Malcolm Turnbull has two things going for him, and they’re the same two things that took him through journalism, into law, to merchant banking, new media and, finally, politics: his intellect and his ego.
Both are vast. Even Turnbull’s detractors within the party acknowledge his brilliance. His is one of the most impressive intellects in Australian parliamentary history. And he has an ego to match. To paraphrase an observation about Stanley Kubrick, just because you’ve met a few egotists in your time, doesn’t mean you can have any idea how vast Malcolm Turnbull’s self-esteem is.
Which is fine, because he’s going to need it. He’s politically inexperienced, he leads a party facing historic challenges and a popular government, and many in his party — and most in his Coalition partner – dislike him. Indeed, there are powerful forces potentially aligned against him — not just the right of the party, but also Peter Costello and his faithful supporters. Until Costello leaves politics, he’s a potential threat, one that can only be kept at bay by performing in Parliament and in the polls.
All the better, from Turnbull’s point of view. He likes a challenge.
His first task will be to craft a frontbench that keeps the losers relatively happy. He has no choice, given the narrowness of his victory. The widespread hope among Liberals going in was that there would be a convincing victory either way. They didn’t get it, but 45-41 to Turnbull is a damn sight better than the same margin to Nelson, which would’ve kept the Liberals in leadership purgatory for months.
But don’t expect Turnbull to lurch to the left, which is what Costello has been warning about none too subtly. Turnbull may be socially moderate but he knows many in his party are not. And anyway, Nelson has done much of the work in relocating the Opposition closer to the political centre than it was under Howard and Costello. Despite being a captive of the Right, Nelson supported the apology to the Stolen Generation, declared WorkChoices dead, backed the ratification of Kyoto, and supported an end to discrimination against same-sex couples. There are few key issues on which Turnbull will be required to expose the tensions between his own moderate views and those of more reactionary colleagues.
What you should expect is a far more effective, and assiduous, cultivation of the media than we saw under Nelson. Turnbull doesn’t lack for “cut-through”. He’s a walking headline, irresistible to journalists, editors and media proprietors — many of whom he knows quite well. Nelson – simply by virtue of defeating media favourite Turnbull — got off to a bad start with the press and never recovered. In contrast, Turnbull will be seen as a welcome alternative to the deliberately colourless Rudd.
Which brings us to the head-to-head contest. Rudd would have been only too happy to have seen Nelson remain leader. And, I suspect, he would’ve been perfectly content if Peter Costello had returned to the leadership, baggage and all. The Government hasn’t been rehearsing its line about the $400 a month Costello interest rate rise for nothing. But Turnbull has no baggage, except with Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, and he will be far tougher than Nelson. He and Rudd are both rich, self-made men, immensely ambitious, immensely intelligent, who have come to power via entirely different paths. Rudd does a good line in self-deprecation but his is every bit as vast an ego as Turnbull’s.
Turnbull will bring out the best in Rudd, who has appeared bored — and boring — in Parliament against a populist like Nelson.
Turnbull is an experiment. He might fail spectacularly, although the idea that he has the combustibility of Mark Latham is ridiculous — he has wanted the Prime Ministership for most of his life and won’t waste his opportunity to pursue it. We — the voters, the press, his own colleagues — have no idea what Turnbull will do. And it’s been a while since we’ve been able to say that.