Malcolm Turnbull will and should be judged on substance not soundbites

Forget in-your-face politics, it’s policy that counts.

How many people are really shocked by the decline in Malcolm Turnbull's popularity? Are there really loads of people who thought that an all-time high could ever be sustained? Surely not. You would have to be the sort of person who has watched every replay of The Shawshank Redemption and still be surprised to see Morgan Freeman walking up the beach.

The cyclical nature of politics, the inevitable ebb and flow of polls, the certain flattening out of any person's popularity high are things we have all watched on rerun after rerun of the political cycle.

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As certain as the fall was, there was no shortage of journalists ready to portray it as being a surprise, a poll shock and many other variations thereof. That's life through the media lens. Everything is dramatised.

I saw this recently when someone was saying how good they felt about Bindi Irwin winning Dancing with the Stars because she had lost her father. I simply replied that she was no different to anyone else who lost their father and that it was more than a decade ago. The next day I read that I had mounted an attack on Bindi Irwin. A minor media frenzy ensued, over nothing.

Malcolm Turnbull faces dangers at every turn.
Malcolm Turnbull faces dangers at every turn. Photo: Nic Walker

So an inevitable correction in polling was always going to be sensationalised. Nonetheless there are some interesting aspects of this poll correction.

Under Kevin Rudd and then Tony Abbott we became accustomed to our federal political leaders being in the media every day. Rudd had endless selfies and really worked at dominating the news cycle 24/7. Abbott was a tireless opposition leader and he also became hooked on the news cycle treadmill, munching an apple or an onion, wearing hard hats and high-viz vests.


There was a fair bit of commentary seeking to remind them and us that government is a lot more than media management. Many became tired of in-your-face politics. I'm one of those people. It probably doesn't need to be said that I am fascinated by politics, but daily announcements and media appearances do not make good government. They might supplement it, tell us about it, but they are not the process of governing.

Turnbull isn't going to be seen as the flimflam, selfie-loving, apple-munching guy. He's going to think about things, look at the options and then make announcements. No doubt there will be some before the budget. Media management is a part of government. Then there will be the budget. After that we can all decide for ourselves what stuff Malcolm is made of.

John Howard understood very well how the press gallery worked.
John Howard understood very well how the press gallery worked. 

In the meantime, however, even though we've had a Defence white paper and plenty of other decisions announced, we have noticed that the in-your-face, daily decision stuff has ended – and were not sure we like it. The relative calm has rattled the horses. That unease I think has contributed to the flattening out in the polls.

Not seeing Malcolm out there every day, selfie-ing himself to death or munching on apples and onions, has led some to wonder what he is doing. The answer, to me, is simple: he's just getting on with the job of governing.

 I'm happy with that. Every minute spent in the media is a minute not spent focusing on your and my problems, or indeed on the opportunities that are ahead.

The media of course love prime ministers to be out making announcements. It's bread and butter to political journalists. They can then go and find someone unhappy with the announcement and, bingo, they've got a story.

The media of course love prime ministers to be out making announcements. It's bread and butter to political journalists. They can then go and find someone unhappy with the announcement and bingo, they've got a story.

John Howard understood very well how the press  gallery worked. He also understood how the print media can, in presenting something in limited space and to meet a deadline, not always present the story as one might prefer.

He understood that there is no substitute for talking directly to the people, and for that reason was quite a popular figure on morning radio shows. Yes, you might be interrupted or talked over occasionally, but because it was live you wouldn't be edited to suit the media proprietor and you could put your case your own way. The people get to hear you. Live radio is such a humanising, personal medium.

I think we will get used to quieter, calmer government. Focusing on the opportunities that are there for the taking, on our problems and the possible solutions, must produce smarter government. Whether we like less rah-rah or not, it is important that we don't confuse rah-rah with the serious business of governing.

In the United States we see the extraordinary process of the presidential primaries being conducted. Some of us look at Donald Trump and wonder how he can be so popular, given his past and some glaring policy inconsistencies. The explanation is that he is talking directly to the people. The "demos" in democracy gets forgotten all too often and replaced with commentators and self-appointed elites. Whether, if they get Trump as president, Americans will enjoy all the huff and puff is another question.

What they will want, what every normal citizen wants in every country, is good government. Substance not show. Come budget night in Canberra, we will be able to make a judgment.

Amanda Vanstone is a columnist with The Age and was a minister in the Howard government.


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