The second coming of Malcolm

Malcolm Turnbull’s behaviour is driving leadership speculation, but Liberal MPs would only turn to him if there was complete voter rejection of Tony Abbott’s extreme right approach.

Less than 12 months into the job as Australia’s 28th Prime Minister, Tony Abbott is facing questions about the security of his tenure.

Such speculation is not unknown this early in a new government’s term, and perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising considering Abbott’s deep unpopularity.

But the real driver of leadership talk is the behaviour of one Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. It’s been hard not to notice Turnbull in recent times as he goes about his duties as Cabinet Minister, Liberal parliamentarian and servant of the people of Wentworth.

And because he does it with an engaging style that cannot help but be compared with that of the dour Prime Minister, the question inevitably arises – at what point do Turnbull’s activities become less about performing his current job and more about angling for Abbott’s?

Part of the issue is that it’s hard to understand why Turnbull remains in Parliament. Having lost the Liberal leadership, arguably to the social conservative MPs who arranged Abbott’s one-vote victory over him, and departed from the parliament only to be convinced by supporters to return, it’s unclear what Turnbull hopes to achieve by staying on.

Granted, the public service ethos appears to run deep in his family, with wife Lucy having also served in a public role as the Lord Mayor of Sydney. But surely Turnbull’s medium-term plans involve more than flogging a less-than-optimal broadband network to a resentful populace?

It doesn’t take a student of Machiavelli or member of the tin-foil hat brigade to see that Turnbull is playing the long game. In doing so he’s taken a few pages from both the Howard and Rudd playbooks, and then added his own inimitable flair.

Like Rudd, Turnbull plays directly to the Australian people and has built a fan base that spreads way beyond the borders of Wentworth. He appears in a regular breakfast television spot with Deputy Labor Leader, Tanya Plibersek, just like Rudd used to do with Joe Hockey.

He uses social media to show voters what a diligent local member and man of the people he really is, despite being an Abbott Government minister and multi-millionaire.

Of course it’s not the voters that would have a say in making Turnbull Liberal leader again, but his parliamentary colleagues. So Turnbull is working on them too, showing his leadership credentials in Question Time by providing cuttingly entertaining rants to raise the spirits of embattled backbenchers, and last week demonstrating his impressive and hitherto unknown Clive-wrangling skills.

Whether the now infamous “secret” dinner with Clive Palmer was indeed spontaneous, and whether or not they talked only about the duck and coconut ice-cream, Turnbull used the event to show his party room colleagues that he has the access and ability to negotiate outcomes with Palmer that the PUP Leader is threatening to withhold from Abbott.

Cracker speeches in Parliament and the ability to get a few things through the Senate may make a few more of his colleagues more amenable, but on their own these elements will not be enough for Turnbull to prevail.

Turnbull will also need, like Howard did before him, for the times to suit him.

During Abbott’s ascendancy the times did not suit Turnbull at all. Abbott and his hardline patrons were able to exacerbate, exploit and translate the Australian community’s inherent conservatism into a very healthy majority at the 2013 federal election.

While strong public support remains for the Government’s extreme right agenda, Turnbull and the moderate agenda that he represents will continue to be shunned in the Liberal party room. In these circumstances he will never have the numbers to win another leadership ballot.

But now voters are beginning to wonder whether the Abbott Government is the same as what was shown on the outside of the box. Voters have begun to realise Abbott’s agenda is not just about stopping the boats and axing the tax but the wholesale removal of government support, the unleashing of free market forces and an often petty rebalancing of the ledger on social, cultural and environmental matters.

Nevertheless, Abbott can still turn this around. Lost among the ongoing gnashing of teeth over the federal budget was a recent poll showing that while only 28 per cent of voters thought before the budget that it would be good for the economy overall, this number increased to 40 per cent one week after the budget was announced.

If, and this is a big if, the Government can fix its communication of the budget and salvage it in the Senate in a politically acceptable way, this “acceptance rating” of the budget being good for the economy would likely increase.

If not, community support for the Government’s whole conservative agenda may begin to unravel. Such an unraveling is the final factor needed for any second coming of Malcolm.

Only with complete voter rejection of the extreme right approach, and the attendant threat of political oblivion to any party that espouses it, would Liberal MPs choose Turnbull over electoral defeat.

It wouldn’t be pretty, but the path to political leadership rarely is.

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