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What's Malcolm Turnbull up to?

Christopher Joye
30 May 2011

It's an interesting question, isn't it? On Friday, I gave a speech to the CEO's Forum, and when chatting with The Australian's Greg Sheridan afterwards outlined my own thesis. Greg said he liked it, so I thought I would quickly rehash it here. Let me say upfront that I have not spoken to Malcolm or anyone else about this. But here are my thoughts in any event.

First, we take as given that Malcolm is very smart and highly strategic. The shenanigans in recent weeks were not just a random bull-in-a-china-shop episode. There was method to the supposed madness.

Second, we confidently assume that Malcolm has ongoing leadership aspirations. He's not in this game to be Communications Minister. While he was, to be sure, disheartened with his lot in life for a long time there, he has taken succour from a few things:

  • Recent polling confirms he is, in fact, Australia's most popular Liberal personality, and, critically, has the ability to attract non-Liberal voters (a widely underestimated nuance, as I note below).
  • The growing view among media commentators that Joe Hockey is not up to the Shadow Treasurer's job, which was best encapsulated in a recent assassination by the AFR's highly regarded Laura Tingle (I completely disagree with this).
  • The unavoidable fact that Tony Abbott is not an individually popular brand. Indeed, he is highly divisive and the party has, frankly, succeeded in spite of these shortcomings, although much credit must be given to Tony for his outstanding execution skills during his term.
  • The decision of David Cameron's UK Conservatives to embrace climate change and engineer a highly pro-active and politically popular response (this zeitgeist will reinforce Malcolm's sense that denying climate change is not a durable electoral strategy in the long-run).
  • The considerable success of his post-Budget analysis session that attracted 250 paying business people (and was co-hosted by the influential columnist for The Australian, Michael Stutchbury).

Next, consider Malcolm's incentives, which help shed light on his actions. Unlike almost all other politicians, Malcolm currently has nothing to lose. He is extremely wealthy, and can opt out of politics and pursue a life of leisure at his choosing. He has already served as a Cabinet-level Minister in one Government, and as the leader of the party in opposition. And he has previously had to endure as much political turmoil as one could wish on any enemy. Importantly, Malcolm also knows that he has almost no party room support. There is a lot of residual bad blood over what has transpired since he left the leadership. Most of his historical allies – the Morrisons and Hockeys – are no longer there.

So, what does he do? If he truly believes that it is in the best interests of both the nation and himself to lead the party, and have a shot at running the country, he has to create a catalysing event. It is too late for him to stealthily build support with the backbench. Most are now a lost cause. But time and human self-interest are on his side. It is over two years before the next election.

Malcolm's most powerful solution is to go into Kamikaze mode and compel a 'survivalist' party room response. This is a risky strategy, but then Malcolm has what is known in financial markets as a ‘call-option-like’ payoff function. He has a helluva lot of upside if he can pull it off. And if he does not, he has little to lose.

The Kamikaze strategy involves blowing up both Abbott and Hockey. And this is a key dynamic: he cannot just eviscerate Abbott, because Hockey would immediately step into his shoes. He has to destroy both. It is, therefore, a dual-pronged approach. He attacks Abbott principally on the basis of his climate change policies, creating as much public confusion as possible, and undermining, in the electorate's eyes, the credibility of Abbott's alternative. Malcolm also knows that a carbon tax will be legislated well before the next election, and must be hoping that Abbott's narrative loses resonance, just as the anti-GST story did.

As much as I admire him, Australia's most underestimated politician, Joe Hockey, is an arguably easier target. Malcolm can de-legitimise Joe by subtly (yet relentlessly) assaulting his 'soft' economic and intellectual credentials, which seems to be low-hanging fruit in superficial media land. This may have begun with the internal ructions around Joe's banking war late last year (with The Oz's army enlisted to mount offensive raids from Malcolm's bunker), and recently found more direct expression in Malcolm's acclaimed – by the likes of Tingle et al – shadow Budget response.

The most important strategic point here is this: if Malcolm can eliminate the credible leadership candidates, and position himself as the party's best hope of winning the next election, he knows that the party room will fall into line. That is, he knows that when push comes to shove, the party room will vote with its self-interest front of mind. So Malcolm has to establish what I would call a ‘self-preservation catalyst’ for the party room by knocking over both Abbott and Hockey.

One mistake some in the party seem to make is dismissing his public appeal. You often hear the rejoinder that Malcolm is only popular with Labor and Green voters. I don't get this: aren't these precisely the target markets you need to secure in order to win an election? If you assume that you keep your core base (given they cannot bring themselves to vote for Gillard), and you have the ability to galvanize the swinging middle, this is surely a potent mix. And if they don't understand it now, the party room will eventually work it out.

John Howard died and rose again. Malcolm Turnbull enjoys extraordinary support amongst media influencers, and almost everyone outside of the Liberal Party. Senior Labor figures are privately gushing in their praise for him. You've got the likes of leading centre-left economist, Professor John Quiggin, plugging him for Prime Minister. So, it's my belief that the big fella is on a Kamikaze mission. He has both Abbott and Joe in his cross hairs. He's better armed than any other internal adversary. While it is, without doubt, low probability in terms of its prospects for success, Malcolm is unlikely to care much about the consequences. One would, therefore, be unwise to count him out.

And, in some ways, the current polling works to his advantage. Shit happens, and a lot of things will change over the next two years. An objective analysis would conclude that there is risk that the polling does not get much better than this. That, surprise, surprise, the party, with Malcolm's prodding, cannibalises itself. The big fella once said to me, ‘You capitalise on chaos’.

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