The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Saturday, May 1, 2010

He's Back: Some thoughts on Malcolm Turnbull staying...

The big fella is back. One of Australia's most talented parliamentarians looks to have made a decision that should benefit us all, according to The Australian. Yes, you guessed it, following a groundswell of local support, Malcolm Turnbull has apparently decided to remain in politics.

As regular readers will know, Crikey's Bernard Keane and I broke this story many weeks ago. Yet the print press was relatively slow on the uptake. At the time, even very senior Labor Party figures were commenting that they were sad to see this most unique member walk out the parliamentary door.

For the record, I don’t consider myself in any way partisan. I have as much admiration for Sharan Burrow and Lindsay Tanner as I do Malcolm Turnbull. Nor do I in any way regard myself as an expert in these affairs. All I can offer are the thoughts of an interested observer.

With these facts it mind, it will be terrific fare for the public to watch Turnbull eventually lock horns with new adversaries, such as the Labor Party’s latest addition, Andrew Leigh. In this respect, the Libs appear to have an exceedingly shallow gene pool, and needed Turnbull to stay, if only to demonstrate to the next generation of members that there is a durable path for them from the professions to politics.

While I don’t personally know many politicians (probably because I find politics boring), the two most impressive young guns I have come across on the centre-right are Jamie Briggs and Scott Morrison. The community nevertheless needs many more of them, and especially folks from diverse professional backgrounds (ie, emphatically not the standard student politics cardboard cut-outs). Another 2-3 Andrew Leighs on both sides of parliament, and we could all rest easily.

I think Turnbull Mk II will be a very different proposition in several important respects. The first leadership experience was an intensely searing rollercoaster ride that will have branded some unforgettable lessons on the old fella's brain. Make no mistake, therefore, that the 2010-11 vintage will be far more seasoned than its predecessors. In looking forward, my advice to Malcolm is as follows (the fact I am even offering advice is rather ironic, as you are about to see). If I can be so rude to do so, I will set this advice in the first person, as it simply easier to write. Please do not interpret this as suggesting that I am particularly close to the man in question, because I don't think that I am. These are just the likely ill-informed words of a guy watching from afar. Indeed, if Turnbull read this, he might find what I am about to say irritating.

* Decision-making processes: You have naturally good instincts. But you were clearly getting bad advice from both those close and not-so-close to you. In fact, I often thought you suffered from decision-making paralysis as a result of being overwhelmed by conflicting points of view. This is arguably the major bottleneck you now face: how to avoid the advice-driven mis-steps of the past. While working the backbench much harder, and keeping even closer counsel of your own sometimes brutal opinions, I would also try and make more of your independent judgments, which tend to be very good. These are your decisions to make, and should not be outsorced to family or friends. My guess is that your worst conclusions were those made when paying too much attention to others. So this presents something of a paradox: on the one hand, you have to appear more consultative, accommodating, and thoughtful than ever before; on the other, you really have to navigate the informational mess and arrive at the right solutions. And only you can do that.

* Assimilation: One of your biggest challenges is the fact that your big brain is such a clear and present threat to all those around you. As I’ve said before, the way you naturally interact with others can be intimidating—it is like dealing with a political Kerry Packer, which is actually no good thing! Put differently, you are too smart for your own well-being. Your challenge is akin to that confronted by a top golfer. If they “over-think” their swings the outcome is inevitably bad. When Tiger Woods hits his best balls, he removes all thoughts from his mind. I think you know this already, but in a similar vein you need to dial-back the intensity and focus on showcasing “Charming Malcolm” 24/7. And I reckon this is no easy task. It does to some extent come with age as the bustling young buck of the past fades away and is superseded by a more experienced iteration. But one key lesson from your first five years of politics has to be that you still have a massive job on your hands winning over your own colleagues. You have always been a bit of a lone wolf, and so I really don’t think this is going to be straightforward. But you can do it.

* Risk-taking: Now this could be interpreted as contradicting some of the other messages. Yet the fact is that risk-taking is an essential ingredient to success in all walks of life, and is something that you have been particularly proficient at throughout your career. My biggest criticism of your tenure as leader was the exceedingly frustrating risk-aversion that characterised your policy positions. You always had a very low probability of winning against a triumphant and popular first-term government--so why not throw a little policy caution to the wind? You also suffered from a serious lack of “definition”. In the past, this had worked for you, and people projected on to Malcolm Turnbull whatever they wanted to see. That was a critical source of strength: you were a social chameleon and appealed to an extraordinary diverse base on the left and right. But this characteristic was bound to atrophy over time as you would inevitably come into much sharper focus in the public’s mind. You should have vigilantly controlled that image, but allowed the contours of the profile to be gradually taken out of your hands. The Malcolm Turnbull your friends know is not the one that the public perceived during your time as leader. Next time the opportunity arises, retain your appetite for calculated risk-taking.

Now one can reasonably argue that this absolutely runs against the grain of the signal learnings from your recent experience. I would submit that it is a much more complex matter than this. You should not take risks in your personal affairs and relationships with your colleagues. But when the door opens up again, and opportunity materialises, you must ruthlessly take advantage of it. The visionary Malcolm Turnbull as policy-making maven is by far your best lever. You are never going to progress on the basis of a jocular, man-in-the-street appeal like Joe Hockey. When all is said and done, your interneuronal connections still remain your most effective calling card. The risk, of course, is that you once again fail. So be it. That is life. Risk-taking is the single most important explanation for success. Never forget it.

Having said all of the above, I think we are currently well served by a government that is committed to making solid policy subject to the profound constraints imposed by a democratic system (cue shrill cries from the right-side). The unavoidable fact is that Kevin Rudd is as much of a policy wonk as any other member of parliament. And that is a good thing.