Whatever you thought of Leigh Sales’ interview with Malcolm Turnbull on The 7.30 Report last night, it had a defining moment; one that has the potential to recast the fortunes of his government. It was a moment of empathy, and empathy is a quality that’s become an endangered species in public life.
Turnbull recalled when he was a partner at Goldman Sachs in New York. Everyone, he said, was earning big money. But he queried the CEO about whether they were deserving of their good fortune, pointing out that in the streets below them, there were taxi drivers working far longer hours for a fraction of the rewards they were receiving.
I nearly fell off my chair. As someone who’d driven a taxi for many years – and who occasionally had to shrug off barbs from those who clearly regarded my line of employment as a reflection on my intelligence, as well as my station in life – this was an extraordinary thing to hear. Especially from a conservative politician.
Turnbull readily accepted Leigh Sales’ proposition that he’s been lucky. He has been gifted with high intelligence, a good education, good health, a beautiful family, and he’s been able to convert all of it into enormous wealth, which only a tiny few are able to do no matter how lucky they are, or how hard they work.
But Turnbull wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His mother had deserted his family at a young age. And perhaps that’s given him another gift: the emotional intelligence, as he called it, to have the imagination to walk in somebody else’s shoes. It was, he said, was the most important quality for someone in his line of work.
“The fact that we have to recognise is that much of our good fortune is good fortune,” he said. Such a statement must have burned the ears of many of his conservative colleagues. Turnbull is richer than most of them put together, but his words signalled a huge shift in rhetorical emphasis away from the brutishness of his predecessor.
Empathy has been in short supply in the so-called land of the fair go these last two years. It was what went missing when Peter Dutton joked about rising sea levels in the South Pacific. It was missing from his apology, too, for not realising there was a boom microphone over his head at the time.
It was missing when Joe Hockey said that poor people don’t drive cars, and if they did, they didn’t drive them very far. It was missing when he said the key to breaking into the housing market was to get a good job that paid good money. (Frankly, empathy was missing on most of the occasions Hockey opened his cigar-hole.)
It was missing when Christopher Pyne opined that women would not be disproportionately effected by changes to higher education, because most of them would only go on to be nurses and teachers anyway. It was missing from the Abbott government’s attitude to same-sex marriage.
It was missing when the government attempted to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. All of the government’s empathy on that occasion was reserved for the very white Andrew Bolt. It was missing when George Brandis said people had a right to be bigots. It was missing when Bronwyn Bishop took that chopper to Geelong.
Symbolically, this collective lack of empathy can be summed up in Tony Abbott’s words: “Nope. Nope. Nope.”
Inevitably, this lack of care for others has spilled over into other aspects of our national life. The incessant booing of Adam Goodes. The continuing degradation and dehumanisation of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Where once we found the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” we instead find fault.
The proof, of course, will be in the policies the Liberal Party takes to the election and, in the longer term, their outcomes. But with just a little empathy, Turnbull has changed the tone of the national conversation. It’s the first step towards saving his party from the sort of ideological drift – unhinged from the vicissitudes of life that effect ordinary people – that’s turned the US Republican Party into an unelectable circus.