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Bad days may help Malcolm Turnbull

17 August 2009 1,088 views No Comment

SOME of Australia’s most successful politicians have come back from opinion poll ratings as dismal as Malcolm Turnbull’s.

Jeff Kennett was an opinion poll cellar-dweller for much of his time as Victorian opposition leader, and John Howard woke up one morning to a 1989 Bulletin magazine cover: “Mr 18 per cent. Why does this man bother?” Both Kennett and Howard, however, needed a second stint as opposition leader to hit their straps, and it’s unlikely that Turnbull would stay in the parliament unless he came far closer to winning next year’s election than now seems possible. The problem with polls as bad as Turnbull’s is that they can become self-perpetuating: the only event big enough to break the cycle is replacing the leader.

It’s all rather unfair. Turnbull didn’t deserve the obloquy that’s been heaped on him over the so-called utegate affair and he doesn’t deserve the accusations now being levelled of flip-flopping over the right response to climate change. Politics is not played by the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules. No hungry opposition leader would have held back from pursuing the prime minister presented with “evidence” that he’d misled the parliament; similarly, no prime minister would go easy on an opposition leader as vulnerable as Turnbull is now. Labor’s briefings that they expect to face Joe Hockey or Tony Abbott at the election are all part of ratcheting up the pressure.

The last thing the Liberals should do is respond to teasing from their enemies. As Howard would often tell his party room, politics is a test of character. Turnbull’s lifetime of high achievement still makes him the Liberals’ most credible alternative prime minister. Perhaps voters are enjoying the discomfiture of a millionaire former merchant banker. My guess is that just as many could eventually conclude he has been tested and toughened by the humiliations. Why burn a second leader before one term is up and expose a third to the career-wrecking prospect of leading the party to an all-but-inevitable loss?

If, in fact, bad polls are to finish Turnbull, as they finished Brendan Nelson, the Liberals’ most plausible choice would be Joe Hockey. Hockey is now clearly the public’s preferred leader after Peter Costello, who insists that he’s not available and, after failing to challenge Howard for the prime ministership, is hardly likely to challenge Turnbull. The public have clearly warmed to Hockey as they did to Rudd, his once-a-week partner on the Seven Sunrise program for four years leading up to the last election. It was tabloid TV but it made them both seem more human than their colleagues, who were typically introduced to the public as head-kickers or villains on the nightly news. In 2007, while Hockey was having folksy chats with Rudd every Friday morning on Channel Seven, the next most plausible alternative, Tony Abbott, was swapping insults with Julia Gillard on Channel Nine.

Then, the comparison between the genial Hockey and the street-fighting Abbott was favourable to Hockey. Lately, the comparison between Hockey walking up Mount Kilimanjaro with Sunrise host Chris Koch while Abbott launched a thoughtful book on possible directions for the Liberal Party has favoured the author over the climber. On TV, Hockey comes across as a good bloke. But he was only in cabinet for two years prior to the election and, for all his amiability, made nothing like Abbott’s impression as a portfolio minister.

Abbott’s defence of his leader over the utegate affair had seemed more effective than Hockey’s. As well, Abbott had very capably stood in for Christopher Pyne as manager of opposition business. Compared with Pyne, who can be like a Jack-in-the-box in the parliament and often irritates the Speaker, Abbott seems measured. Abbott insists that his parliamentary style hasn’t changed, but his colleagues certainly thought it had, for the better.

With Costello and Philip Ruddock on the backbenches and Howard and Alexander Downer out of the parliament, improbable though this would have seemed just a few months ago, Abbott almost took on the mantle of elder statesman. Certainly, there were hints of a maturity and judgment few previously would have thought he possessed. Some have criticised Abbott for not being more aggressive towards his opposite number, Indigenous Minister Jenny Macklin, but Abbott is genuinely reluctant to make Aboriginal policy a party-political battleground.

To their credit both Hockey and Abbott are as privately supportive of Turnbull as they are in public. Even so, the Opposition Leader’s troubles mean that Liberal MPs are watching their performance and assessing their relative merits even more closely than usual. It’s not Abbott’s time yet, but by the end of this year or early in 2010 he may well be the best available choice for federal Liberal leadership.

With his jaunty disregard of political correctness and penchant for plain speaking on tough issues, Abbott is the polar opposite of the white-bread politician.