Leadership & Character: The Fatal Flaws of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull

Tim-AndrewsTim Andrews on how Malcolm Turnbull misunderstood the true nature political leadership

Five months
have now elapsed since the end of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal
Party. Since then, in  a dramatic
turnaround, polls have gone from showing a  60-40 2PP Labor
electoral landslide in December, to Newspoll
and Neilson
both showing a Coalition lead.

With Mr.
Turnbull deciding to re-contest the seat of Wentworth, the time has come to pen
a few words of sober reflection on his downfall, in the sincere hope that as he
continues his political career he shall learn from his mistakes, and chart a new course for the future.

In my
humble opinion, all of Mr. Turnbull’s mistakes can be distilled into two fatal
flaws: a failure to understand the relationship between voters and politics,
and a failure to understand the nature of leadership. These are flaws that go
deeper than simply incorrect policy, or making a wrong decision. Rather, they
go to the very root of the man, and his character.

The first is
a mistake often made by “conservatives” in opposition: they see a poll that the
public support something, and so refuse to fight this for fear of electoral
loss. This cowardice was the reason Mr. Turnbull primarily gave the partyroom for supporting the ETS: we would
lose in a landslide if we opposed it. And, indeed, in December, 60% of
Australians did
support governmental action against “climate change”.

Rather than
this being evidence of Australian support for an ETS, however, it was merely
evidence for the fact that they were not shown the other side. How do we know
this? Because since Mr. Abbott has taken a strong stance against it, now, just
six months later, two-thirds
of Australians doubt the existence of anthropogenic global warming

This is the fundamental point Mr. Turnbull failed
to grasp: good politicians don’t merely respond to opinion, they help shape it.
A strong, concerted, principle-based campaign against bad policy will triumph,
irrespective of what initial polls say

No-where is
this more evident than in the United States in what has occurred in the last
year, where President Obama’s net approval rating has plummeted from +28,
to a staggering -21 just after Obamacare was passed
; a whopping 50 point
turnaround. Indeed, healthcare is an instructive example: Initially, 72%
of Americans supported President Obama’s
healthcare takeover, after a
concerted Republican campaign against it, 59%
oppose it
. But the same occurred with the so-called “stimulus”, and with cap
& trade in the US: initial public support, a concerted conservative
opposition, and then strong public opposition.

Having a
backbone, and not being afraid of debate, or pushing unpopular views, is vital.
And Mr. Turnbull – not just on the ETS, but on so much else, did not have the mettle
to do so.

The second fatal
flaw is even more fundamental, and is what ultimately cost him the leadership: his
failure to realise that a leader is
first and foremost a servant. Throughout the ETS debate, Mr. Turnbull
demonstrated his complete, total, and utter misunderstanding of leadership, and
the nature of The Party.

To be
elected to any position of office is not a mark granting you dictatorial power.
To the contrary, it is a position of servitude. The bonds of party loyalty that
bind all members do not evaporate once you become leader, rather, they
constrict you tighter.
The key lesson to be learned: as you progress in an
organisation, you gain not more freedom, but rather less. You become bound by the
intangible forces of duty and loyalty.

In the
weeks leading up to his downfall, Mr. Turnbull’s line was “I’m the leader, the
party does what I tell it to”. Such a simplified – and indeed arrogant – view of
leadership might work at Goldman Sachs, but not in the political sphere. To the
contrary, it is the very antithesis of what makes a good leader. But it got
even worse when Mr. Turnbull threatened a veritable Samson act, and effectively
stated that if he was defeated, he would drag the Liberal Party down with him.
In doing so, Mr. Turnbull committed the ultimate crime – that of treason. He
demonstrated that his loyalty was not to the party, but rather only to himself.
And when he walked out of a partyroom meeting that overwhelmingly
opposed the ETS
, declaring he did not care what the partyroom thought, that
was the final straw. For in doing so he demonstrated himself not as a great
leader, but rather, as little more than a petulant child.

Again, a
failure of character.

As Mr.
Turnbull continues his political career, it is my genuine wish he learns these
two valuable lessons. After all, he certainly has the potential to make a
positive contribution (in particular, some of his musings on reducing
income tax are rather solid). But there is more to politics than simply having
a few good ideas. Rather, success means understanding the value of principled
opposition, and of the true nature of leadership. Because, at the end of the day,
Mr. Turnbull’s loss of leadership wasn’t about policy, it was about
character.  Yet until Mr. Turnbull
recognises this, and demonstrates he has changed his ways, I hold out few
prospects for him indeed.

(Tim Andrews is an Editor & Co-founder of Menzies House)