The Prime Minister's Jokes

[This article was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland.]

Michael Kretowicz


Malcolm Turnbull was at the orgy in the 1970s (his one-time friend, the late Bob Ellis, attested to this) whilst his colleagues were fingering rosaries or the remembrance poppies on their lapels. Did we really expect they would stand by him? I think Ellis knew it would end this way, “Smashed in his heart, once more (once more) by desertion”. He is a leader without a party. The punch line is that we are deserting him, too.

We laughed with him, sighed with him, and nodded solemnly at his prognoses. Above all, we liked his style: crash through or crash. Style is the word to note. For Malcolm, crash through or crash means beat the opposition (in short order), or make a display of being beaten. Consider the interview he gave to Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes on November 29th 2009, two days before losing the leadership of the Liberal Party. Oakes put it to him that he might delay debate on the Emissions Trading Scheme legislation and live to fight another day. He dug in: "Laurie, I will win on Tuesday, and I am not interested in becoming a mouthpiece or a patsy or a tool for people whose views are completely wrong and are contrary to the best interests of our nation, our planet, and, indeed, the Liberal Party."

The Oakes interview tells us two things about Malcolm. One, he really believes in his beliefs. Two, he is impatient to be seen to be a believer. The latter tends to get the better of the former. He had no inclination for the underground work on climate change: slowly, cautiously, gently but surely bringing his party around. Obstructed by his colleagues, he went on camera and called them wreckers. They replaced him with Tony Abbott, who proved to be the most effective wrecker of them all. Perhaps Malcolm is a martyr, but one who is greedy for the drama of the pyre.

Showmanship counterpoints sincerity. He will do anything to convince us that he is nursing a heart of gold. He will not step aside to spare the ideal of his premiership, a liberal premiership in the classical sense, from numberless humiliations at the hands of his conservative colleagues. He needs to be seen to be cut down, alone, and, at last, the hero. Less Caesar than Agrippina, mother of Nero. When Caesar saw Brutus draw his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank in despair. Compare Agrippina: faced with assassins sent by her son, she cried out and offered her womb to their blades. Should the Liberal Party close in around Malcolm, he will insist, “strike here!” and point to his heart. We lean in to see the wound. The realms of performance and real life encroach upon each other in a dangerous way. Did you see what I saw, or was he so much screen magic?

Long before becoming Prime Minister, Malcolm was a recurring character on the ABC’s Q&A programme. August 23rd 2010 is a red-letter broadcast. Two days have passed since the election which hung our Parliament. The headlines are loud: peril, desperation, the unseemly labour of forming government. Malcolm looks good. Colour in his face, shirt unbuttoned at the neck, and a black leather jacket: easy rider with a travel allowance. The panel is considering the number of informal votes cast at the last election. Graham Richardson, ur-hack of Labor’s right wing, furrows his brow, as if to say, "I am anxious on behalf of our democracy". Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young throws a fast pitch: “There was a larger swing to informal votes than there was to the Liberal Party”. But Malcolm is already amongst us, watching the action from the stands: “That's why I didn't wear a tie, you see. I'm courting the informal vote tonight”. We laugh, pleased to know he is also getting bored.

Annabel Crabb has written that his life story seems like it was embellished for the screen, twinkling with little twists and synchronicities for the viewer to spot and enjoy. I would add that Malcolm writes his own best material. Of course he wore that leather jacket again. He knows we crave these inside jokes. They allow us to differentiate ourselves from the other, less observant spectators. We can enjoy the spectacle without getting lost in the crowd.

We tune in again. February 16th 2015: three weeks since Tony Abbott, then Prime Minister, announced Prince Phillip’s knighthood, and seven days since a large minority of the parliamentary Liberal Party voted to remove their captain from office. The disloyal lost their jobs, including Phillip Ruddock, the Chief Whip and longest serving member of the House. The Prime Minister’s judgement is again called into question. A mother asks, “Has the wrong man been sacked?” Lisa Wilkinson, tonight’s designated voice from the people, gets the first word: this is not good government; the Prime Minister keeps breaking his promises; he is under some Dark Age delusion; we want this to stop; his own colleagues want this to stop. She clinches her monologue with a line subtle enough for daytime television: “We all knew, everyone in this room, everyone watching, knew that he [the Prime Minister] had real issues with the backbench, and forty percent of the people who sit behind him don't want him there as leader". Two and a half minutes have elapsed since she began. Without missing a beat, the host, Tony Jones, invites a reply from Malcolm Turnbull. Laughter and applause. If you’re not laughing too, you need to watch more television.

The comedy relieves us, temporarily, from our boredom with the show’s premise. The website says Q&A is “a rare opportunity for Australian citizens to directly question and hold to account politicians and key opinion leaders […] we aim to create a discussion”. But the question, “has the wrong man been sacked?” is a pantomime of directness. Lisa Wilkinson’s dismay is the warm-up act. We are shown seven shots of Malcolm whilst she is speaking. The eighth starts during her concluding sentence. Hold that shot: the camera confirms our sense that he is impatient to answer. This question, ostensibly about the Prime Minister’s judgement, is a cute way to get Malcolm talking about what he already believes. We’ve scattered petals in his way; we expect him to blush; and we would be offended if he did not scoff with us, smirk with us, up in the stands. On television, the spectators are always paid the final compliment. We watch Q&A because we want to know who we should laugh with and who we should laugh at, who’s too crude or sincere to flirt with the question.

Turnbull starts sombre. He pays tribute to his colleague, Phillip Ruddock: “it was a very sad day for all of us when we learnt that […] his services as Chief Whip had been terminated by the Prime Minister”. Jones tries to confirm the answer implicit in that answer. He asks, using words to the effect, was it a mistake to fire such a respected colleague behind the back of the Liberal Party? Adding, “this is a question for your opinion”, which elicits a laugh, including from Turnbull. We have watched enough television to know that politicians don’t have thoughts, only positions (drafted, focus tested, and recited on cue). And Turnbull’s watched enough to know that the best answer to a gag is a funnier gag. He will not let Jones run away with the crowd.

Smiling now, “I’m happy to share my opinions on a lot of things...”. Shot of the questioner, laughing with her shoulders. “He is — you know, he’s the boss”, shrugging his way towards the punch line. “What is it?” impeccably coy, searching for the words like a mother playing hide-and-seek with her son. “He’s the captain. He can make a captain's call. Well, I mean, that’s his description of it. It’s true. It is true.” Malcolm uses Abbott’s unfortunate idiom to scathing effect. We can sense the sly history in his voice. Our laughter is eloquent of another inside joke. This is not the laughter of sycophants or giddy admirers, but of accomplices. We share the same too-wise grin. He implies his embarrassment about Abbott (simultaneously, our embarrassment) without having to paint “Republican” on a banner and march under it. We can move on, flattered and reassured to count ourselves as part of the clear-eyed clique which gets a kick out of Malcolm Turnbull’s jokes.

One year earlier, a group of students caused Q&A to go briefly off air when they stood up and began to chant, cutting off a politician’s answer. Their banner, which publicised an upcoming rally, hung for a long two minutes as security failed to remove them from the studio. Helpless, Tony Jones looked into the camera and spoke an oracular, “I can’t hear you”. When the broadcast returned, Jones reassured the panel, the studio audience, and us at home, “That is not what we want to happen on this programme. That is not what democracy is about”. If the outside world intrudes, remember that we are not here to listen to people’s testimony. Policy questions only. Stay seated. A roll of your eyes will suffice. Jones reinstated the show’s premise — which the students defied so astutely — and made the studio safe again for the exchange of clever jokes.

Malcolm became Prime Minister, and we soon resented him. The gap between seeming and being grows wider by the day: we want to see him as a liberal, but he acts like a conservative. We wonder, what does he really believe? I suspect his beliefs have not changed much since being elected to Parliament in 2004. In his maiden speech, the member for Wentworth acknowledged the Republican dream and the warming planet, between riffs on his major theme, autonomy (of individuals, markets, and the family unit). Over time, we conflated his beliefs into the kinetic force of a cause. Two and a half years in government behind him, the liberal premiership looks like a grab-bag of brazen lies. How will Malcolm react to the prospect of desertion? True to form, he will stay where he is. He will crash where everyone can see him. And in the meanwhile, he does his best to remind us of our old flirtations, and the warm flush we felt when laughing together.

A commonplace of politics is that leaders stumbling at home look to foreign affairs for an opportunity to strut. In May 2017, Turnbull met with President Trump in New York. We might ask, Prime Minister, what is your opinion of the President, can you work together? His answer could be something like the speech he gave, one month later, to the assembled journalists and politicians at the Parliamentary Press Gallery’s annual Midwinter Ball. “It [the meeting] was the most beautiful putting-me-at-ease ever.” He has the hyperbole down pat. He mimics the trademark gestures (hands raised, forefingers touching thumbs), which follow the cadences of his speech like signals for when to laugh. “The Donald and I, we are winning and winning in the polls”, he continues, over belly laughter and applause, “we’re winning in the real polls […] they are so easy to win. I have this Russian guy… Believe me, it’s true. It is true”. Here he is, sharing in our contempt for the President. The room is ready to reward him. A wink, a smile, our accomplice again.

Malcolm is not a cynical manipulator; he is an honest one. It would be simple, even reassuring, if he had been lying to us all along: another politician. We resent him because we enjoy who we are when we laugh at his jokes. Namely, we enjoy being a member of that group which sees politics clearly enough to recognise the punch lines as they connect. But politics has overtaken our Prime Minister. Eight years after the Oakes interview, he leads the, “do-nothing on climate change party” (his words), the postal vote party, the Elizabethan party.

We are visited by the dreadful fact that our perception of politics — of what our fellow Australians wanted, and what the Prime Minister could achieve — was always partial or distorted. We thought we were laughing at the Tony Abbotts, but we were only laughing about them. We thought we were doing something because we were doing it with Malcolm (his presence had the semblance of kinetic force), but we were only being embarrassed or angry about events unfolding around us. Our jokes were a form of solipsism; we were laughing for ourselves.

Now, we are anxious because we can sense ourselves doubting a cause, the liberal premiership, which we are not prepared to let go of. What should we do? We could damn the Prime Minister (and set our spurs to the showman: recognising his end, he will seize the moment’s dramatic potential, “strike here!”). Naturally, we lean in for a glimpse of the body. The viscera of a fourth dissevered premiership assure us that once more (once more), something has changed.

Or, we might hold on to this anxious energy, and use it to achieve a different politics. Start by distinguishing between the man and the cause. We should be clear-eyed about what kind of politician the Prime Minister is. He is neither a creature of his party nor a grassroots warrior. He plays to the crowd. For such politicians, all that succeeds is success. Their authority depends on staying in the contest, on maintaining the good will in the stands.

We have met this kind of politician before. Bob Hawke at his best was all earthly grace. Quirked eyebrows and a rascal smile, his cheek belied the statesman within. He was irresistible, especially to the platitude-weary hacks of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, whose too-wise expression is now replicated in front of televisions around the country. The difference between Hawke and Turnbull? One kept pace with politics, set the pace, whereas the other has been overtaken by it. Hawke was a true protagonist (the chief advocate, the champion of his party’s cause); Turnbull looks scattered, and our good will is turning into boredom.

The Prime Minister is on his way out, but the liberal cause need not follow him. Not, that is, if we commit ourselves to it. Whether we do so is ultimately a question for us. No monologues from the panel, no directions from the host. To achieve an answer, each of us must risk an opinion and situate his or her self amongst the diversity of beliefs which make up the body politic. Exit the assured but sterile universe inhabited by the spectator. Do not wait for the next glib line. Commitment is the antithesis of the audience’s self-satisfied laugh.


About the author: Michael Kretowicz graduated from UQ in 2018 and is currently reading for the MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

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