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Turnbull is in pole position to replace the prime minister. But how has he overcome doubts within the Coalition? By Sophie Morris.

Mal content to wait his turn

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Credit: Reuters / David Gray

It was only last week, after months of disciplined teamwork, that Turnbull strayed from the script. Deep in a 5000-word speech on the future of the Asia-Pacific, delivered in the United States, he embedded his reflections on leadership.

“Leaders must be decision-makers,” Turnbull said, “but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the government cannot solve every problem.”

Lest the key passage be overlooked, his office drew journalists’ attention to the speech. He went on to invoke the notion of fairness, which has so vexed Prime Minister Tony Abbott since the budget last May.

“It is vitally important, both as a matter of social justice and political reality, that structural changes are seen as being fair across the board,” said Turnbull.

“That means not only must tough decisions be justified, but that the burden of adjustment is not borne disproportionately by one part of the community.”

These lines read like an application for Abbott’s job, or at least a description of the requisite skills. It’s not surprising Turnbull wore a Cheshire grin as he flew back in to Sydney with the Liberal Party in open revolt against the man who deposed him five years ago. The formal call for a leadership spill at Tuesday's partyroom meeting won't have erased it.

Humility is not an attribute commonly associated with Turnbull. It must be hard to be humble when you’re rich, clever, charming and polling so well. Hard, but in the past year Turnbull has been doing the best he can.

If he does emerge from these leadership tensions as prime minister, it will be because he has refrained from actively pursuing the role, exhibiting the sort of self-restraint that has persuaded some former critics he has reformed.

If in private he chafed against the command-and-control approach of the prime minister’s office, in public he was a team player and bristled at any suggestions to the contrary.

He never lost the ambition, but he seemed to bury it, accepting his lot as communications minister in an Abbott government, cutting funds to the ABC, scaling back Labor’s broadband network, even mopping up after George Brandis’s metadata mess.

Now the man who since losing the leadership had put his chances of returning “somewhere between nil and negligible” looks like shortening those odds to somewhere between plausible and probable.

First stint as leader

To a casual observer of Australian politics, it would seem a simple equation: the person most likely to give the federal Coalition a shot at remaining in power at the next election, due in 2016, is Malcolm Turnbull.

The former journalist, lawyer and investment banker enjoys the sort of broad appeal that could sway swinging voters; more so than Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who would command stronger support among rusted-on Liberals. What is more, his good relationship with Clive Palmer could make senate negotiations smoother.

Yet politics is rarely straightforward.

Putting aside the obvious and significant risks of replicating Labor’s dysfunction by ousting a first-term prime minister, even one as unpopular as Abbott, there are other hurdles to Turnbull’s return to the leadership.

His own colleagues have not forgotten the reasons they ended his 14 months as leader on December 1, 2009, replacing him with Abbott, who won the leadership by a margin of just one vote.

Leadership style played a role. Turnbull had been damaged by his championing of “ute-gate”, when he overreached in demanding Kevin Rudd resign as prime minister, based on a forged email furnished by public servant Godwin Grech.

But chief among the reasons he was toppled was his support for Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

Significantly, on this issue, the climate in the Coalition party room is changing for Turnbull, as some who were his staunch opponents detect a new “pragmatism” from the member for Wentworth.

The man who once derided Abbott’s $2.5 billion Direct Action policy as “fiscal recklessness on a grand scale” is now prepared to defend it and praise the work of Environment Minister Greg Hunt in making it a plausible scheme.

He has also let it be known he would rule out an emissions trading scheme.

This repositioning risks lessening his broad appeal to swinging voters and leaves him vulnerable to a Labor attack that says he has sold out his principles and the planet. But his recent rhetoric also leaves open the option of toughening Direct Action to introduce an effective carbon price at a later stage.

“If there is a global agreement that requires larger cuts in emissions – and I think it would be good if there were, but it’s got to be a global agreement – then obviously Australia would play its part,” he told ABC Television’s Q&A last year. “And the government would consider what changes, or extensions or whatever, to Direct Action would need to be made to achieve that.”

Behind the scenes, some Liberal MPs who rejected Turnbull’s climate stance in 2009 have decided they could back the former leader returning to power, this time as prime minister.

The right turn on Abbott

One of the extraordinary elements of this unfolding Liberal drama is how some conservative MPs have turned on Abbott and his office, even though he is supposed to be one of their own.

Two factors explain the souring of Abbott’s relationship with several right-wing MPs, including some in his home state of New South Wales.

First, Turnbull’s emerging pragmatism is matched by the survival instinct of MPs who fear the loss of their seats and of government under Abbott, particularly following the LNP’s routing in Queensland last weekend.

And second, Abbott has not necessarily favoured those from the party’s right wing. Instead, his inner circle has included Christopher Pyne and Brandis, both considered moderates.

The hostility towards his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, is also palpable, with some opining this week that Abbott could still salvage his prime ministership if she resigned.

That is not to suggest that all those from the right would countenance Turnbull as prime minister. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, Speaker Bronwyn Bishop relishing that prospect. After he was ousted in 2009, Bishop is said to have crowed to other right-wing Liberals: “We lent them our party and now we’ve got it back.”

Nationals leader Warren Truss has warned this week that his party’s Coalition agreement is with the Abbott-led Liberals.

However, even some on the hard right of the Liberals could now accept Turnbull, particularly with Scott Morrison as treasurer. Julie Bishop is thought to be prepared to relinquish her own leadership ambition to give Turnbull a clean run. In this scenario, she remains his deputy and foreign minister.

It’s not just dissatisfaction with Abbott and his office that has brought this to pass, though it is the dominant factor. Turnbull has also won respect by knuckling down and staying out of trouble, by not engaging in the sort of white-anting that he did in 2008, as he and his supporters relentlessly sought to undermine the then opposition leader Brendan Nelson.

He has not courted his former critics in the party. Some view this as an omission. Others applaud him for his restraint. After all, currying favour with backbenchers would have only been interpreted one way.

Close to quitting

They were dark days for Turnbull after losing the leadership. By all accounts, he sunk into a deep funk.

It was, he has said, “gut-wrenching”.

Then Abbott rebuffed him for a frontbench role and, by April 2010, he had decided to end his political career. He tweeted the news. His one regret was that emissions trading was no longer Liberal policy.

But rather than relief at having resolved to leave, a period of doubt and agonising followed. John Howard spoke to him, privately urging him to stay, as did the former PM’s chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos.

Turnbull recanted within three weeks.

This week, Sinodinos’s intervention has again proved pivotal for Turnbull. On Sky News, the senator who quit the frontbench in December after being stood aside for a year during ICAC investigations escalated the leadership row.

His ongoing support for Abbott’s leadership was “not unconditional”, he said, declining to vouch that Abbott would still be PM in a week.

“Comrade, come and ask me next week,” Sinodinos said, giving the lie to efforts from Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey to downplay the growing chorus of discontent as mere gossip and media hype.

In the past year, when Turnbull has on occasion been accused of undermining Abbott, he has come out fighting, lashing out in June at News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt and broadcaster Alan Jones for suggesting he had it in for the PM. His hostility to these conservative commentators remains a concern for some in the party.

In a sign of collegiality between the two long-term rivals, Abbott invited the communications minister for drinks in his parliamentary suite in October to celebrate Turnbull’s 60th birthday.

Yet sensitivity persisted about his intentions, particularly as the government’s fortunes worsened. Cabinet colleagues noted before Christmas a new closeness between Turnbull, Bishop and Morrison.

Arms-length from challenge

The Daily Telegraph was convinced in December to drop a report that Turnbull, along with Bishop and a group of ambitious MPs, was undermining Credlin. “I think that might have been in an early edition,” Turnbull said of the report. “The Telegraph thought better of that.”

Similarly, on Wednesday, when it was tweeted that he had rung MPs to canvass support, his office denied it. His supporters suspected dirty tricks, accusing those in the Abbott-Hockey camp of spreading the story to flush out Turnbull and force him to follow Bishop in ruling out a challenge.

It has been an extraordinary week of ebbs and flows in the Liberal leadership saga leading up to Friday's announcement of a spill. On Monday, Abbott begged MPs not to make a bad situation worse by ousting him. But backbenchers continued to fuel the fire, with Andrew Laming, Teresa Gambaro, Warren Entsch, Mal Brough and Dennis Jensen among those publicly acknowledging problems with Abbott’s leadership.

Others, such as Craig Kelly and Andrew Nikolic, backed Abbott or urged colleagues to stop the infighting. Amid all this, cabinet met on Tuesday and Wednesday, in a charade of unity. Friday's formal request from Western Australian MPs Luke Simpkins and Don Randall for a partyroom vote on the leadership next Tuesday came as mounting tension drowned out attempts to discuss any other issues.

"The last time this outpouring of concern happened was when we were being led to support the Rudd government's ETS, and faced with this erosion of our support base we acted," Simpkins wrote to colleagues.

"I think that we must bring this to a head, and test the support of the leadership in the party room."

As Turnbull said in an interview with The Global Mail in 2012, “politics is a crazy business”. After giving his stock response when asked whether he still harboured leadership ambitions, he went on to invoke a conservative icon. “So you can paint all sorts of weird scenarios. What was it Thatcher said? The inevitable never happens and the unexpected, always.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2015 as "Mal content to wait his turn". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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