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The Lost Path of Malcolm Turnbull

A federal election is due in Australia later this year. By all reasonable predictions the right wing, conservative Liberal-National coalition is due to lose after five years in power and two electoral victories under two different leaders. As some readers may be aware, this is the second half of a tumultuous twelve years in Australian politics, which has seen five prime ministers over six reigns – Rudd, Gillard, Rudd from the centre left, progressive Australian Labor Party followed by Abbot, Turnbull and now Scott Morrison, who deposed Turnbull in a back-room deal from within their party. This is compared to the years 1983 – 2007 when there were only three prime ministers.

The other recent development has been the fracturing of the upper house, which has seen the rise of micro-party representatives from across the political spectrum. Many are single-issue parliamentarians that have benefitted from complicated preference flows that come with the proportional representation method of election. This has been compounded by the boom and bust of Nick Xenophon’s team, which promised so much as a minor, centrist platform; and the ongoing trouble of the Greens, who are left of the ALP but currently mired in factional problems, growing pains, and a dearth of leadership. When coupled with recent developments like the digital culture, it is little wonder that many in Australia’s political class are somewhat bereft.

There are, of course, many ways to think through what comes next. Needless to say, that these benefit from thinking dialectically, and, involve attending to the historical possibilities before us. Part of that means recognising the policies and debates that the ALP has promised to bring to the table once elected. This includes bread and butter Labor issues like health, education, and industrial rights. Yet, it also includes unsettled debates about identity from the republic to our role as a global citizen, and, other big vision items that have not been on the table since Paul Keating’s departure as prime minister in 1996.

At present, the conversation around the republic is in a silo of its own making, and, publically is the province of aging angry white men that would simply want to reject the Queen. They have not envisioned what might come next and why this is a good thing for everyone living on the continent. All too often, the republican movement has failed to adequately reach out towards Indigenous representatives who are advocating for treaties and constitutional recognition; let alone diverse migrant communities that might seek a universal bill of human rights and the safeguarding of their needs in legal documents. And yet, all these divergent groups are seeking a new social contract between the government and its citizens. And, they all benefit from talking with each other. It is not up to a republic to assimilate people from outside its historical identity into its project; but rather, to start a new conversation that adequately responds to the trauma, mundanity and joy that new governmentality in this place can encourage. That is a task before many people here.

To my mind, one critical juncture where the Australian republic movement turned away from its historical possibility was when Malcom Turnbull gave up on it. Others have suggested the loss of the 1999 referendum as the key moment of setback, and yet, it seems to me that Turnbull’s departure signalled something similar. It mattered for republicans, which has only been confirmed by his absolute failure to put it on the agenda during his tenure as leader of the opposition and prime minister. More importantly, it represents the lost path of Turnbull himself. Like all former leaders, he cuts a dejected figure now, consoled only by a personal fortune of AUD$133m. When Turnbull walked away from the republican movement, he walked away from the opportunity to be a truly historic figure. He could have become the first president rather than yet another mediocre and forgettable prime minister. But to be a first president, you really must be a person of substance, prestige, importance, meaning, power. This is a person like Pat Dodson, Lee Lin Chin, or Rosie Batty. Malcolm Turnbull is not this person.

And, now at the age of 64, he could be coming into his own as someone with values, beliefs, and respect. Turnbull could have stayed involved in the republican movement and now that the tide is turning, he could have been in prime position to be a presidential candidate in a new system of government that truly mattered. That loss is his loss, and, if he looks adrift now, it cannot only be for how he was turfed aside. It is also because he must know, deep in his bones, that he lost the opportunity to be a meaningful person on the world stage rather than yet another sell-out with nothing to show but a mediocre oil painting and an apartment in New York.

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Robert Wood holds degrees in economics, history and literature from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania. He works for the Australian journal Overland.

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