SIMPLY, too clever! The release of the conversation between Malcolm Turnbull and US President Donald Trump provides an incisive insight into the Prime Minister.
For some it will simply reinforce the clever businessman who can have his cake and eat it, too. For others it will be the final straw exposing suspicions of making promises while having no conviction nor intention to deliver.
Brinkmanship is a business practice to test who will cave first. It is also common in politics. Turnbull has been an effective practitioner and many will admire his skill, giving him credit for bringing a disparate group of liberals and conservatives with him into government.
The game of brinkmanship may help explain his conversation with Trump. The Prime Minister was looking for a way through, looking for a win-win situation. The US could stick to the agreement to take 1250 refugees (even though Trump had figures like two or five thousand in his mind). Just make the deal a façade.
Appealing to Trump’s idea of “bad people” who had been “in prison”, Turnbull managed to work around the President’s appeal (“This is going to kill me. I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country”).
The PM patiently explained: “Every individual is subject to your vetting. You can decide to take them or to not take them after vetting. You can decide to take 1000 or 100. It is entirely up to you. The obligation is to only go through the process.”
He even concluded: “It does not require you to take any.”
Refugee representatives will be outraged. The perception is overwhelmingly about duplicity; promising a breakthrough and then being politically slimy enough to explain to the President how to create the perception without delivering. Businessman to businessman!
The conversation reinforces the litany of doubts about whether or not Turnbull really has any convictions at all. How long can centre-of-politics folk hold on to the belief that decisions are based on holding the Liberal Party together. On making compromises that mean retaining government.
The hero of the Republican movement has moved to a delaying tactic of “not while Queen Elizabeth is still alive”. The stalwart on climate change has stood up for Adani to be Australia’s largest coal mine and overseen cuts to growth in renewable energy development and manufacture.
Then there is the PM’s support for marriage equality. As important as the issue is for marginalised and those made second-rate citizens, it is not the main game for the government. Turnbull can stand up for what he believes and get the issue off the table. Within weeks of legislation passing to allow same-sex marriage the issue will be completely off the political agenda.
Turnbull has the opportunity to show true leadership. The conservatives know they have no chance in the polls without a moderate leader.
In seeking to stick to the patently stupid plebiscite proposal, the conservatives expose yet another Turnbull turnaround. Serious political leadership would get the issue off the table. Turnbull can manage this with the same political dexterity as conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the same time he will be seen to stand up for what he believes. In this case, true leadership would be to allow a free vote.
Turnbull remains between a rock and a hard place. This was the mantle he took on when he accepted the leadership of the Liberals and the prime ministership. Some voters see him as politically astute in his wheeling or dealing. However, many will have their concerns reinforced and see him as a duplicitous, smarmy politician saying whatever he needs to say to hold on to power.
The final word based on that famous phone call was put most clearly by Michelle Grattan: “When Trump described the earlier reports of the call as ‘fake news’ and Turnbull, sitting beside him in New York, agreed, they were both lying. We knew it at the time, but the transcript has provided an effective lie detector.”
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.