In April last year, not long after Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal Party leadership, I suggested he should stick by his decision and resign from the House of Representatives on the eve of last year’s election. In the event, with the encouragement of John Howard among others, Turnbull stayed on and easily retained his seat of Wentworth.
There has been some excitement in media circles about Turnbull’s interview with Tony Jones on Lateline last Wednesday and his subsequent remark that “every member of the House of Representatives has a field-marshal’s baton, or the leader’s baton, in their knapsack”. (Consequently, no one ever discounts leadership ambitions.)
This is a truism, but leaders in democracies are not made by grabbing a baton from a knapsack. They are given the leader’s baton if they can obtain the support of a majority of their colleagues.
Turnbull does not accept that he has lost the support of his colleagues and it is most unlikely to ever be restored. But this is the case.
It made sense for Turnbull to replace the poorly performing Brendan Nelson as opposition leader in September 2008. But Turnbull did not perform well and he rarely troubled Kevin Rudd’s Labor government. Turnbull’s immediate decline and fall took place on national television. In late November 2009 the Liberals were divided as to whether to support Rudd’s emissions trading scheme and the Nationals, the Coalition partner, were opposed. Turnbull chose this period of acute tension to go on The 7.30 Report and attack opposition Senate leader Nick Minchin over the scheme. Two days later, during an interview with Laurie Oakes, he bagged both Minchin and Tony Abbott on their attitude to climate change.
On December 1, 2009 Turnbull lost the leadership to Abbott by one vote. There is little doubt Turnbull would have survived the year if he had not decided to criticise his senior colleagues. This was widely regarded as poor judgment and mismanagement.
Last Wednesday it was more of the (Turnbull) same. With the Coalition ahead in all polls, he did not need to go on Lateline. Having made the decision to be interviewed by Jones, Turnbull could have chosen to speak on his responsibilities as communications spokesman. However, invited to comment on Abbott’s policy of reducing carbon emissions by direct action, he criticised the opposition’s policy.
It is true that Turnbull did not back the Gillard government’s carbon tax proposal. But he did support an emissions trading scheme, to which the carbon tax is designed to lead. To viewers, whether supporters of Labor, the Coalition or the Greens, it was evident that Turnbull was criticising the Coalition’s policy. Yet on Thursday, Turnbull put a lengthy statement on his blog titled: “Lateline – what I actually said”, where he interpreted his own words. But the damage had already been done – both to the opposition and to Turnbull himself.
On Lateline Turnbull effectively supported the climate change approach adopted by David Cameron in Britain and his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. However, Cameron leads a coalition government because the Conservatives did not win enough seats from Gordon Brown’s Labour Party at last year’s election. Abbott’s political strength is his ability to appeal to traditional Labor voters in the outer suburbs and regional centres.
Turnbull overlooked the fact that the British economy is quite different to Australia’s. Britain has a large financial services industry, which benefits from trading in energy. Also, Britain does not export coal or iron ore and relies significantly on nuclear energy for power. The Australian economy is closest to Canada’s – where Stephen Harper has just led the Conservative Party to a significant victory with a promise not to proceed with a cap-and-trade scheme until the US does.
Without question, Turnbull’s approach to climate change enjoys considerable support within inner-city electorates, like his own, among well-educated voters in relatively secure financial circumstances. But this stance does not enjoy anything approaching majority support within the Coalition, which is looking to gain votes in the suburbs and regions.
Abbott is going quite well in the opinion polls. However, if he were to stumble, the opposition leader’s position would most likely go to Joe Hockey, Andrew Robb or Scott Morrison. Turnbull’s lack of political judgment has blinded him to the fact that his body of support is located outside the joint-party Coalition room in Canberra. Most Liberals and all Nationals parliamentarians who watched Lateline on Wednesday would not have regarded themselves as viewing the performance of a potential prime minister.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.