In these past days two significant, but very different, milestones have been marked. The first was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination on a nondescript motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee on 5 April, 1968.
The other was the confirmation of Malcolm Turnbull’s political mortality against his own benchmark, the loss of 30 consecutive Newspolls.
Like Claudius in Hamlet, Turnbull was hoist with his own petard. By nominating Newspoll as proof positive of the necessity of his usurping Tony Abbott—and with him the prime minister’s prime minister, Peta Credlin—Turnbull sowed the seed of a noxious political vine that now has all but strangled his leadership.
It was a vine that Turnbull never thought would sprout, let alone become the tangled, overgrown forest of despond that it’s become. ‘He has lost 30 Newspolls in a row’: the glib grab framed Turnbull’s challenge, but poisoned his prime ministership.
But to Turnbull, the Nemesis of the unpopular Abbott, the supremely at ease with himself barrister and tycoon who once declared arrogantly that ‘humility is for saints’ … that he would face the same benchmark of failure as Abbott was preposterous, beyond his self-assured imagination. Wasn’t his personal polling through the roof? Wasn’t he the darling of the media? Wasn’t he the answer to all the Coalition’s problems?
Turnbull’s promise to Liberal MPs anxious about Abbott and his inability to read the public mood, and the heavy-handedness of his office, was simple. ‘What I am, so you too will be,’ he said. Secure in his own ego, comfortable in his own brilliance, Turnbull offered his colleagues nothing but his genius, convinced that was more than enough to secure the future of the Coalition government. His government.
No one in September 2015, let alone Turnbull himself, could imagine that the Liberal party’s hitching its star to Turnbull was to tie its fortunes to a skyrocket. After a few months’ soaring incandescence, that rocket spluttered in the near-loss of the 2016 election, then fizzled and fell to earth. Now, with a potential electoral Armageddon less than a year away, Turnbull and his government are drifting on tempestuous electoral seas, crowded into a storm-tossed lifeboat with little hope of rescue, the occupants set on survival, even through cannibalising each other; the nominal captain, Turnbull, exposed as having no lodestar of belief, no clear guiding values by which to steer his crew to shore and safety.
As for Abbott, he would not have been a consistent thorn in Turnbull’s side if Turnbull had delivered the electoral and policy success he and his supporters always had promised. Abbott would have been an irrelevance, a footnote to prime ministerial history. But thanks to Turnbull himself, Abbott still lives as de facto Leader of the Opposition. Abbott’s frequent eruptions, disruptions and hopes of a restoration, fuel Liberal disunity and help make electoral defeat more certain, but it’s been the common disappointment in Turnbull that’s given them life.
It seems the only thing that Turnbull consistently has believed in is himself. That’s not much help in saving the Liberals from the electoral swamping coming their way.
But to return to our beginning: in his Newspoll humiliation, Turnbull would have done well to take inspiration from the life and death of Martin Luther King.
King was truly a leader, not merely of the American civil rights movement, but one who appealed the better angels of our nature. He knew what was wrong, and he set out boldly and courageously to right it. He may not have reached the promised land, as he tragically but unknowingly predicted the night before he was murdered, but he did everything in his power to ensure that millions of black Americans, and people everywhere whose lives were blighted by prejudice, hatred and poverty, did. King fought unjust law and a political culture in the American South that not only ingrained bigotry, but extolled it.
Yet in spite of all the mountainous obstacles before him, there was never, ever any doubt about what King stood for. There was never any doubt about his ability to inspire and lead. There was never any doubt about his ability not only to forgive his tormentors, but embrace them. King succeeded, and his memory is so cherished today, because he not only had indomitable values and purpose, but because he was willing to risk not only his liberty, his safety and ultimately his life, fighting for those dearly-held values.
Like Turnbull, King did not lack in self-confidence. But unlike Turnbull, he harnessed his considerable ego to a higher purpose, and won his struggle against injustice even at the cost of his own life.
Newspoll 30 was the predicted fizzer, but a 52-48 result was an improvement for the Coalition. For John Howard, being down 52-48 was a winning position. A Turnbull with a clear purpose and vision for the future could also win from here, but the cautious, defensive, indecisive Hamlet of a Turnbull who revealed himself after the first heady months of his prime ministership cannot, and will not win.
What Turnbull faces now is nothing like the challenges faced by Martin Luther King. But he can draw on King’s example: at least stand for something worthwhile and stop being Bill Shorten’s seat-warmer. If he wants to survive, to be even competitive at the next election, Turnbull needs to discover his own higher purpose, his own political Holy Grail, and show he has a reason for being prime minister beyond simply being in the job.
Malcolm Turnbull may not have to risk his life for vindication as King did, but he has nothing to lose in risking his office and his reputation by daring to lead boldly. For too long he has been content to follow.
If he can reset himself, and find his value compass, Turnbull yet can find there’s life after 30.
Terry Barnes is a former senior adviser to Tony Abbott and a policy consultant.