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Liberals should unite behind Turnbull

15 September 2008 1,010 views No Comment

LATE last month, Peter Costello was toasted to the rafters at a sumptuous event in Melbourne. Among Liberal true believers he is acclaimed as the main architect of Australia’s economic prosperity in the past 10 years.

Who knows, if he had become leader in June 2006, it could have been him and not Kevin Rudd sitting in the Prime Minister’s seat in the House of Representatives today. But then prime minister John Howard would have none of that and as we say, the rest is history.

Tomorrow, Costello is launching his memoirs.

If the leaks and extracts are indicative of the book as a whole,  while he makes a number of useful fiscal and economic suggestions, Costello’s co-authored memoirs doesn’t resolve much at all.

Why, for example, didn’t he have the bottle to challenge Howard for the federal Liberal leadership, and why wasn’t he willing to be conscripted to replace Howard and now Brendan Nelson?

To put it mildly, Costello’s latest equivocations will not enhance his public and political reputation. Indeed, rather than buying the book, many punters might think that the $55 may be more usefully spent on a donation to the Salvation Army.

It seems highly likely Costello will not challenge Nelson, which means that he won’t be written into the history books for leading Australia.

But as long as he remains in federal parliament, there is still a chance Costello could be conscripted to the leadership. Think of Kim Beazley, who despite his many, many protestations to the contrary, was co-opted to the leadership  in his case, yet again.

When Costello was in his 20s, many thought it was his destiny to be Liberal leader. Most now forget that, rather like his brother Tim, in his final years at school and then as a University student, he enthralled the young Christians with his passionate dissertations on the meaning of scripture. Now it seems Costello’s manifest destiny to lead was not written in the books after all.

It is time, therefore, for the Opposition in Canberra to look beyond Costello and think about who is going to lead them to the next election.

The primary consideration in this must be: who can most effectively help the Liberal Party and their very minor federal partner, the Nationals, win the next election?

The Rudd Government isn’t doing that well: interest rates and inflation are high by Australian standards, the 2008 federal budget did little to address key economic issues, they are raising taxes in many areas (something we haven’t been used to in the last 11 or so years), grocery and fuel prices are high, incomes are stagnant, house prices are plummeting and foreign policy is directionless. There is a growing awareness that the Prime Minister promised much in Opposition but is delivering far below expectations.

Yet the federal Opposition has made little headway. This is largely because instead of honing in on the vacillation and weaknesses of the Rudd Government, attention  has focused on the problems of the Liberal Party federal leadership.
If the federal Coalition is to be seen as a viable alternative, this can’t be allowed to continue.

Previously I have been a supporter of Nelson. But after the Liberals poor performance in the recent Mayo by-election, it saddens me to have to say he seems to have gone beyond his use-by date.

For whatever reasons, Nelson’s poll figures are dismal, his impact nowhere to be seen, and under his leadership, the Opposition is going backwards.

Senior Liberals need to learn from history and not make the same mistake they made with Howard in 2006: someone needs to tell him that it is time to go, not with malice but with a realisation that the election can be won by the Opposition in 2010, but not with Nelson at the helm.

So, who should or could he his replacement: Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, families and community services spokesman Tony Abbott, health spokesman Joe Hockey, justice spokesman Christopher Pyne, or environment spokesman Greg Hunt?

All good and worthy frontline commanders for their party certainly, and, for one or two of them, the leadership may well be theirs one day, but let’s face it, there is now only one person that the Opposition can seriously turn to Malcolm Turnbull, Treasury spokesman and Member for Wentworth.

Like him or dislike him, Turnbull is the goods: tough, successful, ambitious, able to attract support from the business community, well connected, articulate, intelligent and media savvy.
But crucially, Turnbull has something no one else in the Opposition has (not even Costello): Labor voters like him and want him to be Opposition leader. Last time I looked, the Liberals lost the last election; therefore it is Labor voters they need to attract in 2010.

Succeeding with their own base won’t be enough for the conservatives to regain the federal Government benches; they must attract votes from the other column.
In this respect, Turnbull is a proven vote winner. He even managed a swing to him in his seat of Wentworth at the last federal general election, a day that most Liberals want to forget because of the strength of the swing against them.

Since then, The Australian’s Newspoll and other polls have shown that while Costello is the favoured choice for Liberal leader among those who identify themselves as Liberal voters (with Turnbull coming second in this group), Turnbull outpolls Costello as preferred leader among those who identify as Labor voters. Nelson comes third in both categories.

Many would argue that forcing Costello to stay against his will would have been the worst thing the Liberal Party could have done. Turnbull has the desperation to win; Costello clearly didn’t and apparently does not.
If the party were to unite behind Turnbull, they could emerge from the past 12 months in a strong position and win the next federal election in 2010.

Unlike Costello and Nelson, Turnbull has a proven track record as far as courage is concerned. As Gerard Henderson reveals in the current issue of The Sydney Institute Quarterly, Turnbull was _ apart from Costello himself _ the first Liberal to eyeball Howard and tell him unambiguously that it was in Howard’s best interests and that of the federal coalition for him to go. This occurred in June 2007.

The next few weeks will be a test for the Liberal Party. The media, business community, and the Australian public will be watching to see just how committed they are to being in government or remaining in Opposition. The longer they delay the inevitable fall of Nelson and his replacement by his only logical successor, the more they will demonstrate their willingness to remain outside the winner’s circle.

The federal Liberal Party should learn from the experience of the Queensland Nationals and Liberals. It was difficult for them to overcome decades of bitterness and unite to offer the voters of Queensland one conservative force. But under the leadership of Lawrence Springborg they have, and already potential voters are responding.

At long last, the non-Labor forces in Queensland saw the need to act decisively, and they did. In the same way, the Liberal Party in Canberra must act, and act swiftly.

The Australian people want to see some positive signs of life and momentum in the Liberal Party. One thing’s for sure, Turnbull will get the Opposition the positive attention they presently lack and make them competitive again.