Alas Poor Malcolm, We Didn't Know Him Well

Too right-wing for Labor, too left-wing for the Liberals

Malcolm Turnbull will retire from federal politics on Friday, exactly a week after losing the Prime Ministership, leaving behind a mixed legacy that may be remembered more for promises unmet than promises kept.

He leaves the parliament as the 15th-longest serving prime minister, with two years and 343 days in the nation's highest office. He ended up just a few weeks behind Julia Gillard, and scraped ahead of Gough Whitlam in the dying days of his leadership, besting the celebrated Labor PM by just two days.

Malcolm Bligh Turnbull came into the top job at age 61, on September 15, 2015, after toppling PM Tony Abbott. Turnbull's reign came to an end on August 24, felled in a coup of his own and replaced by Scott Morrison.

Bye-bye. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

He had always promised -- or threatened -- to leave the parliament if he was ever ousted as leader, and he made good on that guarantee this week when he wrote to his Wentworth constituents to confirm he would leave politics on Friday.

"It has been at times a wild ride, but together we have achieved an enormous amount. I am very proud, especially, of the achievements of the Government over the past almost three years," Turnbull wrote.

In a statement on his website, the former PM listed legislating marriage equality as his number one achievement in office, followed by more funding for family violence and mental health, establishing the national redress scheme for victims of child abuse, fully funding the NDIS and "reversing the unpopular decisions from the 2014 Budget" -- that is, the one formulated by his predecessor and main antagonist, Abbott.

But sadly, for a PM who promised so much on his ascension to the top job -- leather jacket, social media savvy and all -- perhaps the child abuse redress scheme will be seen as the main lasting legacy of his not-quite-three tumultuous years in office.


Issues around family violence and mental health have not been solved in this country; the NDIS was a Labor scheme; and despite Turnbull being a personal supporter of marriage equality, and the PM in charge when the reform finally occurred, he did little himself to advance the cause and even explicitly declined to campaign for the change.

He committed Australia's LGBTQ to a damaging, divisive public vote on a fundamental human right, and many will not be quick to forgive Turnbull for that.

He was a decent man who, it was easy to see, did care about issues. The multi-millionaire banker and lawyer who left the high-flying corporate world for the relatively lower-paid daily grind of politics. He didn't need the money, he was clearly in it for the right reasons, for civil service or duty or public good -- which makes his track record all the more disappointing, because if even a guy with all his money and smarts and connections can't avoid falling prey to the vicious and stupid machinations of rabid partisan politics, what hope do the rest of us have?

Adios (AAP Image/David Moir)

"While the Liberal Party struggles to find internal consensus on climate change policies, we have nonetheless made real strides to support the transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources and lower greenhouse gas emissions," Turnbull said on Facebook.

It was a hat-tip to the neanderthals who brought him down, but also an inadvertent cession to another defining feature of Turnbull's time in office -- a general sentiment among the public that he failed to stand up to the bullies in his own party. He spent so much time trying to keep his own job, to keep the conservative hounds at bay, to keep the Tony Abbotts and George Christensens and Peter Duttons of the world (and their rabid media cheerleaders) happy, that he kept pushing further and further along any chance of getting to the policy agenda many assumed he would kickstart upon seizing the keys to The Lodge.

Adieu (AAP Image/Paul Braven)

Action on climate, action on same-sex marriage, action on social reform -- they did come, but so late, and only kicking and screaming. The man who once famously said he "will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am" was the same man who capitulated twice in a matter of days on the government's signature energy policy, first weakening emissions reductions standards then scrapping them altogether from the National Energy Guarantee.

And even that wasn't enough for the delusional conservatives. He rolled over and did what they demanded, and they still moved to roll him.

"With a one-seat majority in the House and a minority in the Senate many said that this Government would be “in office but not in power”. We disproved that," Turnbull said in his farewell message.

Arrivederci (AAP Image/David Moir)

It was true that the government was in control of the parliament, and as he noted in his last press conference, managed to get through many changes such as tax cuts, media reform and Senate voting reform.

"I can't describe how many press conferences I've had out here where one of you have said, "Why don't you admit you'll never get this through the Senate?" And then, due to the charm of Mathias Cormann and his colleagues in the Senate, the impossible has been achieved," Turnbull said with a grin in one of his last press conferences.

But much of what he achieved won't be remembered with much fondness -- surprisingly, reform of media ownership laws or complicated Senate voting rules weren't the burning issues top of mind for many voters at the 2016 poll -- and much of what he signalled he wanted to do was abandoned due to enemies outside and inside his party.

Sayonara (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Turnbull occupied a rare space in Australian politics, too right-wing for Labor and too left-wing for many of his Liberal team-mates.

"He's just not one of us," a senior Liberal told Nine News last week.

And that will sadly be the way Turnbull will be remembered by many -- a man between places, a man stuck in time, a decent guy who became the victim of circumstances.