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As Turnbull struggles, Abbott’s moment arrives

2 July 2009 822 views No Comment

Peter Costello’s imminent retirement from federal parliament changed the political dynamic inside the Coalition. It seemed to make Malcolm Turnbull’s position more secure.

Because he will no longer have to suffer the inevitable comparisons with Costello, or look over his shoulder every time some MP is annoyed, it also seemed to improve Turnbull’s chances of becoming prime minister.

Yet even before his Utegate allegations turned round to bite him, Turnbull was still well under even money to win next year’s federal election. And there’s not much likelihood of him hanging around if he loses. After all, he hardly needs the parliamentary pension.

Even though few players other than Labor supporters want to make Turnbull’s task any more difficult than it is, the federal Liberal party needs a plan B in case Turnbull’s leadership continues to unravel as a result of him going off half-cocked in pursuit of Kevin Rudd. The fact is that, in the latest polls, Turnbull’s approval rating has plummeted to a level not seen since Alexander Downer was the hapless leader of the opposition.

The current assumption is that Joe Hockey will be the next Liberal leader. Hockey is likeable and, by effectively admitting that they were unjust, managed to put a human face on the Howard government’s workplace relations laws. Hockey, of course, featured on the edition of Sunrise which helped to turn Kevin Rudd into an electable politician. Joe is about to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in a political version of reality TV. It’s hard to imagine, though, a future election between two Sunrise celebrities. Television should not be that influential, even in a political culture as trivialised as ours.

There are plenty of wannabes who could put their hand up in any post-Turnbull leadership contest. Julie Bishop, although badly burned by the experience of shadow treasurer, could possibly be talked into running by the influential West Australian lobby. Andrew Robb is well respected and capable, but has little charisma and almost no frontline experience. Peter Dutton impresses colleagues but probably needs another five years before he is a credible leadership candidate.

That leaves Tony Abbott, who is now by far the most senior surviving member of the Howard government. Abbott was a very effective minister in difficult portfolios and, after Costello, was the Liberals’ best parliamentarian. His ‘headkicker’ role was bad for his public image, but it also enabled him to demonstrate the resilience under fire that a party leader needs.

As well as being the coalition’s parliamentary ‘enforcer’ as Leader of the House, Abbott was the former government’s intellectual in residence, churning out fortnightly articles for the Sydney Morning Herald, debating Julia Gillard every Friday morning on the Today programme, and giving numerous scripted speeches prosecuting the conservative side of the culture wars. Unlike a great many parliamentarians, Abbott is actually committed to core principles and values.

Howard’s demise meant that, for a while, Abbott was seen as damaged goods. But unlike Costello, he didn’t retire to the backbenches and muse about the career he could have outside politics. My hunch is that the public would rather have an extraordinary than an ordinary Joe as their alternative prime minister. Against Hockey, Abbott would lose a likeability contest but he might quite easily win a leadership contest, especially if the book he’s publishing next month turns out to strike a chord.

Ironically, Malcolm Turnbull’s plummeting credibility could turn out to be a watershed for Abbott; the remaking of him, in fact.

As shadow treasurer, Hockey gets a semi-automatic TV news grab every other night. Although lacking a similar high- profile role, up to now Abbott has managed to maintain his profile mostly by finding plausible ways to explain what’s going on inside the Liberal party (as with Peter Costello’s retirement) or by nailing Kevin Rudd. Abbott’s description of Rudd as a ‘toxic bore’ hit paydirt. Rudd comes across as nerdish but nice in public, but is cold, even brutal in private. Abbott is the reverse, which voters could ultimately find an appealing contrast.

Until the Utegate fiasco, it was hard not to admire the way Turnbull had come back from the political dead in less than two months. Admittedly, Turnbull was helped by a federal budget that was trying to be too many things to too many people (a ‘horror handout budget’, as George Megalogenis cleverly put it).

Turnbull and Hockey then blazed away at the debt and deficit issue, helped by Rudd’s Basil Fawlty impersonation when asked to specify just how big the debt would be. Christopher Pyne’s terrier-like pursuit of waste in the school building drive also reinforced the impression of a government that can’t be trusted with money. Until the current parliamentary winter recess, even Julia Gillard looked ordinary in the House of Reps — in part because she couldn’t bring herself to put the responsibility for these problems where it really belongs, on her state Labor colleagues.

The week before parliament went into recess, with his integrity in question and an inquiry pending, Rudd’s re-election no longer seemed quite the sure thing everyone had assumed. Yet after Turnbull’s key email was proved to be a forgery, it was the opposition leader’s career that was, and is, under threat.

Turnbull’s botched handling of the OzCar/Utegate affair, and his inability to stamp his authority on his parliamentary team in relation to the alcopops tax and making asylum-seekers pay for their time in custody, has significantly undermined his credibility as an alternative prime minister. Indeed, his inept attack on Kevin Rudd seems to be doing to Turnbull’s credibility what the corroboree in the desert did for Alexander Downer’s.

The differing characters and personalities possessed by leading individuals in the Australian parliament may not change much, but their political fortunes can be transformed in a week. As far as Malcolm Turnbull is concerned, the fat lady is already beginning to sing loud and clear for a change in opposition leadership.

The Liberals could do no better than install a proven long-term fighter — which is precisely what the feisty Tony Abbott is, and more.

SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA, Friday 3 July 2009