Monday, June 29, 2009

Is Peter Costello Sure He Wants To Retire?

So, is this the end of the road for Malcolm Turnbull? The dust is beginning to settle from last week’s seemingly unending “Utegate” affair and according to the startling results of the opinion polls it Malcolm Turnbull who has been torpedoed. While the damage is far worse than some might have expected, it remains to be seen whether it might be enough to sink his chances of ever becoming Prime Minister. In the Herald Neilson Poll, his approval rating has fallen to 32% and his disapproval has rocketed to 60%, broadly comparable to the figures achieved by Brendan Nelson in the weeks before his time as leader came to an end.

In the Newspoll, published by the Australian, the figures are even worse with disapproval at 58% and approval falling to a low of 25%. What is more startling is that it marks a fall from 44% two weeks ago and represents the fastest plunge in support ever recorded for any opposition leader. Other results from the Newspoll indicate that 52% of voters do not believe Mr. Turnbull’s claims about Utegate, compared to only 24% who do, and even 29% of coalition voters don’t believe him. Voters now find Mr. Turnbull less likeable, less trustworthy and more arrogant.

There have been reports of disquiet within the Liberal Party over Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership before, but now the rumbling is loud enough not to be ignored. While he was performing well, as he was not much more than a week ago, critics were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, or to at least give him time to establish himself. But now, the combination of embarrassment and plummeting poll figures means that the question of leadership will be raised. There are only two questions. The first is when?

At the moment, the Parliament is adjourned for the winter break, and the members have all dispersed. Some of them are out of the country, so any party meeting may have to wait a little while, unless matters come to such a dramatic point that some sort of urgent recall becomes necessary. The other question is who? Just who would be likely to be put forward as a potential leader who has a realistic chance of dislodging the Prime Minister? Could the electorate be encouraged to embrace Joe Hockey, who presents a cheerful and friendly image, but who might not be seen by voters as offering enough substance and experience? Or what about the old war horse, Tony Abbott, long seen as harbouring leadership ambitions, veteran of the Howard Government with experience in senior portfolios, but viewed by some as being less than gracious? Is there anybody else?

At the same time, Malcolm Turnbull still has his supporters, both inside the party and out. His positive qualities remain just as important today as they did two weeks ago. He is widely acknowledged as possessing a brilliant mind, having the boldness to persevere, and the strength to endure setbacks. He has the ability to be eloquent, articulate, and charming, but also persuasive and where necessary harsh. He has all the qualities a leader could ordinarily be expected to have. If he fails, it won’t be through lack of talent, but perhaps lack of judgment, which according to former Prime Minister Paul Keating, is said to be his weakness.

But that is where the Liberal Party is confronted with a dilemma. For any party, success depends upon a team effort which harnesses the strengths of its leader while working together to shield his weaknesses. Mr. Turnbull has been described as a “force of nature”, and such a force appropriately directed can be devastatingly successful. Unfortunately, at the same time, such a force misdirected is just devastating, as Malcolm Turnbull has now discovered. For the party to discard him now would be a waste of the time and effort already invested, especially as there is no obvious successor. Mr. Turnbull should survive this setback and continue to lead the Liberal Party.

Unless of course, somebody manages to convince Peter Costello to change his mind about retiring.

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