Not being a particular bright lot themselves, Canberra’s press corps will inevitably tout the aspiring leader who can be praised for piercing intellect and smartest-in-the-room insight. That’s a big part of how we came to be cursed with Whitlam, later Rudd and, most recently, the unlamented Malcolm Turnbull
“Clever but not wise” is a description applicable to all too many leaders both past and present, and the just-departed Malcolm Turnbull is a prime example. In so many ways he was outstanding. He was a Rhodes scholar. Yes, he was, sometimes, the brightest person in the room. Yet he lacked ordinary common sense. As Richard Alston observed in a recent article, he seemed impervious to sound advice. He was a political misfit, incompatible with Liberal Party culture or, indeed, more broadly, with the centre-right. Many have suggested that he was no better than Labor-lite and was in the wrong party, the ALP being his natural home. But when he sought a position on the ALP Senate ticket for New South Wales just after the defeat of the Republic referendum, as we now know, Graham Richardson saw through his pretensions and sent him packing in double-quick time.
Ideologically, I would describe him as a progressivist, addicted to a greater or lesser degree to the current leftist fads and fashions. Alston described him as having few convictions. I think that he is beings unfair and somewhat contradictory in his own assessment. The great standout in Malcolm Turnbull’s depositions from the Liberal Party leadership, both in 2009 and 2018, was a total absence of pragmatic flexibility in relation to so-called climate change. The reduction of CO2 emissions was a central article of his faith. Nobody but a warmist fanatic, determined by hook or by crook, to hold on to the leadership of his party at the same time, could have sought to impose on his reluctant colleagues the self-contradictory mishmash called the National Energy Guarantee, or, NEG. A truly pragmatic Turnbull may well have survived, but curiously, pragmatism on this central issue of recent times was foreign to himl. He was far too smart in his own eyes.
If Turnbull was a prime exhibit of cleverness, we would well do with less. Of course, cleverness combined with wisdom would be ideal, but, unfortunately, popular commentary has tended to exalt cleverness and scorn wisdom. Prime examples of cleverness without wisdom include the late Gough Whitlam and Kevin Rudd. Both possessed many laudable attributes but their lack of appreciation of the efficacy of government action were all too typical of the vanity and pretensions of the Left. Indeed, Rudd’s “cleverness”, (e.g. pink bats and the NBN), has had negative consequences. Oh yes, we need clever scientists, but did we need the recent conga line of clever egotistical politicians?
I am old enough to remember the rather hapless, half-forgotten Billy Snedden as leader of the Liberal Party opposition after the 1972 election. At the time, he was seen to compare poorly with the towering, brilliant and articulate Whitlam. The cartoonist, Larry Pickering, styled him, “mediocre man”, and the cruel, but in many ways accurate label stuck. During the May 1974 double dissolution elections, which Whitlam won, albeit narrowly, Snedden appeared out of his depth when questioned by journalists on the Coalition’s economic policy. I remember an ALP election ad featuring Whitlam and the words, “He’s so much better”. Oh yes, that was for sure. Snedden was described by Paul Hasluck as academically second-rate. Nevertheless, his political success, to the extent he achieved as much, owed much to an earthy shrewdness. Annoyingly to many, Snedden was prone to promising reviews of policies rather than providing decisive policy leadership. However his promise of, “sound and cautious administration” compares more than favourably with the Whitlam alternative in retrospect.
We may be glad that “mediocre man” never became Prime Minister, but he would have done far less harm than some of the best and brightest from the Left who have occupied the top office.
As for the latest mental giant to be shown the door, what is there to show for his bloodily obtained turn in office than the chaos, recrimination, bitterness and lost voters that, taken together, constitutes his legacy.