The federal election was held in Australia on the weekend and, three days after, we are still waiting for a result. Even though the polls were consistently predicting a 50/50 split between the two major parties, people seemed genuinely shocked at the result. We are looking down the barrel of another hung parliament and this presents challenges for whoever claims a majority. The next sitting of parliament promises to be one where robust debate is replaced by political grandstanding and governing becomes a secondary consideration to winning the 30-second media grab. As part of the election post-mortem, there is the obvious focus on the role of the leaders and, in this case, the role of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, as people speculate on whether he can survive into the next parliament. Lessons from his experience are extremely relevant to leaders in any walk of life.
Mr Turnbull assumed the role under controversial circumstances usurping first term Prime Minister Tony Abbott late in 2015. Abbott was polling consistently poorly and had fended off a “challenge” only six months previously where no candidate actually stood against him. Even his most ardent supporters would have to admit that, in all likelihood, he was doomed to lead the Liberal/National coalition to an electoral whitewash however it doesn’t mean that it legitimises Turnbull’s elevation to the top job. Lessons learnt from Prime Ministers of the past show that the electorate does not support replacing first term leaders. They feel as though it is their role to elect and their role to remove their leaders. As such, it was difficult for Turnbull before he even started.
After a brief and stellar period of the media spotlight, Turnbull’s popularity soared. Promising renewal and engagement, he spoke about the fact that “there has never been a more exciting time to live in Australia than there is today”. His mantra was positivity and energy. He promoted innovation and STEM teachings. He highlighted trade possibilities. He spoke about the new economy. However, after his honeymoon period, the lustre wore off.
As a leader, Turnbull failed to connect with the electorate. Polls showed that he was viewed as aloof and out of touch. While the innovation economy was exciting (and necessary), he failed to empathise with the hundreds of thousands who would, most likely, lose their jobs as a result of it and become displaced. When backed into a corner, Turnbull displayed a style where he would lecture and attempt to educate as opposed to empathise and engage. The typical suburban and rural voter were confused and scared. Without realising it, Turnbull had lost his audience and was never able to regain it.
Former New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally speaks about Turnbull’s lack of judgment and quite rightly makes the point that great leaders display great judgment. She highlights the fact that, if he went to an election straight away he would have won in a landslide however he allowed his team to bicker and squabble. She speaks about his policy thought bubbles that caused confusion and fear; policies such as the 15% GST, the decentralisation of education and, of course, the ill-fated retrospective superannuation policy. These policies made the government, and Turnbull in particular, look indecisive and weak and let the shock jocks have a free shot at his soft underbelly.
Great leaders know when to display humility and when to display aggression and strength. During the campaign, Turnbull continuously got this wrong. In a town hall debate in Western Sydney against Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, a rival Turnbull was expected to defeat with ease, Turnbull was lost in the format and the setting and he became defensive and curt. Shorten, in contrast, looked at ease with the people and it was no shock to me to see Western Sydney fall to the Opposition in this election. When the election was not yet decided, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Turnbull came to address his supporters and delivered an even more poorly judged speech. Humility was required; giving thanks to those colleagues who fought hard and lost their seats, praising the Australians who had voted for him and promising to lead those that hadn’t. Instead, he was belligerent and aggressive, blaming the result on a campaign of lies and promising that he will do it his way irrespective of the vote. It fell flat and was widely criticised.
A hung parliament brings with it a need to lead with patience and guile. To get any legislation passed, you must negotiate and you must compromise. You need to be clear and you must be legitimate. It will test Turnbull like he has never been tested before should he win government.
Leadership is an art and it is something that is always evolving. I need to say that I really like and respect Turnbull and hope that he can become a great leader for the country. Turnbull is smart. He presents well. His policies on renewal and innovation are what we need right now. He has been brave in taking on the highly influential journalists who preach hate and division. He just needs to let the country know that he is human and that he is one of them; somebody to aspire to as opposed to being resentful of. I hope that he can show the humility required over the next week and bring the country with him. He only needs to look back 30 years and try to replicate a little of Bob Hawke and he will be fine.
Brad McMahon – Managing Director