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All hail Malcolm the Second

By Mercurius Goldstein - posted Wednesday, 10 October 2007

If we are fortunate, Malcolm Turnbull will be the next Liberal Prime Minister of Australia.

Fear not, dear reader. I shall not subject you to some vomitous hagiography in the style of courtiers such as a David Flint or Alan Jones. In any case, since the Honourable Member for Wentworth has thus far declined to "friend" me on Facebook, such blandishments seem doomed to go unrequited.

I come not to praise Caesar but to examine him, and to consider what lessons we can draw from a life lived so publicly. These lessons I think will explain why Australia would benefit from a turn with Turnbull, PM.


In so doing, I am mindful of the trap of hero-worship - that tendency to project onto public figures personal qualities that we would wish to see in an ideal leader, but which in fact are absent. Thus do many of John Howard's admirers mistake cunning for strength, pragmatism for wisdom, and management for leadership. I hope in these meditations to remain clear-sighted enough to see only what is there, and not what I wish there to be. In any case, I have faith dear reader that you will correct me where I fail.

The first and most important lesson is that in public life boldness is sometimes punished, but timidity is never rewarded. Thus from spectacular successes such as Spycatcher, to spectacular failures such as the Republic referendum, we see in Turnbull a character who risks big to win big, and sometimes to lose big - but never recklessly. We saw the same quality in Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. We see the same quality now in Kevin Rudd and John Howard, hence why they are in the frame for Prime Ministership, and why the timid Peter Costello and the reckless Mark Latham are not.

We can also draw many lessons from the criticisms that Turnbull routinely provokes from his detractors. The most common, and the laziest, is an undisguised envy on the part of many for his conspicuous wealth. I am sure such critics will also demur from voting for Kevin Rudd on the same grounds. But envy is not a sound basis on which to disqualify putative leaders in any forum - if it were, then we should immediately begin means-testing eligibility for public office.

Another more substantial criticism is the "turncoat Turnbull" factor, from which I believe we can draw some powerful lessons. These relate as much to Turnbull becoming a Cabinet Minister in the government of his anti-Republican adversary, as they do to his business dealings and friendships with Labor luminaries such as Neville Wran and Nick Whitlam.

Turnbull exhibited remarkable candour and no small measure of bitterness in his denunciation of Howard in the final pages of his 1999 memoir Fighting for the Republic. His notorious remark about "the Prime Minister who broke the nation's heart" is in fact the tamest in the denouement of the book - a knockout series of personal reflections on the Prime Minister's character flaws in language as colourful and rancourous as any Howard-hating blogger.

However, I believe Turnbull's "flexibility" is another manifestation of the boldness that one needs to succeed in public life. Just as with Peter Garrett's intemperate rhetoric against the Labor Party during the 1980s, here they are as faithful servants of their former sparring-partners. Clearly, they both have as much front as a row of terraces.


It seems to me that critics of "turncoat Turnbull" have mistaken the absence of ideological purity for a lack of principle. The two are not merely unrelated, they are in fact polar opposites.

By adhering to dogmatic positions, puritans usually end up with 100 per cent of nothing. Yet puritans also cope well psychologically with such defeats, as their ideology becomes for them a grim gruel which sustains them in their solitude, consoling themselves that they remain forever lefter-than-thou, or greener-than-thou, or feminister-than-thou. If a spurious consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, then such critics harbour a mental army of miniature orcs. Meanwhile, those few ideological puritans who are fortunate enough to achieve their goals often demonstrate a lethal lack of principle, as we witness in a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or a Chairman Mao.

But whereas ideological purity deforms character, principle builds character. I believe that in Turnbull (and Garrett) we see principle, not ideology, at work - and that it has forged two fine public characters.

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About the Author

Mercurius Goldstein is Head Teacher at an International School and is retained as a consultant at The University of Sydney as a teacher educator for visiting English language teachers. He is a recipient of the 2007 Outstanding Graduate award from the Australian College of Educators, holding the Bachelor of Education (Hons.1st Class) from The University of Sydney. He teaches Japanese language and ESL. These views are his own.

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