COVER STORY: News Weekly
Malcolm Turnbull topples Brendan Nelson
, September 27, 2008
Malcolm Turnbull's libertarian views may not go down well with the great mass of voters who are socially conservative.Malcolm Turnbull's first words after being elected federal leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party were deliberately designed to stress his humble beginnings.
After narrowly defeating the unlucky Dr Brendan Nelson, whose 10 months as leader were marked by relentless undermining and destabilisation, Mr Turnbull clearly sensed his greatest vulnerability was his wealth.
"I do not come to the position of leader of the Liberal Party from a lifetime of privilege," Mr Turnbull said at his first media conference.
"I know what it is like to be very short of money. I know what it is like to live in rented flats. I know what it is like to grow up with a single parent, with no support other than a devoted and loyal father.
"I know Australians are doing it tough and some Australians, even in the years of greatest prosperity, will always do it tough."Rudd's family wealth
Given that the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's family wealth is approximate to, if not greater than, that of Mr Turnbull's, the new Liberal leader's wealth should not be a problem.
Certainly, Labor is not going to be able to campaign on this.
Both leaders are reported to be worth at least $100 million, although Mr Rudd's wife Thérèse Rein's successful employment business is not publicly listed and the Rudd's have never responded to the wildly varying estimates of their family wealth.
Ironically, as the world's banking system teeters on the brink, Mr Turnbull's background as a businessman may even enhance his credentials with voters.
Mr Turnbull's Achilles heel is likely instead to be his worldview and his inability to relate to people in the outer suburbs and the regions where the votes are.
His libertarian views on issues such as gay marriage may be a good match with his ritzy Sydney electorate, but not with the great mass of voters who are socially conservative.
Despite his problems and poor showing in the polls, Dr Nelson at least was able to zero in on issues which mattered to everyday Australians. His push to cut the petrol excise was scoffed at by Labor ministers and commentators, but it resonated with voters who have been feeling the pinch of rising costs of living.
Similarly, Dr Nelson tried to take a tougher line on the Rudd Government's proposed emissions-trading scheme. He wanted to argue the case that Australia should not cut its own throat in a symbolic but pointless gesture to lead the way on tackling climate change.
Mr Turnbull and his henchmen on the frontbench refused to back him on challenging the Rudd Government on an ETS. Dr Nelson crumbled and his authority over the party was irreversibly damaged.
As the world's economy slows, it will be interesting to see if Dr Nelson's strategy was the more sensible route.
Mr Turnbull's rise to Opposition leader has certainly been spectacular. He has been in the federal parliament less than four years since winning the NSW seat of Wentworth in October 2004.
Mr Turnbull dabbled in journalism, but carved out a successful career as a lawyer and merchant banker. He first came to prominence in 1986 with the Spycatcher
trial, when the British Government tried to prevent the publication of a book by the former MI5 intelligence officer Peter Wright.
The following year Mr Turnbull went into business, forming an investment bank with former NSW Premier Neville Wran and Nick Whitlam. He also advised Kerry Packer, though the pair fell out later.
The share entitlements he received as head of the Australian arm of Goldman Sachs in the late 1990s and a $60-million profit from the sale of OzEmail in 1999 propelled him into serious wealth. In 2005, business magazine BRW
estimated Mr Turnbull's wealth at $133 million, but he has since dropped off its "Rich 200" list.
Nevertheless, the parliamentary register of pecuniary interests shows that Mr Turnbull and his wife Lucy own a complex portfolio of property, shares, securities and managed investment funds.
Mr Turnbull's wife is the daughter of former federal Liberal Attorney-General and prominent QC, Tom Hughes. She was formerly Lord Mayor of Sydney.
Mr Turnbull is the first Catholic and the first republican to lead the Liberal Party. He was leader of the Australian Republican Movement, but has sensibly suggested that any push toward a republic should be delayed until the current reign of Queen Elizabeth has ended.Fighting spirit
There is no doubt that Mr Turnbull is likely to bring enormous energy, verve and fighting spirit to the Liberal leadership.
Dr Nelson grabbed the Opposition leader's job because Peter Costello wouldn't take it. If nothing else, this showed he had courage and ambition, and he gave the job his best shot under difficult circumstances.
Dr Nelson was not quite ready for the job and, though he always spoke with conviction, he appeared not to have fully thought through his political philosophy.
By contrast, Mr Turnbull will bring with him an assuredness and self-confidence and a comprehensive worldview that Dr Nelson lacked.
The problem is, it may be the wrong worldview.