News National Malcolm Turnbull’s epitaph: An immodest PM with much to be modest about
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Malcolm Turnbull’s epitaph: An immodest PM with much to be modest about

Malcolm Turnbull said there was no way of returning to politics after his prime ministership ended. Photo: AAP/Lucas Coch
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After keeping the world waiting … and waiting … and then waiting some more before finally submitting his resignation late on Friday afternoon as the Member for Wentworth, our most recent ex-PM will head off to New York this weekend for a six-week holiday.

His absence won’t stop the circus in Canberra, as both supporters and detractors of Malcolm Turnbull jostle for the chance to shape his political obituary.

If the former PM’s enemies have their way, Mr Turnbull will be remembered as a narcissist with a ruthless and single-minded ambition to be prime minister.

His political nemesis, Tony Abbott, said as much this week, appearing to claim that Mr Turnbull was a political assassin who died by his own sword. According to Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull “will be remembered mostly for the way he got into office and the way he got out of office”.

Mr Abbott’s number one supporter, Peta Credlin, took a more comprehensive approach, describing Mr Turnbull as the Liberal Party’s Rudd, “an embittered, vengeful, narcissistic, highly intelligent, damaged, charismatic man with a tin-ear for politics, a disdain for the ordinary voter and an inviolable belief that the top job was his birthright.”

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Tony Abbott: Sniped, sabotaged and finally scalped the man who scalped him. Photo: AAP

Of course Malcolm Turnbull’s supporters will want him to be seen very differently, and will no doubt fete their man as an entrepreneurial progressive who was cruelly thwarted by the reactionaries in his party. They will note how he managed to deliver marriage equality.

As is often the case in such contested matters, the objective truth about Malcolm Turnbull’s political legacy resides somewhere between those two extremes.

It’s true, as Peta Credlin likes to claim, Malcolm Turnbull didn’t run for parliament only to end up as somebody’s minister. The successful businessman wanted the top job and he didn’t stop angling for the role until he got it.

But as we’ve seen before, business smarts don’t necessarily translate into political smarts. And if there’s anything that distinguishes Mr Turnbull’s time as PM it was his lack of political judgement.

Even before he was sworn in as prime minister, Mr Turnbull was making poor political decisions. When negotiating a new coalition agreement with the Nationals, he committed to a plebiscite rather than a free vote in Parliament on gay marriage, and also vowed to never introduce an emissions trading scheme.

Progressive voters initially enthusiastic about Mr Turnbull’s ascension were aghast at the new PM having sold his soul on two such totemic issues.

Then voter reactions turned to horror as the PM who had promised ‘economic leadership’ floated a succession of thought bubbles on the GST, tax cuts and income tax powers for the states, only to wave the ideas away when they proved unpopular.

And yet, as the Demtel Man says, there was always more. Perhaps the most damaging of Malcolm Turnbull’s poorly-considered ideas was the entire 2016 federal election. By calling a double dissolution, where a lower vote is needed to win a Senate seat, the PM made it easier for One Nation candidates and other assorted nutbags to be elected.

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Turnbull’s double dissolution backfired by lowering quotas and putting more Hansonites in the Senate. Photo: AAP

By holding an election campaign that was three weeks longer than the five we were used to – and running it over winter – the PM tested the patience of voters. And by resisting the entreaties of campaign operatives to actually fight with Labor by running a strong negative campaign, Mr Turnbull also bored voters with bland, corporate slogans and advertisements.

In return, voters barely gave him a mandate to continue as Prime Minister. Political history may well note that it was all downhill from there for Mr Turnbull, with 38 Newspolls acting as signposts along the way.

Right now, with the bloody battle of the National Energy Guarantee still fresh in our minds, it would be tempting to think that the former PM’s political epitaph will be that he fell not once but twice onto the blade of emissions-reduction policy. But that is only part of his legacy.

Malcolm Turnbull will also be remembered for being one of the best prime ministers we never had. He was intellect without political nous, an orator who couldn’t communicate with ordinary people, an innovator who couldn’t land his own backflips, and a progressive champion who constantly turned the other cheek to reactionary bullies.

In short, Malcolm Turnbull will be remembered most for what he promised but didn’t deliver. He will forever be The Great Disappointment.

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