Turnbull’s new pitch as Mr Right

One of the challenges posed by the unofficial contest for leadership of the federal Liberal Party is that contenders don’t want to be seen as actually campaigning.

To do so would invite accusations of Rudd-like destabilisation and treachery.

But when you’re running for the leadership of a party, people want to know what you stand for, and perhaps even more importantly, what you don’t represent. This is particularly a conundrum for one time Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, whose progressive views on climate action were seen as a bridge too far by arch-conservatives in the party, and one of the main reasons for his removal.

Turnbull has spent the years since being deposed in 2009 rebuilding his reputation with the broader Australian community, but has been less successful in convincing Liberal supporters and MPs that he’s no longer the lefty tyrant they distrust and fear.

At last count, 38 per cent of Coalition voters still prefer Tony Abbott as prime minister compared with 30 per cent for Turnbull, although a 17 percentage point gap between the two has shortened to eight points since November last year. And there’s new evidence today that Abbott is on the nose in the pivotal electoral heartland of western Sydney.

This has left the Communications Minister with little choice other than to eke out a leadership manifesto, piece by piece through media and other public appearances, in the hope of assuaging the concerns of the right while not scaring off the bulk of his progressive support base.

The “righting” of Turnbull started with his appearance on ABC’s 7.30 almost a fortnight ago, ostensibly to discuss proposed changes to Australia Post’s mail delivery service. During this interview the Minister didn’t exactly shy away from leadership questions, and in response to a query about whether his progressiveness was at odds with the bulk of Liberal supporters, Turnbull stressed he and the Prime Minister were not that different on some social issues, such as marriage equality:

The reality is that Tony Abbott and my position on gay marriage is very close. Both of us believe the party room should decide whether there should be a free vote … So you know, the idea that there’s this massive gulf between us is quite imaginary…

Former assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos backed up this assertion during an appearance last week on Lateline, emphasising the Liberal Party was a broad-based party “made up of a number of broad strands” including moderates and conservatives, but that the party was not defined by any one part of its base:

So it’s a furphy to say that X or Y is somehow outside the mainstream of the party. The fact of the matter is, Turnbull is a capitalist, he believes in market principles … he’s “socially progressive”, in inverted commas, on certain issues, but so are many others in the party and others are more conservative.

Having made the threshold attempt on 7.30 to re-adjust the right’s perception of him as a rabid lefty, Turnbull has stepped into the fray several times since in further attempts to “rightsize” his reputation.

Last week he defended the Prime Minister against attacks over Abbott’s “lifestyle choices” comment, claiming no other non-Indigenous member of the Parliament had “more involvement with, or more understanding of, Indigenous communities than Tony”, and that there should be a rational discussion of the issue “without turning it into a let’s-give-Tony-Abbott-a-belting occasion, as often people like to do”.

This statement sits in stark contrast to Turnbull having essentially given Abbott an implied belting just weeks earlier when he defended Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs against criticisms from the PM and others, saying “I don’t want to get into that. Other people can do that if they wish”.

And then there was Turnbull’s deliberate intervention last week in support of last year’s budget, which is still being championed by the right (and the Treasurer) as the cure for the nation’s future economic woes.

In a speech that was an appeal to those, either in his own party or the conservative commentariat, who believe he’s too soft on economic issues, Turnbull talked tough on economic reform, stressing the budget was not a failure but that “we clearly haven’t been able to achieve the degree of fiscal repair and reform that was and is needed”.

The social progressive flicked the switch to economic conservative, claiming the unpopular budget was simply misunderstood and that this could be rectified with an “evidence-based, spin-free, fair dinkum debate about the budget position and what we should do to fix it”:

Once you’ve explained an issue often enough that people understand there is a genuine problem and “something” must be done, you can have an intelligent discussion about what that something might be – and just as importantly, your opponents will face public pressure to come up with their own “something” if they are not prepared to support yours.

Given this speech was all about self-promotion, the Communications Minister then went on to explain how his management of the NBN and Australia Post reforms was the model for successful implementation of the budget’s unpalatable reforms.

In short, the speech was intended to add the missing economic reform chapter to Malcolm’s Manifesto for Leadership. Yet read in its entirety, the speech also presents uncannily like a budget address from the Treasurer.

Perhaps the speech forms part of Turnbull’s Plan B: to secure the Treasury portfolio as a consolation prize if the Liberal leadership goes to one of the conservatives’ preferred candidates, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison. For let’s face it, Turnbull has been willing to play the long game for the past five years, and perhaps is prepared to wait out the tenure of the next Liberal leader if he could further consolidate his leadership credentials as Treasurer during that time.

Whatever Turnbull’s plan, there’s no denying there is one, even if his resolute determination to avoid being seen as a spoiler means we are afforded only glimpses of what that plan entails. Whether he’s wooing the conservatives, or attempting to wedge Abbott on media reforms, everything Turnbull does is a move calculated to progress his leadership campaign just that little bit further.