Malcolm Turnbull's decision to give Brendan Nelson's ailing leadership more time on the political respirator is the sign his wavering colleagues have been waiting for – the winds of political maturation.
Turnbull, the wealthiest man in the Federal Parliament, entered Liberal politics as a force of nature. The moment he seized the seat of Wentworth from sitting member Peter King in what became known as "the mother of all branch stacks", Turnbull was immediately regarded as the man most likely to succeed to the Liberal leadership.
This sense of manifest destiny was driven by a potent combination of personal fulfilment – a $170 million fortune amassed in the private sector – plus an ambition fired by an unerring sense of self-belief.
They are the positives in the Turnbull make-up. The overwhelming negative, though, was the way this blend of characteristics stoked his forces of impatience. Turnbull simply couldn't wait – for anybody or anything.
So he burst into the parliament and, as a backbencher, immediately commissioned – some would say bought – a suite of tax policies which, Peter Costello argues in his memoirs, conspired to undermine the Coalition's economic credentials.
Once inside Cabinet, he argued for the ratification of the Kyoto Protocols and then, according to Costello, leaked that fact during the election campaign to shore up his position in Greens-leaning, trendy Wentworth.
Then, when office was slipping from the Liberals' grasp in late 2007, it was Turnbull who turned on his political sponsor, John Howard, and told him he ought to go in the party's best interests. Ever since the defeat of November that year, and his narrowest of losses to Nelson in a subsequent leadership ballot, he's let anyone who cares to know that Nelson should move aside for him.
So, the news that with Costello apparently out of the way, Turnbull does not intend immediately throttling Nelson – which he could do – assumes the nature of a change in character.
The notion of Turnbull taking pause, rather than charging full tilt into the first available china shop, is a new and welcome development for those MPs still uncertain about whether to back him.
And it's welcome because it's smart. And like most pivotal moments in politics, it has, in fact, been some time in the making. In the past six months, even as Nelson has weakened, Turnbull has backed off his earlier, almost manic post-election agitation for a leadership change.
For his colleagues, that means their phones have stopped ringing off their hooks. Turnbull's interventions have been more subtle. He's become more collegiate; inviting MPs around to his parliamentary offices to discuss issues relevant to his shadow treasury portfolio. Which is most everything. Doing the mundane people work that Costello never did. But that Nelson always did.
Crucially, and again distinct from Costello, this has sent the message that he does not have a sense of leadership entitlement. A pause in campaigning against Nelson is not generosity on Turnbull's part, simply recognition that the opinion polls will do their work for him.
Ever since he assumed the leadership, Nelson has been able to argue that his inability to cut it with the Australian public has been due to the fact that Costello has been lingering over his shoulder as the putative Liberal leader. Now, all that's finished. Or has it? More of that later.
For the moment, let's assume that it's true. By giving Nelson space – and that means about two cycles of opinion polls – Turnbull will be able to argue that under no pressure from him and relieved of same from Costello, Nelson has still been unable to connect with the Australian public. Which, let's face it, decent bloke that Nelson is, was always going to be the case.
The point about Turnbull's discipline is twofold; it gives Nelson some dignity to resolve his fate on his own terms. And it gives Turnbull the lustre of restraint before striking.
Now, to return to Costello: A couple of observations, if I may, in the context of the Nelson vs Turnbull battle and Costello's apparent removal of himself from leadership contention.
Costello has steadfastly refused to say when he might leave the parliament. That means that for as long as his bum points south on a seat in the House of Representatives, he remains a viable leadership alternative. But – and this is critical – that viability now depends on how Turnbull fares when the inevitable leadership transition takes place.
The truth is that Costello's capacity to block Turnbull, the critic of his economic record, is now at an all-time low. Key former Costello supporters have now switched to Turnbull.
I ask them: "If Turnbull mounts a challenge and Costello rings to say, `Don't do it', what would be your response?"
They say: "Peter has now dealt himself out of the party's future, therefore he has no say in it. We will make up our own minds."
All roads point to Turnbull.
(Credit: The Sunday Times)
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