From May until November 1999 I spent almost every day with the man who now wants to lead the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull. I was Malcolm’s National Campaign Director in the 1999 Republic Referendum.
So what sort of leader is he? Has he got tactical nous – the sort of nose for Opposition politics that requires positive policy development alongside plain old bloody minded negativity?
First, a caveat in my observations. As I said, it was eight years ago. And since that time he has mellowed in my view. He is a little more patient these days with his critics, and with his opponents. Mind you, the monarchist leadership group in the Referendum of David Flint and Kerry Jones would have tested the patience of Job, given their capacity for disinformation and scare tactics.
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The one thing that stands out in my memory of the stint I had with Turnbull all those years ago was his indefatigability. This is a man who sends you emails at 3am. He is someone who constantly churns out ideas, strategies and missives to his staff. Turnbull works and works and works and travels, travels and travels for the cause. It does not matter what hour of the day. Just assume that Malcolm will be thinking and working. Of course he does sleep. But he struck me as being in the mould of Margaret Thatcher – requiring little sleep in order to function effectively.
There is in Turnbull also an endearing and genuine sense of egalitarianism that many in the Liberal Party lack. He is an inveterate user of public transport. Instead of taking a cab back to his office up the other end of town, he and I would often jump on a bus at the corner of Park and Elizabeth streets in Sydney, and hop off up at his Goldman Sachs office at the Bent/Phillip street corner. Turnbull engages people in a surprisingly natural way. I saw this at close hand during the fraught months leading up to the November 1999 Referendum. You could take Malcolm to a pub or a shopping centre, and know he wouldn’t look or feel awkward.
I have described Turnbull elsewhere as being the “brightest bloke” in the Australian Parliament. He is intellectually brilliant, no two ways about it. (I saw him write a speech in about 30 minutes on his way from Sydney to Brisbane during the campaign – and it was a cracker). He grasps concepts easily and runs with them. This of course means that suffering fools gladly is inherently difficult for him. Having said that, I was often surprised at Turnbull’s patience in dealing with the myriad of egos and strong personality types that dominated the upper echelons of the Republic campaign. Turnbull would often vent his spleen privately about X or Y, but publicly the only sound you would hear would be the grinding of the Turnbull teeth.
The question that many ask about Turnbull – and it arose again in the election campaign when he made sure the world knew he wanted Australia to ratify Kyoto but Howard vetoed the idea – is whether or not he is a team player. Is he too much of a lone ranger to lead a beleaguered Liberal Party, out of government everywhere for the first time in its 60 odd year history?
The capacity to win hearts and minds and to capture the confidence of his fellow party members is Turnbull’s biggest challenge. Some will argue that the Republic Referendum failed because he could not do that, and that he was just a little too brilliant for his own good. Some of the key advisers to the Republic campaign felt Turnbull wouldn’t take advice – that he wasn’t a listener.
I don’t put myself in that camp. Sure there were times when the collective wisdom of luminaries like now Liberal MP Andrew Robb, former Hawke strategist Peter Baron, pollster Rod Cameron, Neville Wran and the advertising gurus at John Singleton’s agency appeared to be ignored, or at least only partially heard by Turnbull during the campaign. But then, can anyone name a political leader of any note around the world who sometimes decides to back his own instinct against that of his advisers.
One thing is certain. If the Liberal Party goes for Turnbull it will be backing someone who is very different from John Howard, Peter Costello, or Brendan Nelson. It will be a roller coaster ride with Malcolm as leader, but then the Liberals have nothing to lose and everything to gain by throwing caution to the wind.