Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership dilemma

Cross-posted from The Conversation:

When Malcolm Turnbull decisively ousted Tony Abbott, it seemed Australia might have the longed-for leader who would set a clear agenda and lead Australia out of a period of policy inertia.

Under Abbott, it the country appeared stuck in a policy rut, frozen by fear about the future. Neither government nor opposition could communicate to a concerned electorate how the future would unfold.

Nor was it clear how we would negotiate a path to ongoing prosperity after the heady years of the China-induced mining boom or face what were some big policy challenges facing Australia.

Would I be unemployed if robots destroyed one in two jobs, as many predicted? Would we really be expected to work until 70, as the Intergenerational Report suggested we needed to? And what sort of retirement would we get to enjoy anyway if government pursued policies to cut back on pension eligibility or tax superannuation?

How much HECs debt would our kids be burdened with once the education sector was deregulated, and universities and colleges were free to set their own tuition fees?
Between these and other issues, no one, it seemed, would be protected from what appeared to be the perfect political storm: the need for government to spend and act, and a growing sense of budget crisis.

In this confusion, Malcolm Turnbull took the reins and quickly sought to stamp himself as a powerful and decisive – almost presidential – political leader.

He sought to create a narrative for the future – there was never a more exciting time to be an Australian, he assured the electorate.

Innovation and the ideas boom were the means to create future prosperity after the end of the mining boom. By embracing technology and its possibilities, taking risks and being entrepreneurial, Australians would together find a way to navigate a prosperous and fair future.

The fear and scepticism is back

In just six months, much of this new-found optimism has dissipated. Like the three Prime Ministers before him, Turnbull has struggled to develop and sustain a viable narrative about the future – what it looks like and how he would lead us there.

Nor is it clear to many whether we have entered a new phase of more collegial cabinet decision making. The electorate still faces the uniform messaging across ministers on an issue, with little sense that ministers lead policy development in their own portfolio areas.

The bold narrative of innovation as the future appears increasingly constrained by the old political realities. Policy ideas are floated and quickly shelved. The focus of attention shifts from week to week, with major policy issues unresolved. Relationship between government and the crossbenches has been increasingly fraught.

The myth of the strong leader

Over the past few weeks, Malcolm Turnbull has sought to assert himself again as a string, decisive, leader. The budget has been brought forward, and parliament has been recalled to pass the ABCC legislation, with the threat of a double dissolution should they not do so.

But will this form of strong leadership prove more successful? In a detailed analysis of political leadership, UK academic Archie Brown has argued that the dominance of the strong leader in politics is a myth. Brown contends that driven by an inflated sense of their own importance, or defeated by hubris, strong political leaders fail to deliver sustainable outcomes. They simply don’t work in a democratic system.

In light of the fate of our last three prime ministers – Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott – Brown’s analysis has some purchase here. All three wanted to be seen as strong leaders – leaders with the answers to our problems, capable of changing the way politics work. But, in the end, they all struggled to find a way to articulate what type of leader they would in office.

In a dynamic and often unforgiving environment, Brown argues that effective political leaders needs to move between actively taking the lead and setting the agenda, and receding in importance by creating an environment for others to exercise leadership. Good government, as our prime minister has reminded us, is ultimately a collegial project in which ministers should play a far more important role in their own portfolio areas than their leader.

Malcom Turnbull’s leadership dilemma

Turnbull’s leadership is hamstrung by a number of political realities that make it hard to maintain the position of a strong leader. However, the alternative to strong leadership is not weak leadership.

How could this be changed? To begin with, we don’t have a viable narrative about the future and how the major policy dilemmas noted above are to be resolved – and done so in a way that allows for budget repair. No leader can hope to create this on their own and, it may be that the best approach will have Malcom Turnbull avoid pithy phrases about his excitement about the future, and allow ministers to lead this public discussion, not shut them down, as Treasurer Scott Morrison is alleged to have faced in the recent public discussion around taxation reforms.

The second issue that Malcom Turnbull faces is the ongoing struggle to win support of the cross benches. With the exception of John Howard’s final term, this is a problem that has constrained Australian governments for a long time. Effective political leadership in this context is always a negotiated outcome. Again, managing the Senate seems to be something that successive Australian governments have forgotten how to do. This is of course no easy feat at a time when the cross benches represent an unpredictable collection of parties and individuals.

But my prediction is that in coming political cycles, the problem of a more fragmented set of representatives will continue to constrain what policies government can pursue.

The third major issue is how to build political capital within his own party. Despite assurances that there would be no backstabbing and undermining, Abbott and his supporters aggrieved by the outcome of the leadership challenge, have maintained a not-so-secret campaign to defend the Abbott government’s credentials and criticise any shifts in political direction contemplated by a Turnbull government. Strangely, this may be best dealt with by ensuring that at least some of these supporters have a role to play in shaping Turnbull’s policy agenda.

Finally, the electorate appears impatient with political leaders who promise to deliver the world, but only to find that political realities make this impossible. This will of course be once again put to the test when the Turnbull government delivers its first budget – and, in effect, its first set of election promises in a long campaign.

Here, government is in a bind. Promise too much, it may win the election, but face an impatient electorate quick to reject under-performance. But do too little to address some big policy issues, it runs the risk of failing to making a winning bid in the upcoming auction for votes. Either way, Malcolm Turnbull faces a difficult leadership challenge.

Article by Peter Gahan, Professor of Management & Director at the Centre for Workplace Leadership, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne

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  1. Turnbull fooled all you guys but worse he fooled himself.
    This undoing he is now facing has been waiting for his whole life, now that he is facing the decisions of the front line and battle, he has been found to be ineffective / defective.
    Not only Turnbull is to blame here, but all those who pushed an incompetent forward. WW

    • Yep. Turnbull looks like a fool.

      Australians should return Muir etal for their loyalty. Sorely missed from the self serving parties.

      • —- yes & no way vote for the Greens. I have in the past but never again. Bills my man this time.

    • bolstroodMEMBER

      There is a complete lack of competence in federal parliament, better to pick our legislators from the electoral roll and do away with this “democratic shambles.

  2. Gillard was too corrupt/gutless to curb negative gearing.

    Why do these professors never say “that MP is corrupt”?

    Professor Sadoway says Washington DC is corrupt.

  3. Australia has entered the secular stagnation. Our working age population is declining, leaving those left in this demographic to do more of the working, spending and paying of tax as former BS inmate Callam notes below. Like Japan and now the U.S this major shift will make life hard for any leader. Though MT looks like a small child in the bath confused as to why his toy boats are not floating but unaware mum has let the water out.!Australias-unfavourable-demographics/c1tye/56f3399a0cf266a29257908d

    • Real GDP per capita and real income but both by say deciles is the only really worthwhile way of looking at it from a resident’s/citizen’s point of view.
      Is my decile’s per capita income increasing or decreasing? This is the question.
      And looking at Real GDP per capita from the Graph in CP’s article, real GDP per capita has been growing at a decelerating rate since 2003 and is now only 1%pa.
      And then look at a number of other qualitative/quantitative measures of well being such as average commute times, waiting times at hospitals, gaps between school facilities, increases in pension age, increased government charges and essential costs, factor in obesity and other health issues like hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.
      We are not here to serve the economy, the economy is here to serve the citizenry.

  4. Jumping jack flash

    After Howard sold off the assets that provided the last of the useful services which they could control, all governments after his have seriously limited ability to set meaningful policy that affects people directly.

    The government is too nice. They should be telling people to sod off and talk to the new providers of these services. After all, the whole reason the government sold them all off was to; grab some quick cash from the sale, stop them bleeding cash from providing cheap services at a loss, and lastly, not having to manage them, including but not limited to listening to the people whinging about them!

    The government only has a couple of levers left to pull. Taxes, and social policy.
    Social policy basically does nothing.
    Taxes only have a few options – add, remove/combine, raise, lower.

    In light of that, I seriously wonder why they have so many ministers for so many things that they don’t actually do.

    So actually, Turnbull has exhausted all options available.

  5. Turnbull’s leadership dilemma is one that cannot be fixed.

    His dilemma is that he is a muppet of the highest order.

    A visionless populist with no idea what the hell to bring to the Australian people, other than an advertisement of incompetence.

  6. This article seems to say “‘consensus leader=good’ ‘strong leader=bad”
    I doubt it’s a simple as that!

    • Hawke was a consensus leader, but he had a strong cabinet. I don’t think MT has anything like that and leaving SM to do it alone is stupid, imo.

  7. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott – Brown’s analysis has some purchase here. All three wanted to be seen as strong leaders

    Well if political strongmen don’t work, let’s try a softcock like Shorten… may just do the trick. 💡

    • proofreadersMEMBER

      As “tricky” as he might be, confronted with the “between a rock and a hard place” position that Straya could soon be in, he could possibly grow in to the job?

      This is albeit I admit that the Strayan people have been having a shocker in terms of judgement in electing Rudd/Gilard/Abbott.

    • R2M,
      I doubt you could label Shorten a sc, I doubt he would have survived the union movement if that was the case.

  8. Let’s see the budget. That will be the clearest and most reliable indication of Malcolm’s priorities, although it will be an election budget, so maybe it’s the one after that will be the best indicator, or maybe the one after will be the indicator of Bill’s commitments and priorities!
    Malcolm seems to me to either:
    1 be more “right” than I thought, or
    2 be more timid with his internal political capital than I expected.
    He should have scraped some more of Abbott’s unfair barnacles and loosened personal freedoms/increeased minority rights and moved the whole party to the centre immediately upon getting power. He squandered his opportunity. If he doesn’t win the election he will be the biggest disappointment ever in Australian politics in my book, but perhaps he already is!

    • I think it was #2 – he had no balls.

      What an utter dissapointment. Atleast Abbott had the guts to stick with ridiculously stupid policies no matter anyone said. He thought that after ridiculing the ALP on leadership chamges there was no way they would replace him.

      Well, he gambled and he lost. But it was a calculated risk I suppose. Ir at least brave.

      What’s MT’s problem?

  9. Guys. For once let’s tell it how it truly is?









    • There seems to be lot of criticism about Shorten.

      Typical of this site. Group think all the way. Stop and think for yourself. Here are two policies that show substance:
      – NG and CGT reform
      – Banking Royal Commission

      Oh nahhhhhh the bloggers and a few of my commentator mates say he’s got no substance.


      • Hi MG,

        Advocate all you like for the ALP.
        Advocate all you like for the LNP.
        I for one couldn’t give 2 stuffs.
        All I know is that the sheep that is most in Aus will baaaaaa to either the ALP and LNP since they can’t see that both sides offer a dismal set of policies AND a history to match.

        The Australia in 2016 is one of paralysis.
        Most don’t have the balls to realise that the 2 major parties are growing in irrelevance – THEY ARE INCOMPETENT AT BEST, CORRUPT AT WORSE.

        Have your ALP and burn your pink batts while you’re at it.

        They do say a nation gets the pollies they deserve.


        So all fall in line sheep. Baaaaaaaa

      • I’m not one of those for choosing a shopping list. Delayed gratification is something Australia needs to rediscover.
        What both ALP and LNP stand for SUCK in my view.

    • Firstly, they’re not my ALP. I’m a swing voter and I have voted a few different ways in the past.

      What don’t you like about their current set of policies?

      • What don’t you like about their current set of policies?

        Too little, too late.

        After 15+ years enthusiastically chasing the Liberals off to the far right, the ALP have a lot of work to do to regain credibility, and a handful of hail mary policies are not convincing that their core beliefs have changed.

  10. I can’t help but wonder if Shorten could do a “Steven Bradbury” at the next election.