Malcolm Turnbull is leaving the building.
Today’s announcement that the former opposition leader and federal member for Wentworth has decided to leave politics at the next election was not unexpected. A man of singular ambition, considerable talent and boundless energy, the former journalist, lawyer and merchant banker has plenty of potential careers waiting for him once he departs public life.
After last year’s dramatic coup by Tony Abbott, in which Turnbull was rolled as opposition leader over the issue of whether to support the Rudd Government’s emissions trading bill, Turnbull has been marking time on the backbench while he thought over his future.
Turnbull must have been tempted to stay on. Abbott seems destined to lose this year’s federal election, and Turnbull would have been in pole position to re-assume the Liberal Party leadership in the wake of electoral defeat. Turnbull is also confident he is on the right side of history in his support for meaningful action on climate change. If he had been prepared to endure the slings and arrows of an opposition leader’s outrageous fortune, then he would have stood a decent chance of becoming prime minister some time in 2013.
But although Turnbull has many strengths, patience isn’t one of them. Abbott’s decision not to offer him a frontbench position in his recent reshuffle — Turnbull reportedly asked for a position — may have proved the last straw. Now, like Brendan Nelson and Peter Costello, Turnbull has decided that the hard grind of opposition is not for him.
"Having got to the top of my own party, having become the leader, and then that having come to an end in some fairly trying circumstances, I think the best thing … is to move on," he told Sky News.
Turnbull leaves Australian politics poorer for his passing. He was never the soundest political tactician, as his colossal misjudgment over the Godwin Grech fake email scandal last year so amply demonstrated. But Turnbull possesses a first-class intellect, a moderate political sensibility and an undoubted oratorical ability: all qualities the current Liberal Party desperately lacks. While not exactly a "wet" in the 1980s sense of the term, Turnbull was that rarest of modern political animals: a liberal Liberal. His departure underlines the Coalition’s drift to the right under Abbott.
In his statement today, Turnbull pointed to his record as environment minister and to his efforts to reform the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. But given the state of the Murray-Darling, that’s not much of a boast. Indeed, Turnbull’s abilities and potential have overshadowed his actual achievements in politics, which have been slim.
Life in opposition is hard work. There’s less money: politicians experience significant pay cuts when they transition from a position as a minister to a shadow cabinet or ordinary backbencher’s salary. There are fewer resources: instead of an entire government department, opposition spokesmen and women have only a few key staffers. Worst of all, there is little or no relevance — the most potent political drug.
All of this makes it difficult for opposition parties — particularly conservative oppositions — to attract and retain talent. The Liberal Party has now lost four former cabinet ministers in Nelson, Costello, Turnbull and Nick Minchin, all of whom could have been expected to hold senior posts in any Liberal government.
With its ageing champions retiring, the federal party under Tony Abbott now has no choice but to rebuild from the bottom up. Abbott’s current frontbench has far too much dead wood. Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz and Warren Truss retain senior positions in the shadow cabinet, but are neither fresh talent nor strong campaigners. Julie Bishop once appeared to have real potential, but her performance as deputy opposition leader has been modest, to put it kindly.
There is indeed political talent in the parliamentary party: Greg Hunt and Scott Morrison have performed strongly in their respective portfolios, while recent by-elections have ushered in potential stars like Kelly O’Dwyer and Paul Fletcher. The outer shadow ministry contains potential future ministers like South Australian Simon Birmingham, outback accountant Sussan Ley and West Australian Cambridge graduate Michael Keenan. Abbott needs to bring electable, moderate voices like these onto his parliamentary A-team, while finding new candidates for the seats of has-beens like Andrews, Philip Ruddock and Bronwyn Bishop.
But the longer-term problem for the Liberals is more serious than finding fresh talent. The party also needs to develop policies and articulate where it stands. So far, there has been precious little of this, and yet the election is less than six months away. Right now, attacking the Rudd Government on insulation and border protection probably seems like a strategy that could win the Opposition votes. The polls suggest otherwise.
Meanwhile, a new chapter in Malcolm Turnbull’s tumultuous life is beginning. Somehow, one doubts he will be putting his feet up on a beach somewhere. We can expect his new career, whatever it is, to be every bit as interesting and unpredictable as his short but eventful stint in politics.
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