Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Malcolm Turnbull | The two sides still fight it out

The thing about Malcolm is that when he is good, he is very, very good, and when he's bad, he's a huge pain in the posterior.

The good Malcolm - Turnbull that is - does your head in. You look and listen and wonder why he didn't last as leader.

The bad Malcolm, who has had a few runs around the block lately, simply confirms why he didn't.

Brilliant and wilful, Turnbull's consistency of beliefs, from the republic to climate change, win him many admirers, but his mercurial behaviour and flawed political judgment lose two for every one he gains.

After he lost the leadership, he decided there was no future for him in the Liberal Party and announced his intention to leave parliament. There are those who now wish that John Howard and others had stayed out of it, and that Turnbull had been allowed to melt back into the arts and business community where volatility is prized and fools summarily dismissed rather than courted and stroked as they have to be by aspiring political leaders.

Howard's former chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, a first-class political and policy package, would most likely have won preselection for Wentworth and would by now be making a solid contribution to the Coalition's economic policy formulation and presentation.

After deciding to stay, Turnbull spun into a destructive devil-may-care phase, acting like he had nothing to lose.

Now, according to one of his close colleagues, he has accepted he will not become leader, that Tony Abbott is more likely than not to become prime minister, and that the most he can hope for is to serve as a senior minister in an Abbott government.

Of course being Malcolm there is nothing he would rather than a Turnbull government, and whatever he might feel in his heart of hearts, the prospects of that right now range from zilch to zero, given even his friends say they wouldn't vote for him and have pretty much told him so.

He gave every impression last week, on one critical day at least, that he has come to terms with that, apart from one subtle pitch for himself based on his cross-party appeal - that is, more Labor voters would rather see him as leader than anybody else - and one brief lecture on how carbon can be weighed even though Abbott asserted it was weightless.

That day (and again yesterday on Sky) it was the good Malcolm on parade: master of his portfolio, considered, disciplined, funny and apart from a couple of minor strays, determined to resist offers from journalists to trample over colleagues and his leader.

Lucky for him. With a growing number of his colleagues deciding they would be better off without him, his recent performances, particularly at the National Press Club, were being closely scrutinised to see which Malcolm was going to be wheeled out.

No one has suggested he should renounce his views, but they want proof of his acceptance that the climate has changed, and that policy should be left to the leader and relevant shadows.

It should be simple enough to keep his integrity and still not tip a bucket on his own side or provide the opportunity for others to do it.

Many of Turnbull's colleagues were sick of his resident climate change martyr role and if he had allowed himself to lapse into it again there would have been renewed pressure for Abbott to sack him.

The antipathy towards Turnbull is higher outside shadow cabinet than inside it. Inside, Turnbull's policy contributions and his intelligence - if not his political savvy - are valued. Abbott has so far rightly showed no inclination to move against Turnbull.

He has repeatedly brushed aside suggestions Turnbull has been disloyal, although as one of his friendlier front-bench colleagues admits, if Turnbull hasn't crossed the line, he has definitely pushed the envelope.

Despite Turnbull's paranoia (and is there a politician alive without a sizeable dose of it?) that Abbott and/or his office have been undermining him, or trying to muzzle him, Abbott is not spiteful or malicious, and is careful even privately to say nothing about him which could be misconstrued or precipitate a major conflict within the opposition. As well, Turnbull is an asset for the Coalition.

A national poll of 1000 voters conducted in July by JWS Research has come up with a surprising finding that Abbott has nudged just ahead of Gillard on the question of which leader has a stronger team.

Mind you it's only a tiny margin of 25 per cent to 24 per cent, and 51 per cent of people say both, neither or can't say, but it is highly unusual for an opposition to be ahead of the government on this question, given the profile - or lack of it - that shadow ministers usually have, and especially in an operation where Abbott is so dominant in the media.

According to John Scales, of JWS Research, opposition frontbenchers who typically rate a mention in focus groups are Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, Christopher Pyne and Barnaby Joyce.

According to Scales, Turnbull's antics have been nowhere near as disruptive for the Liberals and Abbott as have Kevin Rudd's for Labor and Gillard.

Rudd is not seen as part of the Gillard team. He stands out on his own as both past and possible future leader. Others mentioned in the Gillard ministry, such as Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan, are also talked about in a leadership context, so any policy connection is diminished.

People also still feel warmly towards Rudd, although not necessarily towards Turnbull. In their respective party rooms emotions swerve from mere dislike to hatred, a fact Turnbull acknowledges. He told one confidante recently that they had hated him before and still voted him in as leader, so nothing had changed - a remark which doesn't exactly imply full acceptance of his future role.

 Rudd no doubt thinks likewise. One close friend of his told another recently that Turnbull had been "born without an empathy gene" and another observed that expecting Malcolm to behave was like watching a reformed alcoholic. You have to take it one day at a time.

Turnbull, in these early and difficult stages of rehab, must realise further lapses risk a zero tolerance response. A pragmatic and all-powerful prime minister Abbott could well decide, at the urging of his friends, that he owes the bad Malcolm nothing. A defeated Abbott and Coalition even more so.

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