Malcolm Turnbull has wasted no time in letting John Key know how much he admires his work. (Photo: Hannah Peters)
17 October 2015
Adam Gartrell – The Age
It was October 2013, and Tony Abbott was out of his comfort zone.
He’d been prime minister just a few weeks and was attending his first high-stakes international summit at a glitzy resort in Bali. The foreign policy novice was a little nervous; he was on a steep learning curve and he knew his critics were poised to pounce on even the smallest stuff-up. Everyone wanted to know: could Abbott the head-kicker become Abbott the statesman?
Tony Abbott got along famously with his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper. It’s not surprising then that Abbott sought succour from the anglosphere, quickly gravitating towards Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It was here that their great bromance first bloomed.
The pair had met before, but never as equals. Now here they were: two deeply ideological conservative warriors who both worshipped at the altar of John Howard and subsequently clawed their way to the top of public life. Religious men who saw eye to eye on so many things, from climate change to left-wing media bias. They were soul mates.
Indeed, they got along so famously in their first meeting that they lost track of time and ran late for APEC’s opening session. After that they met every chance they could, always carving time from their busy diplomatic schedules to make time for each other.
It wasn’t the first such friendship of course. Howard’s relationship with George W. Bush could be seen as a template, although theirs was a friendship forged in the fires of terrorism and war rather than through pure ideological alignment.
Of course, Harper and Abbott differed in one very important way: the former was able to emulate Howard’s longevity; the latter not so much.
But never fear, bromantics: even as a I write this, a new love is blooming. Malcolm Turnbull is clearly quite enamoured with John Key.
It seems no Australian prime minister feels complete until they’ve found their foreign bosom buddy and Turnbull wasted no time finding his. Indeed, on the very night he toppled Abbott, Turnbull nominated the New Zealander Key as a world leader he hoped to emulate.
“My firm belief is that to be a successful leader in 2015, perhaps at any time, you have to be able to bring people with you by respecting their intelligence in the manner you explain things,” he said. “John Key has been able to achieve very significant economic reforms in New Zealand by doing just that, by explaining complex issues and then making the case for them.”
In other words, he wants to learn from a conservative leader who has found success doing exactly what Abbott so thoroughly failed to do. It’s clearly no mistake then that Turnbull’s first overseas trip took him across the Tasman.
Because while Australia loves to think itself superior to New Zealand, there’s at least one thing it’s unquestionably been doing better over the past seven or eight years: government. While we’ve been busy churning through prime ministers and slipping into ever more rancorous and vacuous political debates, New Zealand has been a model of stable, sensible democracy. And John Key deserves a lot of the credit for that.
Like Abbott and Harper, Turnbull and Key share a lot in common.
Both are moderate, pragmatic conservatives with a taste for slow and steady reform. Key calls his approach “radical incrementialism” – making big changes but making them slowly, methodically, once the public is fully on board.
As wealthy former investment bankers, they’re both firmly focused on the economy and believe entrepreneurialism should be rewarded.
But they’re also progressive on issues like gay marriage and both believe in climate change and the importance of careful environmental stewardship.
They’re positive and upbeat, more inclined to talk about opportunities than threats. They’re confident, capable and likable. And they’re effective communicators, active on social media and adept at marketing themselves.
But there’s still plenty for Turnbull to learn. Throughout his time in public life – particularly during his first stint as Liberal leader – Turnbull has often proven to be divisive. Key is the kind of unifying figure Turnbull aspires to be; he’s not only achieved some impressive reforms, he’s done it with a minimum of fuss and controversy.
Key’s also cultivated a “man of the people” public persona that Turnbull, who can sometimes come across as aloof and arrogant, would do well to watch.
What’s more, Turnbull intends to be prime minister for many years and Key is a model of longevity. He’s just about to mark seven years in power, with two years left to run on his current term – and he’s still popular. How does he do it in this febrile and querulous age? Can he help Turnbull break the cycle of instability afflicting Australian politics?
Unlike Abbott and Harper, Turnbull and Key don’t see enemies everywhere so they’ll never have the same us-against-the-world relationship.
But if this weekend’s trip is anything to go by they will be firm friends and Australia will feel – and benefit from – Key’s influence.
[Read The Age article].