full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
16 July 2013
Image: Office of Malcolm Turnbull
opinion/analysis Many Australians believe the man dubbed the Earl of Wentworth will eventually be back to take the Prime Ministership, after being ousted from the Liberal leadership in December 2009; or possibly to become Australia’s first President. But three years of dogged and at times spiteful opposition to one of Australia’s most popular policies have taken their toll on Malcolm Turnbull in the view of some segments of the Australian population.
There was a deeply insightful article about Malcolm Turnbull published by seasoned political journalist Bernard Lagan on the independent media site The Global Mail in February 2012. The article, entitled Prime Minister in Waiting, does much to summarise the fortunes of one of Australia’s favourite sons.
Penned with the perspective of Turnbull’s narrow loss of the Liberal leadership in mind, but also the glinting hope of his potential return to power at some stage in the future, the piece does much to sum up the foundations of the Turnbull world. It touches on his fortune (primarily gleaned through the 1990’s success of early ISP OzEmail, in which Turnbull was a key investor), the intellectualism and passion for hands on policy research which underpins many of his political views, and perhaps a little swirl of the self-belief which has pushed Turnbull through so many high-profile areas of Australian public life, from a career in the media to the next step in the law, from the high-finance position of merchant banker and now to his current political focus.
The article also references the extraordinary goodwill which the Australian public continually displays towards Turnbull.
Anyone who’s attended a press conference given by the man, or one of his many speeches, will have felt that warmth first-hand. It’s not uncommon for ordinary Australians, witnessing Turnbull in action, to organically feel drawn to express their desires directly to the Member for Wentworth about his political future. Turnbull is told constantly by the Australian public (virtually every time he appears on the ABC’s Q&A, for instance, and there’s even a Facebook page set up) that they want him to return to leadership of the Liberal Party and that this would swing their vote instantly in its favour.
The polls, too, continue to reflect this popularity. Only last month, a poll conducted by the Australian Financial Review and Nielsen showed that a staggering 62 percent of Australians prefer the man dubbed ‘the Earl of Wentworth’ (or alternatively, by many of Sydney’s womenfolk, ‘the Silver Fox’) as leader of the Liberal Party, compared with Tony Abbott’s relatively poor showing with only 32 percent.
And while there is no doubt that Turnbull does have monumental self-belief, there is also no doubt that this belief by the public in the leadership qualities of the man has played a direct party in his political destiny.
Turnbull’s blue blood seat of Wentworth was one of the few to show a strong swing towards the Liberal Party in the 2010 election (11 percent), and is now counted one of the safest Liberal strongholds in Australia, with a margin of 14.9 percent. Overwhelmingly, Wentworth wants Turnbull personally to represent it to the Federal Parliament; a fact that no doubt shores up the MP’s mindset daily. Turnbull will never be in danger of losing his seat in the House of Representatives.
Then too, as Lagann makes clear in his article, one of the factors which led Turnbull to recant his post-spill resignation from politics was precisely an extraordinary outpouring of emotion from the public, the likes of which few politicians ever see. As Lagann wrote:
“He seemed bewildered by the level of support people were showing for him to stay in Parliament, causing Turnbull to exclaim to [John Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos]: “Why haven’t they said this to me before?” The dinner guest gently explained that politicians must not expect such unsolicited outpourings of goodwill.”
I too, have personally felt this level of public goodwill towards Turnbull. When new acquaintances find out that I’m a technology journalist, often the first thing they want to talk about is not the National Broadband Network per se, but Turnbull’s personal fortunes. “When will he return to the Liberal leadership?” I am asked constantly. “What is his support like?” And of course, the ultimate question: “Do you think he’ll still be Prime Minister one day?”
For most of the Australian public, the obvious answer to these questions is “When Abbott eventually falters”, “Not bad, but not overwhelming yet”, and “Yes, very likely he will be”. Some further speculate that Turnbull will not ever become Prime Minister, but rather Australia’s first President, after it, many feel inevitably, throws off the shackles of constitutional monarchy upon the passing of well-loved Queen Elizabeth and turns for stable leadership to the man who co-founded the Australian Republican Movement.
However, there is one influential segment of the Australian population which, it must be said, has virtually turned on Turnbull over the past three years; one large group of highly educated individuals for which Turnbull can currently do no right; one group which seems to slip through his fingers no matter how hard he tries; one group of white collar professionals who won’t listen to his message.
I speak, as should be obvious, of Australia’s technology community, which has broadly rejected Turnbull in his role as Shadow Communications Minister since he took the portfolio in September 2010.
If you pay a cursory visit to technology-focused discussion boards such as Whirlpool or Delimiter itself, or follow Turnbull in his various social media incarnations (particularly Twitter, Facebook, and the comments sections of Turnbull’s own site), what you’ll find is a level of vitriol directed at the politician which it is very rare to find in other elements of Australian society. A perfect example of this could be witnessed last week following a seemingly innocuous tweet by Turnbull, linking recent rumbles of board troubles at NBN Co with the retirement of its Mike Quigley to claim the NBN Co chief executive had been “fired”.
“I had no respect for Turnbull left anyway. But if I did, this would’ve ground it to dust,” wrote one commenter on Delimiter. “Turnbull sometimes forgets he is not in a court of law anymore,” wrote another. “His bullying tendencies are a real worry. A worry for the voters and not doubt, some senior headkickers at Federal Liberal Party HQ, who have much to fear if he ever gets to rule the roost again.” And a third: “Like all bullies, this is a red flag for Turnbull. He has the ethics of a snake.”
The comments on broadband forum Whirlpool were even more vitriolic. “He is sounding more Abbott every day with his negative comments and personal attacks,” wrote one commenter. “Disgraceful, not interesting,” added another. “Turnbull has sunk to a new low. People will hold open the door for Quigley as a sign of respect. Turnbull just ooozes underneath the gap beneath the door. Hang your head in shame Turnbull you grot!” And a third added: “Turnbull has reached a new low in gutter politics. You are a disgrace!!”
These comments aren’t the first time Turnbull has faced this level of censure from Australia’s technology community. In fact, the backwash against the Liberal MP has been almost constant since he was first appointed to the portfolio.
From a certain perspective such antagonism from the technology sector towards the alternative Communications Minister is easy to understand. At a gross level Labor’s National Broadband Network policy has always been very popular amongst the electorate; polls regularly show that around two thirds to three quarters of the Australian population approves of it, and even the Liberal Party’s own research showed that it was a critical factor preventing the Coalition from taking power in the 2010 Federal Election, especially in states such as Tasmania, which have been starved for good broadband for a decade now.
In this context, many have speculated that a vengeful Opposition Leader Tony Abbott gave Turnbull the job of “demolishing” the NBN in 2010 as a poisoned chalice. Becoming the poster child for opposing one of Australia’s most popular political policies has never been the ideal path back to the leadership of a national political party; and the move also allowed Abbott to give Turnbull something active to do, rather than sitting on the back bench fomenting rebellion as ousted Labor leader Kevin Rudd was able to do so successfully.
However, Turnbull’s fraught relationship with the technology sector is clearly not solely due to the macro dynamics of the situation. It has become clear over the past several years that it’s not the fact that Turnbull has opposed Labor’s NBN project that has so annoyed Australia’s cadre of technologists; but how he has done so.
Looking back over Turnbull’s tenure in the portfolio, perhaps the first real crux point which flagged how he would proceed in opposing the NBN came in late December 2010, several months after he took up the portfolio.
The date was New Year’s Eve, and most Australians had thrown aside their work and were preparing to take part in the largest party in Sydney every year. With his high-level connections and profile, Turnbull could get into virtually any gathering in the nation, and probably should have been doing so; or at least preparing to enjoy a quiet evening at home with the family; the fireworks visible, no doubt, from his palatial eastern suburbs abode. However, that afternoon Turnbull had thrown convention on its head and was still working.
The Liberal MP’s outrage on the day was palpable at what many had assumed to be a series of dubious stories published primarily by News Limited about the remote possibility of NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley being involved in a series of corruption scandals in the central American country of Costa Rica half a decade ago, relating to Quigley’s former employer Alcatel-Lucent, a key supplier to NBN Co. At the time and since, there was no evidence of wrongdoing on Quigley’s part; his only involvement was a vague dotted line of high-level oversight responsibility to Alcatel-Lucent’s in-country division, given his oversight responsibility for the North American continent for the vendor.
However, Turnbull turned what was a series of baseless accusations into a national scandal. Quigley and his second in charge, Jean-Pascal Beaufret, “must explain how they could serve in such senior positions and be unaware of millions of dollars of bribes flowing to government officials in Costa Rica, Honduras, Taiwan and Malaysia to secure sales of Alcatel equipment,” thundered Turnbull in a media release. “They must also outline what financial controls are in place at NBN Co to ensure malpractice cannot be overlooked by senior management, as their denials of any knowledge of the bribery schemes suggest it was at Alcatel.”
Over the succeeding months, despite a growing body of evidence that Quigley was completely innocent of any wrongdoing, Turnbull turned up the heat dramatically on the executive, culminating in one of the most extraordinary parliamentary committee confrontations in recent memory, with the Member for Wentworth roasting a bewildered Quigley over hot coals over the issue in May.
An article your writer penned at the time regarding Turnbull’s extraordinary and baseless attack on Quigley generated an outpouring of emotion from the technology sector, outraged that one of its most high-profile success stories had suffered such treatment at Turnbull’s hands.
“I like Malcolm Turnbull, although I disagree quite strongly with his broadband policies. But the veiled attack he has been party to over the last few days is quite disgusting. Casting aspersions on the character of Mr Quigley in the name of a political agenda is something I had though was beneath him. He should be ashamed of himself,” wrote one commenter on Delimiter at the time. Turnbull’s vicious and sustained jabs at Quigley spurred claims the Liberal MP was on a “witch-hunt” of the kind favoured by Communist hunter and US Senator Joe McCarthy decades ago.
Although none of the allegations against Quigley ever came to anything, Turnbull never apologised to the NBN Co executive for his furious personality attack at the time. And in fact, the episode came to constitute an emerging pattern of behaviour from the Member for Wentworth in dealing with Quigley. In September 2012, Turnbull told a community meeting in the Sydney suburb of Epping that he did not believe Quigley had been “the right choice” to lead NBN Co. It was an opinion that Turnbull was later to repeat publicly. And when Quigley retired last week, Turnbull found it impossible, during media interviews on the subject, to find anything positive at all to say about the executive, despite his hard work in getting NBN Co off the ground and the respect in which Quigley continues to be held by the rest of the technology sector. His erroneous claim that Quigley was “fired” garnered Turnbull derision from tech sector workers around Australia.
Turnbull’s vicious attacks on the NBN Co executive have also been repeated on other issues with respect to the NBN and the telecommunications portfolio in general.
Despite the fact that much of Australia’s mainstream media has been extremely critical of Labor’s NBN project, Turnbull has repeatedly lashed out at sections of the technology media particularly, for what he has seen as biased pro-NBN coverage. In July 2012 the MP accused the ABC of creating “relentless propaganda” to support the NBN, in November that same year Turnbull slammed what he said was a NBN “cheerleader” media, and in August it was “specialist technology journalists … fanning a pro-NBN zealotry amongst tech-savvy citizens”. The MP’s comments eventually led to questions about whether he was “bullying” journalists.
The Liberal MP has also earned himself a reputation amongst the technology sector for stretching the truth with respect to the NBN. For example, in a wide-ranging interview with conservative radio shockjock Alan Jones in April this year, Turnbull appeared to agree with a number of Jones’ controversial and at times inaccurate views about the NBN. On issues such as the NBN’s finances and their Federal Budget treatment, the technical capabilities of the various fibre and wireless technologies available for the NBN rollout and even the satellite aspects of the NBN, Turnbull has been accused by critics of misleading the Australian public — and many of the criticisms have stood up to independent examination.
What this all adds up is an impression on the part of many in the technology sector that Turnbull has taken a less than ethical approach to opposing the NBN policy; and that the Shadow Communications Minister wants to win the debate at all costs.
The difficulty for Turnbull in this scenario is that he’s been here before. It was, after all, the mid-2009 ‘Ozcar’ debacle involving Treasury official Godwin Grech that led to the significant decline in Turnbull’s popularity as Opposition Leader and the popularity of the Coalition in general, and ultimately to Turnbull’s loss of the Liberal leadership.
Then, as now with his handling of Quigley and other issues involving the NBN, Turnbull attempted to use a relatively small amount of evidence on a certain topic to blow up an issue into a much larger debate than it would organically have been worth; attempting to push through issues into the public perception. Turnbull’s approach, when faced with any challenge, is usually to spend significant time researching it behind the scenes, before massively over-delivering in terms of pushing the issue in public, leveraging his high-level connections and funding to do so.
It must be said that this approach has usually worked for Turnbull in the past. Throughout the 1990’s, Turnbull’s chairmanship of the Australian Republican Movement and his energy in the organisation was one of the key factors which pushed the republican issue into such heights of public debate that it stimulated the unsuccessful 1999 referendum. Similarly, Turnbull’s energy and sheer ability to leverage high-profile connections and intellectual arguments to create and feed media exposure were behind much of his other successes: His formation of successful law firms and investment banks, the growth and sale of OzEmail and ultimately his epic branch-stacking effort which led to him capturing the seat of Wentworth from incumbent Peter King.
However, where Turnbull has been defeated, it has usually because he was trying to push the wrong argument too far, to an audience which was unwilling to hear it.
It went against the grain of the Australian public’s opinion of Turnbull in 2009 to see him trying to bring then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan down through the gutter politics of the Godwin Grech/OzCar affair. Australia wasn’t ready for a republic in 1999, and probably still isn’t, despite the enduring popularity of the idea. Turnbull’s ultimate defeat as Opposition Leader at the hands of Tony Abbott came because the Member for Wentworth was trying to push a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme on a Liberal Party which just didn’t want it.
And, of course, when it comes to the NBN debate, Turnbull has usually been arguing against the grain. The MP has brought all of his intellectualism, all of his charisma, all of his energy and all of his debating skills to the table in attempting to convince the Australian public that Labor’s NBN policy is a lemon and that the nation would be better served by using alternate fibre to the node technology. But although the Coalition’s NBN vision has been able to bring some existing Coalition voters back into the fold, Turnbull has been unable to convince the vast majority of Australians that the Coalition’s policy is better than Labor’s.
The particular difficulty Turnbull has faced with Australia’s technology community is that, as a rule, technologists think in black and white. You will rarely find a technologist willing to admit that there isn’t a “best” solution for every situation. Apple fans notoriously believe Windows operating systems are technically inferior; as do Linux users. And Windows users mock the limitations of other platforms. Whether it’s Android versus iOS, Mac OS X versus Windows, Telstra versus Optus, Intel versus AMD, ATI versus NVIDIA or any of the other million debates which the global technical community has on a daily basis, technologists usually pick one side of every debate to the exclusion of all others. Given that modern computing is based entirely on the division between 1’s and 0’s, perhaps the binary nature of the debate isn’t surprising.
When it comes to telecommunications, there isn’t a whole lot of debate. Almost all technologists believe that the long-term future of every modern nation’s telecommunications needs will be best served by universal fibre; and there’s plenty of evidence to back up this close to universally accepted argument.
In the face of this situation, to technologists, Turnbull’s politically motivated argument that FTTN can be deployed faster and cheaper than FTTP comes across as irrational; a denial of obvious technical truths. And as Turnbull has been unable to convince technologists of the strength of his alternative NBN policy, the Liberal MP has become frustrated with his inability to get traction; hence his rants against technical journalists and his biting criticism of that ultimate technologist, NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley. In his career, Turnbull has rarely encountered communities he hasn’t been able to eventually win to his side of the argument; but he has failed with Australia’s technology community; because the only benchmark that community will accept is the quality of the technology put forward as a solution. Rhetoric, after all, is usually irrelevant to technical outcomes.
The fraught nature of this relationship is evident in the fact that even when Turnbull has backed the right horse — as he did with his concerns about the Government’s data retention and Internet filtering plans — the technology sector has given him little credit.
Going back to this article’s original thesis — the suitability of Turnbull for Australia’s highest office, and the support he has from the Australian public — there is really no evidence that Turnbull has less support from the electorate in general than he had before taking on the role of Shadow Communications Minister. The Liberal MP is as popular as ever with the Australian public; even his opposition to the NBN has not dented the overall numbers.
However, it is also true that Australia’s technology community will never forget Turnbull’s years as Shadow Communications Minister. Despite all of Stephen Conroy’s accomplishments with respect to the NBN in his tenure leading the portfolio for Labor, when the Senator resigned last month from his post, all many Australians remembered about Conroy was his support for the unpopular Internet filter policy.
With Turnbull it will be the same: No matter what Turnbull does from here, whether he languishes in Opposition or wins power with the Coalition in the upcoming Federal Election, whether he eventually becomes Prime Minister or President or pauper, many Australians will never forget his days trying to tear down the NBN. It is now part of the Turnbull brand forever — and a very ignominious part indeed.