CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Behind the Liberals' leadership tensions
, June 11, 2011
On May 1 last year, Malcolm Turnbull made a surprise announcement on his political future — declaring that he had decided to re-contest the New South Wales seat of Wentworth at the forthcoming election just two months after declaring his intention to quit politics altogether.
It was a notable turnabout because few would contend that Mr Turnbull’s chief reason for entering politics was to become prime minister should that opportunity present itself.
When Mr Turnbull wrote about his rash decision to quit politics, he described it as “the most difficult decision of my life”.
However, Mr Turnbull said he had been overwhelmed by supporters and constituents who had urged him to stay, one of whom was former prime minister John Howard.
“The most important service I can render is to continue to represent the people of Wentworth with the commitment, the conviction and the energy which I have always sought to bring to the last five and half years of my parliamentary service,” he wrote on his website at the time.
Of course, at this point Kevin Rudd was still entrenched as Prime Minister, but was also wounded badly after walking away from what he had called the “greatest moral challenge” of climate change.
In truth, Mr Turnbull had made a calculated decision to stay in politics because he expected Tony Abbott would fall short at the 2010 election, and that he (Turnbull) could then reassume the leadership.
In the event, Mr Abbott did not fall short. The Coalition won the most seats in the House of Representatives, and it was only the decision by two rural independents to back Julia Gillard that denied Mr Abbott the prime ministership.
During a recent appearance on the ABC’s Lateline program Mr Turnbull admitted to his long-term ambitions, arguing that all MPs in federal politics still had a baton in their knapsacks. He also said he thought the Coalition’s “direct action” policy on climate change ineffectual, praising instead the British Conservative Party for its leadership in imposing a highly ambitious reduction target on greenhouse gases.
Mr Turnbull claimed later he was not being deliberately provocative, but he must have been aware his mere appearance on the program speaking on issues outside his portfolio would have been enough to create anger within the party.
Ambition is one thing, but other politicians are not so brazenly ambitious as Mr Turnbull, and his words have ignited an unwanted bout of leadership ructions inside the Opposition.
It is true the former merchant banker does have a genuine breadth of policy interests and ambitious ideas for Australia’s future, from population policy to water to redesigning cities to make them more liveable and environmentally amenable. These ideas make him one of the most exceptional individuals inside the Parliament.
But none of these (with the possible exception of being the father of a future Republic) will suffice in leaving the Turnbull mark on history.
It is not surprising therefore that his frustrated ambitions are starting to spill over into renewed problems with Mr Abbott, particularly given the politics of climate change where the majority of Australians appear strongly opposed to a tax.
Soon after this, a memo from the Liberal Party’s chief whip, castigating a group of MPs who had repeatedly missed divisions in the Parliament, was leaked. Mr Turnbull was one of the MPs named and he apparently took this as payback from Mr Abbott for his indiscretions on Lateline.
Of course, the episode was fanned by the Labor Party which was happy to exaggerate the “divisions” inside the Opposition.
Unfortunately for Mr Turnbull, Mr Abbott continues to confound his critics and his Labor foes, and surprise even his supporters, with his disciplined approach as Opposition leader.
It is not clear how much of recent reports of disunity inside the Liberal Party are deliberately malevolent. At a minimum, Mr Turnbull seems to have been extremely careless.
As things stand, there is no prospect of a move against Mr Abbott before the next election, and even if he were to fall on his own sword, there is far from any guarantee Mr Turnbull would be elected in his place.
The most likely prospect would be Joe Hockey, who would be seen as having electoral appeal.
But the conservatives now dominate the parliamentary party and there would be other likely challengers, including the likes of Andrew Robb and Kevin Andrews. Julie Bishop would not let the opportunity pass.
The reality is the “divisions” are personality-driven, and the “Turnbull supporters” could be counted on one hand.
Mr Turnbull may have many qualities. Unfortunately for him, patience is not one of them. Neither is the common touch, which is odd given that he grew up in far more impecunious and uncertain circumstances than did Mr Abbott.
His misreading of the politics of climate change cost him the leadership, and he fails to grasp that the majority of Australians see through a tax which will have no material affect on climate change, but will potentially cost Australian industry.