricing carbon was an issue of fundamental importance for many conservatives. This led to Abbott obtaining the Liberal leadership, and eventually the position of Prime Minister. Turnbull will not make the same mistake again.

Turnbull Reverses Course

When Turnbull returned it was widely perceived to the leadership a month ago, it was widely perceived that his leadership would signal a more inclusive Liberal Party, particularly compared to Abbott. However, the evidence so far suggests a murkier picture, and indicates that Turnbull has learnt his lessons from his past. The strongest signal to support this is Turnbull’s changed position on climate change. As outlined by the Sydney Morning Herald the week after he became Prime Minister.

Mr Turnbull assured Liberal conservatives before the leadership ballot that he would toe the party line on climate change action. He has since defended the government’s Direct Action policy, and its greenhouse gas reduction target of 26 — 28% by 2030, based on 2005 levels.

Turnbull’s position on climate change during Abbott’s six years later is totally reversed. There are pragmatic reasons for this change in positions, but Turnbull leaves himself susceptible to criticism from Labor, who will continue to ask the question ‘Is Malcolm Turnbull all that different from Tony Abbott?’

While Turnbull presents a more difficult challenge than a depleted Abbott, with the potential to court a broader cross section of voters, the goodwill of the public may only extend so far. The early indications of this new government suggest they are struggling to deal with the expectations, particularly with reference to economy, an area which Turnbull is determined to redefine.

The Influence of Howardism

Turnbull has the support of one of Howard’s key political allies, and this indicates that he may well pursue a socially conservative agenda that was also being championed by Abbott. The influence of Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos was crucial in Turnbull’s defeat of Abbott in the party room ballot, and during the early weeks of his government.

While Turnbull did not retain Howard loyalists such as Senators Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews — he demonstrated a willingness to include and listen to those who share the majority of their views. Chief among these conservatives is Turnbull’s treasurer, Scott Morrison.

It is far too early to tell which direction the Turnbull Government may lead, as voters will not get a sense of this until the election campaign some time in 2016.

However early signs indicate that the Turnbull who is leader of the Liberal Party in 2015, will be dramatically different from the one who held the position in 2009.

If Turnbull is to be a successful party leader and Prime Minister he will have to break the binary trend that has dominated the Liberal leaders of the past. He will have to be influenced by both John Howard and Andrew Peacock, so that he can appeal to as many members of the electorate as possible. This will have the additional advantage of ensuring the party remains united and harmonious. Essentially, Turnbull will have to break with the moulds of the past and become a new type of Liberal leader.



Todd Winther is a PhD Candidate in Political Science in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

Todd is a frequent contributor to The Conversation. His thesis studies the relationship between leadership and internal party structure.