Leadership & Character: The Fatal Flaws of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull

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, a 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 room 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 Australiansdid 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, 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.

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2 Responses to “Leadership & Character: The Fatal Flaws of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull”

  1. TKB Says:

    Completely unrelated: I think I’m friends with a relative of his who’s in the Union with me…

  2. Ben Says:

    And I thought I was pissy with Turnbull. Good analysis. 🙂

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