Now that Kevin Rudd has regained his position at the helm of the Australian Labor Party, the soap opera that is Australian politics has almost immediately turned itself to the future of the relatively stable Liberal Party. Specifically, rumours are now flying about the unsung ambitions of shadow communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull to topple Tony Abbott before the election, and ride on a wave of popular admiration to the Prime Ministership. At least, that’s what the media seems to think.
Questions now arise however – who is this man, and what does he want? And, possibly more importantly, what impact would his return to the leadership of the Liberal Party (if it ever occurred) have on its policies, prospects and the public?
It should be noted first however that Malcolm Turnbull is no stranger to the Liberal Party, or its leadership. By way of brief history:
- After winning the seat of Wentworth in 2004, he served as Parliamentary Secretary and Environment Minister;
- In Opposition, he was appointed Shadow Treasurer by Brendan Nelson, before moving to Opposition Leader in 2008. Tony Abbott then beat him by 1 vote to take on the leadership in 2009;
- He is known as a prime leader of the republican movement, and also founded the former OzEmail company (or, according to Tony Abbott, ‘practically discovered the internet in Australia’);
- Whilst technically being a member of the Catholic religion, he has indicated that he is against the church’s stance on abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.
As with most things in Australian politics, much of this new speculation is driven by opinion polls. A new ReachTel survey has shown that on a preferred prime minister basis, a Turnbull-led Coalition would beat Rudd’s Labor with 58% to 42% of the two-party preferred vote, compared to a mere 51% to 49% win under Tony Abbott. The trend continues through preferred prime minister results – Turnbull appears to practically crush Rudd with a 65% to 35% preference, whilst Liberal is actually behind under Abbott, with Rudd being preferred 52% to 48%. Therefore, if we rely on the numbers, Malcolm Turnbull should be taking on leadership of the Liberal Party as soon as we can. But this is politics, and nothing is ever that simple – parties do not rise and fall based on opinion polls of 2,000 people… do they?
There appear to be several reasons why Malcolm Turnbull has found favour with the Australian public, despite his previous downfall when in leadership back in 2009. Compared to party leader Tony Abbott, he is seen as far more moderate (given nagging rumours of Abbott as being a ‘bully’), and appears less prone to making polarising gaffes. He has also gained much traction with the public through his calm handling of the Opposition’s broadband policy – whilst not popular with everybody (using ‘fibre to the node’ technology instead of Labor’s full rollout), he is at least able to hold a debate with clear knowledge of what he is talking about. Perhaps, it simply comes down to the idea that Turnbull is a stable, intelligent option, away from the insulting politics which appears to be currently swallowing the chamber – essentially, closer to the profile of the ‘median’ Australian.
The last question however, and in many respects the most important, is what kind of policies a leader such as Turnbull would bring to the Liberal Party. He is renowned as a ‘small l’ Liberal, with a strong belief in free market economics. Under a Turnbull government (if one ever existed), there would most likely be a movement towards labour market deregulation – he voted for the WorkChoices scheme under Howard in 2006 – as well as cracking down on Australia’s welfare scheme, most likely affecting payment cuts and higher eligibility thresholds. Any movement into the leadership is also likely to see a market-based climate change policy, including a free trading system for carbon permits, as opposed to the imposition of floor pricing. Turnbull’s main mantra is that he is a ‘progressive’ Liberal – changing markets to allow them to do what they should under the laws of economics, instead of politics.
So, where does all this leave the Australian public? Malcolm Turnbull himself has recently stated he will not stand for the leadership (have we heard that before?), and that those voters who prefer him should vote for the Liberal Party, as he will remain a pivotal part of its policy development and leadership team. Therefore, we are still faced with an Abbott-Rudd election, whenever the vote happens to be. One sure bet however, is that there will be much more debate about the possibilities of a reTurnbull movement before this election is out, pitting policy progressives against those in favour of surety and stability.
What do you think?