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Back to the old team: the Liberals returned to Malcolm Turnbull, seeing him as a better fit for prime minister once Tony Abbott’s limitations were laid bare. AAP/Lukas Coch

Liberal spill: brutal business fells leaders who lack the skill set for the job at hand

On November 19, 1990, the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was in Paris at a European summit when she faced a press conference about the impending Conservative Party leadership spill back in London. She had gone to Paris knowing the challenge was on, happy to cast her vote by proxy. It was a confidence that radiated as she faced questions from the media pack.

John Dickie (Daily Mail):

Are you confident that you will not have a change of address by the end of this week and, if so, what makes you confident you won’t have a change of address?


I most earnestly believe that I shall be in No. 10 Downing Street at the end of this week and a little bit longer than that.

History shows that Thatcher was soon hunting for a new home. After her failure to win a sufficiently large majority in the first ballot, John Major was catapulted into office on the second ballot when Thatcher pulled her candidacy to back him. In the blink of an eye, Britain’s longest-serving 20th-century prime minister was gone.

It’s a reminder that politics is a brutal business. It has its own momentum. Once a mood for change takes hold events seem to bolt with an other-worldly speed.

The unthinkable can become unstoppable in the blink of an eye.

It reminds leaders – in the Liberal Party at least – of the lesson that both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard learned the hard way only a short time ago: that the leadership is the gift not of the Australian people, but of the partyroom. Labor might have since changed its leadership election model, but the Liberals certainly have not.

No matter how presidential the style of Australian prime ministers might have become in the focus on their personality as the defining characteristic of the government as a whole, they remain presidents with feet of clay. Their great power comes with strings attached: strings that anchor them to the party room; strings that cannot be severed, no matter how often a prime minister says that they are answerable only to the Australian electorate.

Gulf between governing and opposing exposed

The second lesson here is the insight it provides into political leadership, and the differences between leading in opposition and leading in government.

The Turnbull–Abbott–Turnbull leadership switches are rich with irony.

In opposition, Turnbull’s tendencies towards advocacy rather than slogans, and his willingness to consider bipartisanship on policy issues like climate change, resulted in dire poll ratings against a rampant Rudd government.

Abbott, in contrast, understood at a visceral level what was required to succeed in opposition against a then first-term government. He was short, sharp and direct. He kept the messages simple, knowing he would not be given the time or the media attention to create nuanced policy narratives.

This suited Abbott’s skill set in a way that played to his strengths. A pugilist by instinct and training, he demonstrated his skills to deadly effect, applying the match that set an already flammable Labor Party leadership situation fully alight.

But the prime ministership is an entirely different business. It’s a big picture business. The party, the public service and the wider electorate look to the prime minister to create broader narratives about where the country might be heading.

This requires nuance, persuasion and the ability to splash communicative paint more broadly across a wide canvas.

An expert in using the short bursts of political oxygen available to a leader of the opposition, Abbott seemed unable to breathe as freely when flooded with the political oxygen available to a prime minister.

And hence the irony. In opposition, the Liberal Party chose as its leader someone with an unsuitable skill set for that role – Malcolm Turnbull. It turned instead to someone superbly suited to the business of being opposition leader.

Now, confronted with having a leader whose skill set was not meeting the communication demands of the prime ministership, the party has turned back to the man it once spurned.

The ball is now in Turnbull’s court to see if he can apply his skills in advocacy to draw a picture of the future that can win over not just the Australian people, but also those inside his own party room.

If he doesn’t, he too may be reminded once again just what a brutal business politics is.

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