Malcolm in the Middle?

For more than a year the Coalition has held a seemingly unassailable lead in the opinion polls. But after a bruising few months of media gaffes, speculation about his university days and damaging outbursts from some high-profile supporters (Corey Bernadi and Alan Jones), Tony Abbott’s march to the Lodge is looking less like a sprint and more like a hurdle race.

While Abbott has continued his ‘Great Big Campaign Against Everything’, Malcolm Turnbull has been busy carving out an alternative vision for his party and the nation. It may well prove attractive to his colleagues if the tide continues to move Labor’s way in the opinion polls.

Turnbull’s leadership ended in a dramatic fashion when the Coalition’s internal divisions over emissions trading erupted. Since then he has successfully cast himself as a martyr for the climate change cause. The fact that the compromise Turnbull negotiated with Rudd would have failed to deliver any meaningful action on climate change is beside the point, he is still perceived as a leader who was knifed for standing by his convictions. This is a powerful narrative at a time when politicians are increasingly dismissed as craven and poll-driven.

More broadly, Turnbull is positioning himself as a moderate figure in the liberal tradition. In contrast to Abbott, he is not Howard reloaded. In fact, Turnbull has been at pains to disassociate himself from the more conservative forces within his own party. For instance, he moved quickly to condemn Corey Bernadi’s outrageous comments about same-sex marriage, even openly ridiculing the Senator on The Chaser. While this may be reflective of the views of his constituency (after all he represents an inner-city electorate) it also points to a very different kind of liberalism – one which has not been associated with the Liberal Party in Australia for sometime.

During the Howard years the Liberal Party evolved into a much more conservative outfit. Its embrace of classical liberal economics and conservative social policy may have proved electorally popular, but it also drove some traditional liberals away from the party. The exit of former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is a case in point.

Turnbull’s brand of small ‘l’ liberalism may prove attractive to a growing constituency disillusioned with Labor but alienated by Abbott’s conservatism. This potential was recently noted by Greens Leader Christine Milne when she suggested that some Green voters may look more favourably on a Turnbull-lead Liberal Party (due to his position on climate change), when it comes to allocating their preferences on election day.

Turnbull is also associating himself with a different style of politics – moving beyond the bitter divisions of the last few years. For instance, his recent speech lamenting the tone of political debate was surely music to the ears of an electorate disillusioned with the endless negativity and personal attacks of modern politics.

On the issues of marriage equality and off-shore processing he has sought to break impasses by mapping out an alternative middle road. While such compromises may ultimately result in poor policy outcomes, Turnbull may still get points from some in the electorate for trying. After all, the politics of compromise and conciliation are often appealing in highly polarised environments. A welcome respite from the daily spectacle of the Abbott v Gillard mudslinging, Turnbull has the potential to position himself as a clean-skin offering new solutions.

This may prove particularly valuable to the Coalition on carbon pricing and there are signs that Abbott’s anti-carbon tax campaign is running out of steam. After warning that our nation faced nothing short of economic Armageddon, months into the life of the tax Abbott’s fears have not been realised. Questions about the opposition leader’s credibility can only continue to mount as voters realise that his doomsday scenario does not match their lived experience. While Abbott now has nowhere to move, Turnbull’s climate conviction means he is well placed to change direction and potentially moderate his party’s position.

As the prospect of a Rudd come-back recedes along with the Coalition’s lead in the opinion polls, Tony Abbott may yet face his biggest hurdle on the road to the Lodge – Malcolm Turnbull. While a “cobra strike” seems unlikely, with an election not due until late next year, Abbott could still fall victim to a “python squeeze” of his own…
This piece was first published on On Line Opinion on the 23rd of October 2013. 
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