Why Does Malcolm Turnbull Actually Want To Be Prime Minister?

"There's zero evidence of fight in this man."

Malcolm Turnbull

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“We’re standing up for Australian values, and the Parliament should do so too.” This is what Malcolm Turnbull said this week while announcing new measures for Australian citizenship.

The proposed changes include a more stringent English language test, and a questionnaire about topics such as child marriage and domestic violence. Both have been widely critiqued and even the government admitted that answers to the latter could be easily fabricated. The policy has swiftly been relegated to a growing pile of the government’s cosmetic pomp.

If there was any doubt that the policy was there purely to appeal to grumbling backbenchers and drifting voters tempted by One Nation’s platform of Fear The Other, Turnbull then added that Labor should support the changes rather than “rush off into the realm of their political correctness”. There they were. The magic, meaningless words.

It seemed there was nothing in this ceremonial announcement that would result in any important change to the makeup of the country’s citizenship, and nothing that seemed in keeping with the ideals that Turnbull appears to believe in. It was the figure of Peter Dutton beside him, like a demonic spectre whispering in Turnbull’s ear, that revealed the true origin of these changes.

This fresh coat of paint on the immigrant gates came hot on the heels of the announcement that the government would also be scrapping 457 visas. “Australians first,” Turnbull said while justifying the dropping of skilled migrants. It was compared to similar phrases deployed by Donald Trump, and with good reason. Turnbull seems to have pivoted to Trump-esque populism recently and — in true Trump style — his social media past is growing into an inverted negative of his current beliefs.

As Turnbull announced he was abolishing the 457 program, Twitter — now most useful as a time capsule of hypocrisy — immediately offered a tantalising, dissenting, contradictory quote from 2013. “[Julia Gillard’s] attack on 457s strikes at heart of skilled migration system.” The past is another country, and its citizens should stay right where they are.

Turnbull is a man commonly and kindly portrayed as a closet progressive held captive by the Right of his own party. It’s the most flattering position to take, but also the most cogent, because the alternative — that he is a conservative at heart who is somehow so mind-bogglingly inept at articulating his true beliefs — is even sadder.

His about-face on 457s reinforces this idea; it’s an unfortunate addition to a long list of excruciating backflips. Turnbull, once the public face of the Republican movement, now insists independence can wait. Turnbull, amongst the first of his party to march proudly in the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, now insists that the only path to marriage equality is through a non-binding plebiscite. Turnbull, who once passionately advocated for reducing our fossil fuel dependence to zero, now pushes to make the Adani coal mine a reality.

Tony Abbott’s vision of Australia may have been a rose-tinted, largely-Caucasion post-war dream of gifted virginity and knighted princes, but there was little doubt he genuinely believed the views he clumsily espoused. This is a low bar that even Turnbull cannot clear. With every new announcement we have to squint to read between the lines; to reverse-engineer the policy until we can identify the pressure points and backroom architects and internal polling that birthed it. ‘Values’ are the garnish added at the plating stage to justify the pivot.

“The lifespan of the modern PM is two years, and September is fast approaching.”

In the months between the 2015 leadership spill and the 2016 election, the popular view was that Turnbull was treading water. He was carefully biding his time in the den of Abbott loyalists, waiting until he could conclusively prove that the party needed him more than he needed it. He perpetuated the idea that he could single-handedly turn their dismal electoral fortunes around. This is likely what he told himself as he began winding back every statement he’d made over the years, convinced he could return to his ‘true’ beliefs after a landslide election. But the landslide never came, and the narrow win in July presented a man who, even on election night, was visibly aware that his incarceration would continue.

The turnover of prime ministers is so commonplace in 21st century Australia that the accepted wisdom since well before the last election is that Turnbull will not see the end of a full term. The time of Howard, and Hawke, and Menzies is long gone: there is no longer the patience for a decade-long prime ministership to implement a grand, long-term vision. The lifespan of the modern PM is two years, and September is fast approaching. The book on Turnbull is largely written.

There’s little doubt that Turnbull dreamed that his time in the Lodge would be one of true change; of reshaping the country according to a belief in social progression and economic conservatism. But there’s zero evidence of this fight in a man who stands before cameras and shouts “Australian values” and decries “political correctness”.

The prospect of a Peter Dutton-led spill is now dropped into the press like a cautionary fairytale. “Make sure you brush your teeth, or Peter Dutton will become prime minister!” It’s an ever-present warning for Turnbull: adhere to the values of the party’s right flank, or the party’s right flank will take control. What does that make him, other than the photogenic face of an ultra-conservative wing terrified that One Nation will claim the populist wave consuming the rest of the western world? It is power for the sake of power; a costume Turnbull wears to that hide the hollowness beneath.

Feature image: Malcolm Turnbull/Facebook.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah.