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Turnbull's problematic leadership


Rudd savages struggling Tunbull, from LivenewsBrendan 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 different ideological mindsets. The Liberals are a broad church. Turnbull's success will depend on shaping them into a tight team.
Personally he is a social liberal close to the centre of Australian politics. This is both a strength and a weakness for him. He was bitten early on when his outspokenness on progressive issues like gay rights apparently caused his defeat in the first Liberal leadership contest. He has since been very wary of exacerbating ideological differences within his party.
But he has been speaking out recently. Most notable was his keynote address to the national conference of the Australian Christian Lobby. He stated clearly that a commitment to freedom was the core of Liberal philosophy and that liberalism was central to his own life and to that of his party.
He avoided raising controversial moral issues himself, but, during question time made clear that he supported a woman's right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
Turnbull is the most liberal Liberal leader for some time. He is very different from John Howard, the party's self-styled most conservative leader. He is more liberal than both Nelson and Costello, despite his recent conservative comments on border protection.
He is also more liberal than the centre of gravity of both the mass of ordinary Liberal Party members and his own parliamentary party.
That is not a problem for him while he looks like a winner. But the moment that he looks to be faltering with the electorate he risks losing the support of his party colleagues. He must retain the aura of a winner or his liberalism will become a liability with many of them. That is the dilemma that he will take with him on his Christmas holidays.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an adjunct professor of political science at the Australian National University and the Flinders University of South Australia. He writes a weekly column for The Canberra Times.


Topic tags: john warhurst, malcolm turnbull, opinion polls, brendan nelson



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Existing comments

I very much enjoyed reading John's assessment of Malcolm's problenmatic leadership. I have one suggestion and one question.

I perceive that during his recent TV interviews with some of the tired, hack, left-wing broadcasters of the ABC, Malcolm has dignified their non-penetrating questions with unsuitably deferential answers. Such interviews prior to his leadership promotion were often feisty and entertaining. Malcolm now seems to feel that he is no longer allowed to be 'cruel to bores'. Wrong there Malcolm. Be as statesman-like as ever when speaking directly to the electorate but give those droning noddies hell when they're cross-questioning you on TV. It's in those TV interview situations that voters evaluate the leadership qualities of their politicians.

Malcolm has supported a woman's right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I'm always confused when politicians make this statement. Doctors may legally terminate pregnancies when they are satisfied that the woman's physical or psychological health would be damaged or threatened by not terminating. This suggests the following scenario. The pregnant woman consults her doctor expressing concern about her physical and psychological health. After a suitable examination the doctor gives a professional medical opinion about whether or not her pregnancy can safely continue.

In other words a woman's right to choose, in legal terms, comes only after her doctor's medical opinion that she is unfit to continue her pregnancy. Isn't it the reality that the aborting doctor first accepts the woman's decision to terminate and then rubber stamps the legal necessity after the decision to act? Isn't this putting the cart of 'social liberalism' before the legal horse?

Claude Rigney | 18 December 2008  

Isn't Turnbull supposed to be a convert to Catholicism? Yet he's still pro-abortion?

Rod Blaine | 19 December 2008  

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