There is no doubt that one clear winner in the 2010 election is Malcolm Turnbull. The staunch republican is hailed in the media with terms like “King Malcolm,” while reporters allude to his “graciousness” and “charisma” and Wentworth’s 11 per cent swing. The unexpected man of the hour has pulled himself out of the ashes to leave voters wistfully dreaming of the election that might have been, had he led the Coalition to the polls this year.
Turnbull, aka the man who stood for something, is remarkable not only for being a politician with something reminiscent of conviction, but also for being the only MP in the Coalition who is admired by right-wings, left-wings, young and old alike.
Even Germaine Greer has a kind word for him, calling him the Liberal party’s “ablest and most charismatic politician” in a recent article for the UK’s Telegraph. He is arguably the only politician to appeal to such a broad demographic and, with his triumphant return to the political stage and Australia’s disillusionment at the squabbling banality of the current election, this appeal is only set to increase. And Turnbull knows it.
Not reputed for his humility, he has silently and not so silently broadcast his leadership ambitions to the country. On Election Day, his face appeared on green posters unadorned by Liberal party logos, which sprang up mysteriously around interstate voting booths in Sydney. No doubt to remind the other states and territories that he’ll be an option one day.
The posters also had the effect of emphasising that Turnbull presents a viable future alternative to the Abbott conundrum, and the choice of the colour green was an apt nod to his stance on climate change. Indeed, Turnbull has proved so popular with non-conservatives that there have been several requests by eager fans that he defect to Labor.
As Malcolm Fraser reminds us on ABC’s Q&A, Turnbull is a “traditional liberal” of the small “l” variety and he possesses that rather outrageous combination of financial conservatism and social liberality. A very shocking mix, indeed, given the present dominance of the hard-line Liberal Right: however, it is hardly plausible that Turnbull would throw in his lot with the current Labor party, which has proved to be terrified of social progression and dominated by increasingly out of touch trade unionists. While the right-wing Liberal party is also an ill-fitting shoe, it is not one that Turnbull is about to remove when he is so close to the realisation of his leadership ambitions.
And we all know that he is ambitious. While many young idealists are currently enamoured with him, his arrogance is legendary, as is his autocratic style of leadership. So why does the Australian public have such a soft spot for him? Not only do we always want what we don’t have, generally around election time we also want our leaders to show some … well, leadership. A bit of vision doesn’t go astray either.
Simple requests, maybe, but neither Gillard nor Abbott were able to fulfil them. Abbott, in particular, can’t seem to string a sentence together without alienating half the country, and it seems he only performed so well on Election Day because he kept quiet the week before.
Arrogance and all, Turnbull offers the Liberal party a chance to seduce a myriad of voters who would otherwise run screaming in the opposite direction when faced with Tony Abbott. Compared to Abbott, the man who was martyred for his faith in the ETS begins to look strangely Messianic. In other words, Turnbull could probably win an election.
And would Prime Minister Turnbull be such a bad thing for Australia? If he really can fulfil his potential and walk the wavering line between social progression and economic conservatism, then maybe not. On the plus side, a man with Turnbull’s business experience presumably has some knowledge of how to run an economy. Furthermore, not only has he demonstrated his commitment to dealing with climate change, he has also worked consistently at addressing the oft-avoided issues of mental health and suicide and has increased the media’s coverage of these concerns.
Turnbull has also shown us glimpses of the world of his inner values. He was the only MP from the two major parties to counter the wave of moral panic surrounding Bill Henson’s artworks in 2008, and he openly supports same-sex couples’ legal and financial rights (sadly stopping short of the M-word). Earlier this year he also acknowledged the legal rights of refugees. All of which might make one wonder if beneath the surface of his charm and ambition there is a man of principle.
Having said that, Turnbull has also mastered the art of the political back flip, and under pressure he has censured Bill Henson and, like so many political leaders, played on our xenophobic fears and pronounced that he will “stop the boats”. There is no doubt though, that his popularity stems from the public’s current belief in his integrity and his ability to appeal to Australians across the political spectrum, blurring the divide between Liberals, Labor and the Greens. He very much remains one to watch in the current political climate. Whether he will deliver or disappoint is another matter entirely.