Waleed Aly gave the speech Turnbull should have.

Waleed Aly’s impassioned editorial on Islamic State and the Paris attacks was perfect. Yet how good would it have been if such insight had come from our national leaders rather than a TV presenter, writes Terry Barnes.

The latest opinion poll results will make Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull very happy. According to the Fairfax Ipsos poll published on Monday, the Coalition leads Labor by 48 per cent to 29 on primary vote; by 56 to 44 on two-party preferred, and Turnbull himself has a net approval lead over Opposition Leader Bill Shorten of a whopping 81 points.

The last time a PM enjoyed such a huge net approval lead over his opposite number was back in 2009, when Kevin Rudd ran rampant over the then hapless Liberal leader, one Malcolm Turnbull.

Watch Aly’s full speech here:

The Ipsos poll was taken, in part, over last weekend, after news broke of Friday’s dreadful night of terror in Paris. Fortuitously, Turnbull was in Berlin as the French capital endured one of its darkest nights. His response was correct and businesslike. He called on the French embassy in Berlin to express the horror and condolences of all Australians. He worked through the night, and the weekend, to ensure Australia’s national security response was sound, and sought to reassure Australians every possible precaution was being taken to protect us at home and abroad.

He then went to the G20 summit in Turkey, consulting with US president Barack Obama, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and other world leaders.

To his great credit, Turnbull also pointed out to Insiders’ Barrie Cassidy that the hideous atrocities in Paris have counterparts in Turkey, Lebanon and the suspected downing of a Russian jetliner over Egypt by the Islamic State terror group. He grasped that Paris was not just a huge attack on the West and its way of life, but part of a wave of terror reaching across the civilised world.

In other words, Turnbull followed meticulously the political leadership textbook. He responded, he reassured, he acted. He looked decisive and in charge, just as Abbott did in July last year when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by Ukrainian rebels. It’s what prime ministers do.

In times as grave as these, it is not enough, however, to apply the mechanics of leadership. What’s also needed is someone who can inspire a worried nation, to show passion beyond the bureaucracy exterior and bring people of all backgrounds, and faiths, together in common cause against a shared shadowy foe.


Tellingly, what needed most to be said in the aftermath of Paris came not from Turnbull or another politician, but from Muslim academic and presenter of Channel 10’s news chat show The Project, Waleed Aly. A left-wing political scientist and TV personality, Aly is not normally someone earning the praise of someone from the conservative right, but his Paris editorial on national television nailed it.

Quoting Islamic State’s own words against it, Aly made an impassioned plea for unity — indeed for community — and understanding over hate and fear. He said that IS wants to split the world into two camps, fomenting “a global war between Muslims and everyone else… They want countries like ours to reject the Muslims and vilify them.”

If you didn’t see it on Monday night, go online and watch, particularly Aly’s most telling points that speak to all of us:

ISIL leaders would be ecstatic to hear that Muslims have been reportedly threatened and attacked in England, America and here in Australia because this evil organisation has it in their heads that if they can make Muslims the enemy of the West, then Muslims in France and England and America and here in Australia will have nowhere to turn but to ISIL. That was exactly their strategy in Iraq. And now they want it to go global. Saying that out loud, it is both dumbfounding in its stupidity and blood-curdling in its barbarity…

So if you’re a member of Parliament or a has-been member of Parliament (Pauline Hanson) preaching hate at a time when what we actually need is more love, you are helping ISIL. They have told us that. If you are a Muslim leader telling your community they have no place here, or a non-Muslim basically saying the same thing, you are helping ISIL. They have told us that. Or if you’re just someone with a Facebook or Twitter account firing off misguided missives of hate, you are helping ISIL. They have told us that. And I am pretty sure that right now none of us wants to help these bastards.

Whether you’re of the left or right, Christian or Muslim, how utterly correct Aly is.

Indeed, Australia’s grand mufti, who continues to refuse to condemn the extremists that carried out the Paris killings, would do well to pay heed to his fellow Muslims’ words.

Yet how good it would have been had words of such great heartfelt passion, power and insight had come from Turnbull, Shorten, Abbott or any of our elected leaders whose collective fear of saying the wrong thing at a time of great crisis means that they don’t say the right things at all. It should not have been left to a TV presenter, however expert and charismatic, to say what needed to be heard by all of us, challenging and dismissing intolerance and hatred born of fear.

Turnbull is as intelligent and articulate as Aly, but if he is to earn his stratospheric poll ratings he must inspire as well as administer. He has the talent, self-belief and sense of personal destiny to be an inspirational leader in troubled times. But what’s needed now is more than Turnbull finding his inner statesman: he must find his inner poet. Our politicians are used to governing in tendentious bureaucratic prose, but just now we need passion and poetry.

Winston Churchill understood leading Britain through her finest hour: so should politicians of all sides of our politics who claim Churchill as their hero.

Like Churchill, and as a barrister, journalist and politician, the urbane Turnbull is better placed than most to grasp the power of language and ideas to inspire others. If he can find the right words in the days and months ahead, when our Islamic State enemies are striving to divide, conquer and destroy civilised people everywhere, Turnbull truly will deserve the adulation that’s flooded his way since he took the prime ministership.

This post originally appeared on ABC’s The Drum

© 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here.

Terry Barnes is a policy consultant, former senior Howard government adviser and a regular columnist for The Drum.