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Turnbull is an underutilised asset

By Malcolm Colless - posted Friday, 13 April 2012

With the latest Newspoll figures pointing to a major-state wipeout for the Gillard Labor Government at the next election, Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, could well be tempted to adopt a small target strategy for the conservatives in the lead up to this.

And Labor's propensity for policy stuff ups - the latest and almost certainly not the last being the disastrous handling the of Australia Network tender - seems to give considerable weight to this tactic.

But more importantly it creates the opportunity for Abbott to restructure his front bench with a specific focus on economic management which is shaping up as the key issue for the electorate.


With the penultimate Swan budget less than a month away, now is the time to move on this. Abbott should replace the current shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, with Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull, a former Opposition leader, is being wasted as Communications spokesman regardless of the importance of issues such as the multi-billion dollar National Broadband Network which may well end up as one of the world's most expensive infrastructure white elephants.

Putting him in the Treasury portfolio will harness his skills in this area and could be protrayed as the cornerstone of a powerful potential kitchen cabinet in an incoming conservative government.

Hockey is simply not cutting it in this role but could be a very effective sidekick to Turnbull as finance spokesman (that is if he does not spit out the dummy first). Meanwhile Andrew Robb, the current shadow finance minister, who is doing a good job orchestrating policy development in the run up to the election, could take on the Communications role. Failing this Paul Fletcher, who used to work for Richard Alston, Communications Minister in the Howard Government, may be a suitable candidate. Finessed properly this rehsuffle could be portrayed as a bold and visionary move by a courageous leader who is not afraid to bring the person most spoken about as his successor into his tent.

At the same time the move would not be made against a background of weakness or impending threat. The latest polls put the Coalition comfortably ahead of Labor on the issue of economic management and in a commanding lead in the primary and two-party preferred stakes.

Abbott can demonstrate his ability to be a team leader rather than hogging the limelight, thereby killing off Labor's campaign that his policies are focussed on negativism, something the ALP clearly intends to try to exploit in the run up to the election.


On this front Gillard's carbon tax is the fundemental issue separating Labor and the conservatives. But Labor has already begun a sustained program of benefits supported by a multi-million dollar advertising campaign designed to smother the cost of living impact generated by this impost.

Economic management is not the only area that should be addressed in a front bench shakeup. Health, education and, of course, industrial relations are also areas that will be of crucial importance in determining the outcome of the next election. But in the end all roads lead back to who is better skilled to manage the economy and it is here that Abbott must start - and soon.

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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