Any international visitor who flew into Sydney last week, and has followed the domestic news since then, could well have got the impression that Malcolm Turnbull is the most important politician in Australia and that who leads the Liberal Party really matters. Yet, as anyone who follows Australian politics knows, it is highly likely that Kevin Rudd will lead Labor to a second election victory some time in 2010. The only matter of genuine debate turns on the timing of the election, the ALP’s margin of victory and how long its success will last.
In spite of this, much of the media is obsessed with the Liberal Party and its leadership. On Insiders last Sunday, the conservative commentator Andrew Bolt maintained that the Liberals are cactus. In The Sun-Herald that day, the columnist Paul Davey decided to give the Liberals some advice and declared: Enough! It’s time the Federal Opposition got behind a new leader.
The Liberal Party’s problems at the moment are self-evident. First, Rudd is a very popular prime minister who leads a government at a time when Australia has perhaps the best performing economy in the Western world. It’s true that Rudd Labor has benefited from a quarter century of economic reform led by such politicians as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Peter Costello. But the electorate is not all that interested in history.
Second, Howard despite his promises to the contrary failed to ensure an orderly leadership succession to Costello.
Third, Costello who was by far the best equipped politician to lead today’s Liberals decided to pack up his files and depart politics.
None of the above is the failure of Turnbull or Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott the key players among the contemporary Liberals. The fact is that Turnbull was the first cabinet minister to suggest privately to Howard that he should step down in favour of Costello. Turnbull proffered this advice in mid-2007.
Hockey and Mal Brough were the only two cabinet ministers to directly advise Howard to quit politics when the leadership was discussed during the APEC leaders meeting in September 2007.
Costello’s decision not to accept the Liberal leadership two years ago in part reflected his disappointment at not becoming prime minister. But it also indicated his realistic belief that Labor would win again in 2010 and that, if he led the Liberals to defeat, he would soon be replaced. Probably by Turnbull whom Costello regarded as a disruptive influence in the Howard government’s final term.
Despite his political inexperience, Turnbull was best suited to lead the Opposition in the absence of Costello. Brendan Nelson was not really up to the job. He was an able senior minister and will make a fine diplomat but these are different skills.
In the difficulties facing the Liberals at present, there are some possibilities along with the many negatives and a few realities.
Internal speculation about the Liberal Party leadership is pointless since there is no evidence that Hockey could do better against Rudd than Turnbull. The Opposition may as well run with Turnbull (born 1954) than Hockey (born 1965) since the latter is still young enough to spend more time learning on the job.
The coming byelections in the Sydney seat of Bradfield and in the Melbourne seat of Higgins provide an opportunity to test Turnbull at the ballot box. The Liberals have found good candidates in both seats Paul Fletcher in Bradfield and Kelly O’Dwyer in Higgins.
Labor will not contest the Sydney seat but may run a candidate in Melbourne. A strong vote by the Liberals would lead to a re-assessment of Turnbull’s capacity to lead the Opposition to the 2010 election. Some commentators are already doubting that O’Dwyer can hold Higgins. Nevertheless, she should start favourite.
Turnbull’s self-assurance which was evident when he headed the Australian Republican Movement and remains evident today is a weakness. But it can also be a strength. In the difficult environment at present there is something to be said for the Opposition having a leader who does not need to be loved. The only other Liberal who meets this test is Abbott and he has indicated that he is not interested in the leadership in the short term.
On The 7.30 Report last Tuesday, Turnbull followed up one of presenter Kerry O’Brien’s interruptions by commenting: Have you stopped asking the question or giving a speech? Can I answer now? On the same program on Thursday, O’Brien actually responded to a rhetorical question posed by Abbott and advocated a means of breaking the stalemate over the emissions trading scheme. Unlike Howard, Turnbull and Abbott are prepared to publicly take on journalists where appropriate.
As with the Liberals during the Hawke-Keating government and as with Labor during Howard’s ascendancy predictions about the Opposition’s long-term decline are likely to be exaggerated. In 1993 the academic Judith Brett wrote that the Liberal Party in the 1990s seems doomed. Within a few years some commentators were declaring that it was Labor which was doomed.
In the short term the Liberals, under Turnbull’s leadership, have little alternative but to advance good policy. There is much that can be said about small business including farmers, rising youth unemployment and the likely increase in power generation costs under a carbon reduction scheme that should appeal to the Opposition’s core support base. That’s about all that can be done until, in time, the electoral cycle turns. As it invariably does.