The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is Malcolm Turnbull going to stay?

Stop the press. Could Malcolm Turnbull really be convinced to stay? No, this is not a joke.

There is serious and well-sourced media chatter around town that Turnbull is being aggressively wooed to remain in politics by very senior elements within the Liberal Party. No comment yet on what his reaction has been. I nevertheless expect to see reportage on this subject over the weekend (in particular, keep your eye on Sky Business’s Saturday Agenda—Peter van Onselen is the man).

The party faces two key holes to fill in Turnbull’s larger-than-life absence.

The first is a credible candidate for the seat of Wentworth, with those mooted thus far unlikely to have the cross-sectional appeal required to retain this increasingly cosmopolitan constituency. Arthur Sinodinos is world-class. But can he keep the seat? An uncertain proposition. Nick Farr Jones? I don't think so.

The second problem is one of succession and preserving a modicum of diversified party DNA (as we all know, pollies tend to be an inbred lot!).

The ineluctable truth is that Turnbull brings to the table an enormous amount of unique experience and expertise that few of his colleagues can claim to possess. Okay, he had a tough time managing his brief leadership stint. Yes, he made some bad mistakes. But we all do. And against these mis-steps we have the facts that he (a) prevailed initially in Wentworth, (b) had a strong swing towards him at the last election in contrast to his contemporaries, and (c) successfully navigated an almost perfectly seamless political path in his years serving under John Howard, a man with whom he had historically shared a testy relationship. This was no mean feat for a character that many confidently claimed did not have the personal malleability to adapt to political life.

Of course, Malcolm could also argue that he has decades’ worth of proven commercial judgement, which has generated many hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth for both him and his shareholders.

If Tony Abbott blows up at the next election, which he would admit is probably a toss-of-the-coin proposition, the party has but only one viable near-term alternative: Joe Hockey. And while Joe has a lot of long-term leadership potential, and an avuncular charisma that is bound to be electorally popular, he is not, on the other hand, Malcolm Turnbull.

I get speak to a lot of politicians and policymakers. Lindsay Tanner is supremely impressive. Sharan Burrow a force of nature. Nicholas Gruen a sometimes savant. But few can hold a candle to Malcolm Turnbull when it comes to overall policy firepower. His passion, intensity, intellect, and ability to synthesise and communicate vast streams of complex information don't have many peers in politics. Perhaps you would put the Prime Minister, Emerson and Tanner in similar camps. I have only really spent time with the latter.

Framed somewhat differently, it is not as if the party has a deep gene pool from which to produce compelling leadership candidates. The likes of Scott Morrison or even Jamie Briggs are simply too young and inexperienced.

So as a hedge against future uncertainty, which is a guaranteed constant in political life, somehow convincing Turnbull to stay on has to be an attractive option. If Abbott were to succeed, Turnbull would add an enormous amount of high-quality horsepower to the front-bench. If he fails, Turnbull offers the party another legitimate leadership alternative while also providing Joe Hockey with a compelling Treasury candidate in the event that Turnbull does not prevail in a party-room ballot.

This thus begs the question as to whether he would really contemplate reversing course. It is a tall order, no doubt. But Malcolm has demonstrated that he is consistently flexible of mind. If the party can articulate a compelling path forward, and the man himself can commit to addressing the concerns expressed by his colleagues in the recent past, one has to think that the sun has not yet set on Australia’s most interesting politician.


A must read from Bernard Keane on why Turnbull should stay. Keane and Crikey are making a habit of outflanking their print press peers...