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Turnbull's problematic leadership

  • 18 December 2008

Brendan Nelson lost the Liberal leadership because he could not score highly enough in the opinion polls. Now Malcolm Turnbull's dismal December polls threaten to undermine his leadership too.   Nelson suffered from several problems. The first was Kevin Rudd's honeymoon period. The electorate, having rejected the Howard Government, was disposed to give the new government the time to settle in. Barring accidents the Rudd Government was always guaranteed the electorate's favour until about now.   The second was disagreement about his leadership. He was a compromise leader. The coalition behind him was fragile and his margin of victory was slender.   Turnbull can put these problems behind him. Rudd's honeymoon should now be over, though the global financial crisis may have extended the normal honeymoon period. The political tide still seems to be turning against Labor at the state level, especially in NSW.

There is still disunity about the leadership among Liberals and only grudging acceptance of Turnbull among several influential Opposition MPs, including Senate Leader Nick Minchin. Some of this surfaced in the shemozzle in the Senate in the final sitting week. But he is the party's best, and probably only, chance of victory in 2010.   Nelson's third weakness was his lack of clear policies. He was torn between loyalty to the Howard legacy and a willingness to try new directions. His final weaknesses were personal. He was too dull and insignificant, and sold himself poorly. He embraced opposition for the sake of opposition rather than to set broad, long-term policy.   Turnbull by contrast has the raw personality to succeed. He is capable and decisive. He also has an intangible quality that elevates him above the crowd. But he still has to fashion a winning persona that looks statesmanlike.   His wealth, alleged arrogance and parliamentary inexperience ultimately will not be problems. All are now commonplace enough in politics. Voters will judge him, as they did Rudd, not on his background and past record, but on what he offers them.   But he still has hurdles to jump. He needs a coherent strategy in response to Labor's mandate to govern and clarity of policy on a range of issues that straddle the Howard-Costello legacy. His decision to support the government's new industrial relations legislation was a good first step. Clearly however some Liberals now believe that Turnbull has gone too far and is ditching too much of the legacy.   Clarity of policy must be personal and collective. His shadow ministers come from