Too Hot to Handle?


And so the great wheel turns once more. In the most unexpected political development since Mark Latham went insane, Malcolm Turnbull has succeeded Brendan Nelson as Opposition Leader.

Where did Brendan Nelson go wrong? It’s a difficult question to answer, if your time is precious. Some might say his leadership was doomed from the day he took the position, while others might say it was doomed from the day he was born. You can blame the man’s downfall on his personality, his judgment, his face, his haircut, his startling lack of ability, but in the end, as always, it comes down to policies. His policy of cutting the fuel excise caused some controversy, but it was probably his policy of maniacally brandishing grocery items during Question Time that proved the final straw.

The end came suddenly. One minute we were all wondering why the hell Nelson hadn’t gone yet, and the next minute he was gone. In a bold move, he called a leadership spill in an attempt to shore up his support within the party, in much the same way as a man might shoot himself in the head in an attempt to shore up his skull. And so we find ourselves with Turnbull. Who, then, is this man, whose ability to effectively oppose the government we are now all counting upon to safeguard our democracy?

In many ways, Turnbull is a new leader for a new age. Middle-aged, white and rich, he stands for a new breed of Liberalism; a breed that says, "we’re here, we’re now, and we’re extremely similar to the old breed of Liberalism". And it’s that kind of forward-thinking traditionalism that could well see Australian politics enter a thrilling new era of unprecedented sameness.

And yet, the nagging tick in the spinal cord of the political landscape remains the issue of Turnbull’s wealth, to the extent that the public discourse has in recent days been dominated by our elected leaders hurling savage and hurtful accusations of prosperity at each other. Turnbull has pointed out that he, too, has lived on Struggle Street; that he too has known the humiliating sting of a threadbare stock portfolio; and that he, like Rudd, was also abandoned by a parent.

In Turnbull’s case it was his mother, leaving open the intriguing possibility of Turnbull’s abandoned father and Rudd’s widowed mother striking up a romantic relationship, thus turning federal politics into a zany sitcom of immeasurable wonderfulness. If you can imagine Turnbull and Rudd being forced to share a tent on the family camping holiday, you can imagine the hilarious shenanigans that, God-willing, await us all.

There is no doubt that Australians historically prefer their prime ministers to have emerged from humble or even impoverished backgrounds. Look at Ben Chifley the train driver; James Scullin the grocer; Robert Menzies the meth addict. We regard wealth and privilege and power with suspicion, and this larrikin sense of irrational bigotry has served us well through all these years. So will it prove an insurmountable handicap for Turnbull?

Turnbull is, let’s make no bones about it, extremely rich, and therefore, undeniably evil. But just how evil is he? Is he more evil, for example, than Kevin Rudd, who also has a considerable fortune and, sinisterly, speaks Chinese?

Rudd has the advantage, of course, that most of his money is really his wife’s, which makes him one step removed from the evil, although it also makes him a little bit of a sissy. But it should be remembered just how his wife made her money – by running an employment agency, which means that the Rudds have made their money from forcing decent, honourable people to sit on uncomfortable plastic chairs for hours at a time pretending to display an interest in the intricacies of letter-writing while suppressing burgeoning arson fantasies. So while Rudd may be one step removed, at least half of that step is eaten back up by the sheer immorality of Therese Rein’s business doings.

On the other hand, Turnbull himself made much of his fortune as an investment banker, a profession favoured by men who find Nazism too idealistic. Given the current climate of economic meltdown caused by the recklessness of men like Turnbull, it is possible that the Australian public will not look kindly upon an investment banker in a position of power, in the same way that September 11, 2001, sparked an electoral backlash against devout Muslim Kim Beazley.

However, for all his financial faults, Turnbull has his saving graces. He is intelligent, and charming, and puts one in mind of a large friendly panda, which is a vast improvement on the demented-Thunderbird look of Nelson, which tended to play well only with that section of the electorate that enjoys frightening children.

But this only raises further questions: is Australia ready for an intelligent, charming Prime Minister? We are a young, easily over-stimulated nation, and it may be that Turnbull’s brilliant mind and advanced social skills would prove just too much to handle. Might it not be better to stick with what we know: the gormless and awkward? Might the Liberals have made a terrible miscalculation here? Maybe they should have made Wilson Tuckey leader. Sometimes violence is the only language voters understand.

Whatever the answer to these fascinating and well written questions, one thing all experts agree on is that Turnbull’s ascent has turned federal politics into a genuine contest again. People are excited about the prospect of a Turnbull-Rudd tussle, the tantalising clash of two almost identical ideologies; the idea of a Prime Minister who isn’t afraid to revel in his success and flaunt his wealth and occasionally hunt the unemployed for sport. And who knows, such a wild, crazy idea may eventually come to fruition. Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull will gain the ultimate power. Perhaps voters really are prepared to risk the mental stability of a man who would name his daughter "Daisy".

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the pressure of the job will drive Turnbull, as it did Nelson, into a terrifying vortex of despair and irretrievable madness. Perhaps he will fall and clear the way, finally, for the rise of Peter Costello, who as we now know from his stunning memoirs, has literally millions of superb ideas to improve Australia, and whose selfless quest to lead the country to greatness has thus far been thwarted only by the fact he never actually tried to do it.

Or perhaps a third way, perhaps a hitherto unheralded white knight shall emerge to lead the Liberals out of the wilderness. Will it be Tony Abbott who will finally fulfil his destiny as the electorate becomes more comfortable with the idea of a PM who enters their houses at night to steal their babies? Or will it be one of the myriad bright, talented Liberal politicians whose names for the moment escape me?

Whatever happens, the emergence of Turnbull signals the start of a truly captivating ride.

Do your best to stay awake.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.