Opposition tips for 'green' Liberal leader

Malcolm TurnbullWhen Malcolm Turnbull gained the Liberal Party leadership, the Australian media became rather excited. Given that surveys have revealed that half of all Australians think Turnbull to be arrogant and that the reaction among his own party was mixed, the media's heightened activity requires explanation. Perhaps a colleague's comment that Turnbull can be a bit of a volcano is a prediction of interesting times ahead.

Serious literature on Australian political leadership is somewhat limited. The focus has been pragmatic and biographical, concentrating on Heads of Government — Prime Ministers and Premiers — as successful examples. Works tend to be descriptive rather than analytical, and there is no essential handbook for aspiring leaders. While there is no template that Turnbull must fit, there are some broad expectations in the role.

Traditionally, there have been differences between the powers of Labor and Liberal leaders. The former, limited by an officially binding party policy platform and a ministry chosen by caucus, have been dubbed 'first among equals'. Liberals have exercised greater personal control over policy and in dispensing promotions.

Recently, successful Labor leaders have seized greater initiative while more scrutiny has been given the allegedly non-existent Liberal 'factions'. Turnbull's colleagues have their own ambitions, and their comments about Turnbull's personality, while more guarded, are not necessarily any friendlier than those of Labor opponents. Not all will wish him success.

The position of Opposition Leader is neither as complex nor demanding as that of Prime Minister but it is multi-faceted. For various reasons, the aspect of the role most emphasised is that of 'shadow prime minister'.

Most Australians know who the federal Opposition Leader is. They see him (no females so far) in the hot seat during parliamentary question time and fronting press conferences. When newly appointed Shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop failed to correctly name the level of interest rates, there was an implication that Turnbull had not chosen his shadow cabinet wisely.

The style of Australian politics owes much to Britain and America. From Westminster we inherit the 'in-out' winner-takes-all system so that Oppositions are starved of resources and influence over policy. From Washington we get a presidentialism that inflates the importance of party leaders.

Members of the press gallery devote great attention to Opposition Leaders in order to force the Prime Minister to take them seriously. This helps their own relevance but places us permanently in election mode. So Turnbull's colleagues will expect him to show some gain over Prime Minister Rudd in the rough guide of opinion polls. While one soaring poll does not make a political spring, Turnbull seems to have produced the 'bounce' expected.

Governments are elected to govern and with the exception of one Prime Minister who often had his tongue in his cheek, they cannot blame their own policy failures on Opposition weakness. Most governments ask oppositions for cooperation, particularly in passing legislation, and few Opposition Leaders can seize initiative on policy.

Labor's Gough Whitlam was obviously a threat to a moribund Coalition and Liberal John Hewson showed some signs of making gains over economic policy. Interestingly Whitlam became Prime Minister while Hewson did not, possibly because during the 1993 election campaign, Hewson was over excited by media attention and seemed strident and threatening.

Turnbull must remember the adage that Oppositions do not win elections, Governments lose them. He will have noticed that the last two winners — Howard in 1996 and Rudd in 2007 — kept calm and allowed exhausted governments to thrash about and fail.

Turnbull's preference is to act boldly and set the agenda. He suggested a bipartisan approach to economic management. While an Opposition Leader has no authority to make such a demand and although parliament was not sitting, the media reported that Turnbull had placed pressure on the government. This invites Turnbull to the dangerous belief that operating by press release and seeking media approval is the path to success.

As Opposition Leader, Turnbull is constrained by few formal accountabilities but many informal ones. He can react to Government pronouncements and criticise them on almost any grounds he chooses, as long as they are consistent. Turnbull's predecessor Brendan Nelson, possibly failed to gain traction because he fell into the trap of seeming to oppose everything just for the sake of opposing.

Turnbull's problem is that if he lets himself become the issue, he will forfeit advantage of being able to react to policy and criticise.

When Prime Minister Hawke's grip on power seemed unassailable, a Liberal numbers man remarked that Opposition MPs should not be paid. Obviously, this would make them desperate to secure government. His colleagues were too comfortable and therefore too complacent.

The huge media attention being paid to Turnbull's personal wealth could cause his colleagues to wonder whether he is hungry enough for the top job. When another A-lister Andrew Peacock resigned as Liberal Leader, he rolled his eyes and said that he was not sure he ever really wanted the top job. It can be lonely at the top.

Influential Liberals from Melbourne probably had their doubts about Turnbull's Sydney-centric style reinforced by his failure to realise that the Roosters rugby league team do not play AFL. A couple of New South Wales frontbenchers have their own ambitions.

The media have shown that they expect to control Turnbull's political agenda. Another kind of test will arrive when they become too personally intrusive. It is one thing to run stories about Turnbull's pets, but quite another to intrude on his family's privacy.

All political aspirants must decide whether the power is worth the personal cost. The next few months will tell whether Turnbull has really faced that decision. An Opposition Leader must be both able and willing to enter into a symbiotic relationship with the media. Malcolm Turnbull does not seem to suffer fools gladly, so whether he hungers for government enough to tolerate media intrusions remains to be seen.

The Rudd Government would be unwise to panic just yet. If there is a volcano in their vicinity, there is no guarantee that it threatens them.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.

Topic tags: tony smith, federal opposition, malcolm turnbull, roosters, julie bishop, smoked marijuana



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Existing comments

The so called "rooster" gaffe concerning Malcolm Turnbull is misleading. Turnbull corrected himself in the same sentence. CHANNEL 2 on INSIDERS played this. Wayne Swan's primary school antics on this does him and others who carry on in a like fashion no credit.
Robert Colquhoun | 30 September 2008

Knowing nothing about sport might be a plus to a significant number of electors.
terryOBERG | 01 October 2008


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