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Turnbull lives on

However much conservatives detest him, the former Liberal leader remains a formidable contender for prime minister

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

The Liberal party, its leaders are fond of claiming, is a broad church. But even the walls of St Paul’s would be creaking if they tried to contain the giant egos of Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Bolt within their boundaries.

The two men both regard themselves as the ‘real’ Liberal party: Turnbull the millionaire silvertail with the compassionate liberal (small-l) centre, and Bolt, the immigrant boy from the bush, an uncompromising Conservative (big-C). The two are polar opposites in every way but one: their adherence to the party, and the conviction that they know what is best for it. And this, of course, was the cause of their latest (but not first) clash.

Bolt accused Turnbull of trailing his coat to regain the party leadership from Tony Abbott: in particular Turnbull had been sprung dining with Clive Palmer without even the precaution of a long spoon. Wasn’t this undermining the Prime Minster? Turnbull replied that Bolt was ‘unhinged’. Bolt responded that Turnbull’s over-the-top response showed that he was interested in keeping the story alive. Faced with yet another distraction he could do without, in parliament Abbott took his minister’s side — as he was bound to.

But it could well have been against his own instincts, because not only does he have much more in common with the rambunctious and often perverse demagogue than he does with the upmarket lawyer and merchant banker; his sustained personal unpopularity with the electorate has ensured that his leadership has never been totally secure. The Liberals support their leaders while they are winning, but they are ruthless when they start to look like losers. And neither Abbott nor Turnbull has ever forgotten that when their first showdown came just four and a half years ago, there was only a single vote in it.

Although he poses no immediate threat, Turnbull is not going away; like Kevin Rudd was to Julia Gillard, he will be a constant memento mori at Abbott’s left shoulder. And he has reason to hope: once more the opinion polls show he is the preferred leader for the electorate as a whole although not — by a long way —  by coalition voters and by extension his party room, which is where it ultimately matters. But the polls are more than enough to keep him going.

After many years of casual acquaintance, I have come to the conclusion that there are only two human artefacts visible from space: the great wall of China and Malcolm Turnbull’s ego. Turnbull is certainly the richest, and arguably the most intellectually gifted among his colleagues. But he is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is when it comes to the nitty-gritty of practical politics — almost all his forays have started well, but ended badly.

Back in the days when he was leading the republican push (with Abbott in the opposite role) Turnbull rode a wave of support to the 1998 constitutional convention, advocating an indirectly elected president; and when John Howard announced that although the proposal did not have majority support, it was endorsed by more delegates than any other, and would go to a referendum, Turnbull believed he’d won. But in fact Howard had played him off a break: by a careful selection of delegates he had ensured the republican movement was bitterly divided between those who wanted direct and indirect election of the president.

He was also confident that the monarchists (whom he openly backed; during the convention he had said that Australia would become a republic over his dead body, a prospect Peter Costello, a conservative republican, might have considered a bonus) would run a massive scare campaign sufficient to derail any prospect of the republicans securing a majority of votes in a majority of states; in the event they did not even come close.

This ended up as two strikes against Turnbull; not only had his cause failed, but for the increasingly dominant right wing of the Liberal party it was the wrong cause: republicanism was Labor territory, promoted by the arch fiend Paul Keating. When he entered parliament in 2004 after engineering the mother of all branch stacks to gain the safe seat of Wentworth, there were many on both sides of the house who suspected him of choosing the wrong party.

He hadn’t: whatever his social views, Turnbull is firmly on the side of free enterprise, had already served as his party’s treasurer and had previously sought pre-selection for Sydney’s plush eastern suburbs seat. Howard had little hesitation promoting him, and he proved a competent front bencher covering the challenging field of Environment and Water Resources. But he was keen to speak outside his shadow portfolio, fuelling antagonism among more disciplined colleagues. He had always been a public figure, but now he increased his TV appearances, particularly on the ABC’s Q&A programme, condemned by conservatives (Bolt and this magazine among them) as being dangerously leftish. He even started a blog supposedly authored by his dogs, which was widely ridiculed.

So when John Howard lost both the 2007 election and his own seat, and Costello decided that although he had always wanted to be prime minister, being an opposition leader was just too grim, the party room opted for the comparative safety of Brendan Nelson, considered middle of the road although he had sported an earring. But after nine fairly lacklustre months in opposition, the party room decided they might as well punt high and see what happened. Turnbull took the leadership he had always considered his by right of his superior talents.

But again the wheels fell off. He became involved in a botched conspiracy involving a Treasury officer by the villainously Dickensian name of Godwin Grech (itself a warning) which left him vulnerable to his enemies on the Right. Encouraged by the formidable senator Nick Minchin, Abbott used Turnbull’s support of an emissions trading scheme as the trigger for a leadership challenge. Turnbull was narrowly and somewhat messily dispensed with — and the rest is history. Andrew Bolt was delighted. Abbott made Turnbull his Communications Minister, with the job of ‘demolishing’ Labor’s National Broadband Network. But Turnbull did not demolish it — instead opting to pare it down — and he went on to support gay marriage and defend the ABC. Bolt seethes. But the voters at large are more sympathetic. And thus, for the moment at least, Malcolm Turnbull lives on.

Mungo MacCallum, a journalist and author, has been covering federal politics for more than 40 years.

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