There’s something about Malcolm, our new prime minister, that you can’t help but like.
I’m not an instinctive Tory. But after five years in Australia plying my trade as a professor of journalism I’ve seen four prime ministers at work, and a couple of opposition leaders – and they have all been, with the exception of Turnbull, deeply flawed.
Communication, in particular, has not been their strong point. Tony Abbott’s robotic style very quickly became monotonous, while Bill Shorten looks and speaks like an automaton. Rudd and Gillard both had their strengths, but were not in the end “people” people, if you know what I mean.
Turnbull, on the other hand, can’t get enough media exposure. He embraces the live radio and TV studio like the master he is, secure in the knowledge that he has a strong message to sell, and a citizenry eager to soak it up. He was a journalist after all (although so was Tony, and that didn’t help him much in the end).
Every day I turn on Michael and Virginia, or Sky Breakfast, or ABC radio, and he’s there, talking sense to people, from Tasmania, or Brisbane, or wherever he has decided to jet to that day (and no unnecessary $5000 helicopter rides, thank you).
His style is relaxed, quietly confident, but also serious. One gets the sense that he understands the frustrations of the Australian people these last six years or so with the prime ministerial merry-go-round and the backstabbing and the men in suits behind closed doors, and is resolved to offer a different, more conciliatory approach to the great problems of our time, such as climate change and migration policy.
One gets the sense of a man eager to break through the dividing lines and establish a national consensus around the country’s key challenges. Regardless of one’s ideological preferences and party affiliations, this is an appealing pitch to most Australians, I suspect. After Rudd’s smarminess and Tony’s shirt-fronting brutalism, after Gillard’s fatal policy flips, Turnbull is a refreshing change.
And though a Liberal, he is also a liberal. There will be same-sex marriage in Australia, and soon. It was probably inevitable, given what has transpired in the rest of the advanced capitalist world these last few months and years, but nobody doubts that Turnbull supports such a change in Australia, where his predecessor most certainly did not. And Gillard’s Labor government, let us recall, was not noticeably pro-same-sex marriage, albeit for nakedly opportunistic reasons.
The effectiveness of Turnbull’s communication style is apparent in the media and public response to Bill Shorten’s misguided attack on his personal wealth. The spectacle of a Labor leader up to his neck in factional infighting and trade union corruption, struggling before the royal commission to explain donations and decisions, accusing Turnbull of being too wealthy, was a decisive moment in the ongoing, if as yet unofficial campaign towards the next general election.
Turnbull is wealthy, yes, in the way that most Aussies would like to be, but as far as we know his wealth is fairly gained and properly taxed. He is comfortable in his business success, which of course has been supplemented by demonstrable political skills and government service over many years.
He is a private as well as a public man in that sense and, thus far at least, free of the taints which accompany the likes of Clive Palmer and significant elements in the Labor leadership. Turnbull knows how to make money, but appears also to understand much better than Abbott how to spend the public’s dollar with a degree of humaneness.
This is a mood shift then, a tonal adjustment, in Australia’s political and media culture, which seems to this observer to be working.
Last week’s personal ratings for Shorten were shockingly low, although the ALP’s polling is still at least salvageable before September 2016. But with Turnbull now in charge, the Coalition is now very clearly setting the media agenda in ways which make a general election victory more likely with each passing news cycle.