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Thrills and spills all the way

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 17 September 2008


A word of advice for those who are members of the Liberal Party around Australia - your new leader Malcolm Turnbull will give you a thrills and spills ride all the way to the next election.

Turnbull is a different creature to those Liberal leaders who have gone before him, with the possible exception of John Hewson, with whom he shares some characteristics.

With Turnbull what you see is what you get - a man wholly confident in his own ability and intellect. A man who does not suffer fools gladly, and who is impatient with bad policy and naked political opportunism. A man who is probably more productive in terms of work output than even the workaholic Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, but who does so without beating his chest about how he burns the midnight oil and how he expects others to do so. A man who does not tolerate disloyalty and betrayal and who, if he lines you up, can destroy even the most seasoned opponent with his invective.

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When he ran the Australian Republican Movement, Turnbull’s great strength was his indefatigable desire to push the cause. Every waking moment - and there are many more of those in Malcolm’s life than there are of the shut-eye variety - is spent plotting and planning and thinking. Ideas from Malcolm fly around at 3am as readily as they do at 3pm.

And much of his work is done in cyber space. Malcolm Turnbull is probably the most tech savvy political leader at the federal level. Since his days when he made one of his fortunes investing in internet provider Ozemail, Turnbull has readily embraced technology as a primary tool of communication. How he translates this capacity into a political weapon will be an interesting side-play in the evolution of his leadership.

For Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull is a much tougher opponent than Brendan Nelson. Turnbull appeals to people who vote Labor. His republican credentials have given him credibility among Labor progressives, as has his heart-on-sleeve liberalism.

In many ways Turnbull is less conservative than Rudd. When the fracas over Bill Henson’s artworks featuring underage girls broke earlier this year, Turnbull supported Henson, while Rudd and Nelson peddled the lines of the populist moral right.

Turnbull is also interested in good policy, and policy that is beyond the left right divide. Turnbull’s voracious appetite for knowledge and ideas, coupled with his undoubted lawyer’s capacity to marshal facts and distill them effectively into the public arena, will test Rudd’s cautious and bland approach to policy discourse.

The challenge for Malcolm will be to take the Party with him. In the republican movement he was the unassailable leader, despite rumblings from high profile members of the movement about Malcolm’s take no prisoners style. But the Liberal Party is a very different beast and this is where the comparison with John Hewson takes hold.

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Many in the Liberal Party never warmed to Hewson because he was not a creature of the Liberal Party but was, like Turnbull, a successful businessman who quickly rose through the Party ranks to become Leader and who once there, did little to embrace the Party faithful, instead preferring to focus on policy making. As a consequence Hewson’s 1990-1994 leadership was a high wire act and when Hewson fell it was nasty for himself and the Party.

The one thing that Turnbull can do is to recapture small “l” Liberal voters who could not vote for Howard or Nelson. These voters have drifted to the ALP and even the Greens. Mr Turnbull’s social and economic liberalism should be attractive to these voters. And it should help to reposition the Liberal Party to where it ought to be and once was - a broad church.

The Liberal Party needs to prepare for a high roller ride with Malcolm. If it works Kevin Rudd will be in real electoral trouble, if it fails, then at least the Liberal Party will have been turned inside out - no bad thing for any party these days.

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This is a longer version of an article first published in Crikey! on September 16, 2008.



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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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