How radio’s killing the political star

Comment from Peter Saxon

And what a star Malcolm Turnbull was! That was before he took over as Prime Minister. 

I recall how, as the freshly minted Communications Minister, he wooed the crowd at a triple j function in 2013, held in the public bar of a workers’ pub in Newtown. Despite there being (by my guess) hardly a Liberal voter in the place, he managed to elicit an ovation that would have done Bob Hawke proud. 

Less than two years later that triple j crowd of mainly Labor and Greens types got to have their cake and eat it too. Turnbull assumed the role of Prime Minister without them having to hold their collective noses and vote Liberal.

It seemed a really good balance – a progressive PM leading a conservative party. Perhaps Australia could move beyond the white picket fences of the Howard years but in measured steps rather than the reckless speed of change of the Whitlam era. 

The idea captured the imagination of both the centre Left and the centre Right. It was a rare win for the “middle.”  The polls soared, for a time, but soon collapsed as the “middle” deserted Malcolm when it became apparent that as a leader trying to appease everyone, he pleased no one. 

To become PM he had entered into a Faustian pact with the party’s Right to retain pretty much all of the Abbott policies that the Left despised. At the same time he was forced to suppress his own progressive agenda on issues such as Climate Change and The Republic. Which led many to ask, “Why bother to change leaders for more of the same, just with a slicker salesman?” 

Tony Abbott endured 30 poor Newspolls in a row before he was axed by his own party in favour of Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull is only up to 18 poor results but the writing’s on the wall. For Turnbull, things are worse, much worse than they were for Abbott or even John Howard when he lost to Kevin Rudd in 2007.

In 2007, while Howard eschewed FM radio, presumably because he deemed it too frivolous for his persona, Rudd embraced it, eagerly participating in every crazy stunt the breakfast teams could dream up for the would-be PM. Frivolous as they may have been, Rudd understood that a Fitzy & Wippa listener’s vote has the same value as a Steve Price fan’s.

Turnbull knows that too. Perhaps better than anyone. Before becoming PM he was the consummate political guest on all manner of radio, whether AM talk, FM music or ABC.

He had the kind of media presence that Howard and Abbott could only dream of. But while they were never at ease on FM radio, at least they could always rely on a sympathetic ear from the likes of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley on AM. AlasTurnbull can’t find safe haven anywhere. Not any more. Not on AM or on FM.

The reason is simple: no one knows what he stands for. You can’t survive on radio as either a host or a guest if listeners don’t know what you stand for.

On no issue has Mr Turnbull’s lack of political will and courage been more apparent than on Same Sex Marriage. Now, I’m not about to go into an argument for or against SSM or tell you where I stand on the issue. If you want your personal position on the matter reinforced, go talk to your team’s cheerleaders. But if you want honest impartial analysis, I’m here tell you, that going by countless surveys, the ball game’s over.

While your average listener may tend to agree with surveys that support their own position and dismiss those that don’t as fake, anyone who works in radio and has ever read a survey book knows that scientifically based polls by reputable firms such as Newspoll, Nielsen and Galaxy are pretty reliable when an aggregate is taken over an extended period.

So, whether you are for or against same sex marriage, with independent polls consistently measuring well over 60% of Australians in favour of SSM, you would know that it’s all over, bar the shouting. 

Yet, the Turnbull government has decided that shout we must to the tune of $122 million. 


Ostensibly it’s because we need a debate and and to have our say. Really? We’ve been having this debate for a decade or more. People have made up their hearts and minds by now. No one is suddenly going to have a Damascene Conversion and see merit in the other side’s arguments. Both the Yes case and the No will be campaigns simply to shore up the faithful and goad them into filling out the form and posting it.

So where does our Prime Minister stand on this? On one hand he professes to support the YES campaign on SSM, which enrages the NO voters. On other, he is happy to enable a non-compulsory and non-binding postal survey which is seen by the YES camp as nothing more than a sham and a last ditch effort by the NO side to frustrate the will of the majority in the hope that they won’t be committed enough to bother to vote.

By having a bet each way, Malcolm of the “middle” has one foot on the ship and the other on the shore and is destined to fall between the two.

Normally a local regional breakfast show such as Lu & Matt (Luisa Pelizzari and Matt Griffith), on Triple M, Albury would be fawning all over a PM on the rare occasion one would grant them a personal interview. Yet last week Lu unnerved Mr Turnbull by asking him straight out, “How do you feel about the fact that you had to put your own beliefs aside to keep your political party happy?”


Had he the courage of his convictions – as John Howard did in 2004 when, without public consultation, changed the marriage act to say that it was exclusively a union between a man and a woman – Turnbull would simply ram through the required changes to the marriage act.

As it is Bill Shorten’s Labor opposition has The Turnbull government snookered. Over 100,000 people have enrolled to vote on SSM. As first time voters, you can bet that most are in the younger demographics and are likely to side with the YES campaign. Should it fail, Shorten, if elected PM at the next election, has promised to do what Turnbull can’t or won’t; put it to a vote in parliament. With compulsory voting at a federal election and 100,000 newly enrolled voters flowing Labor’s way, both Shorten and SSM is likely to get up.

 Peter Saxon


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