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Turnbull key to reshaping Libs

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 26 September 2007

If, as now seems a real possibility, the Howard Government loses the forthcoming federal election, then the Liberal Party will, for the first time since its founding in the 1940s, be out of office in every Australian parliament.

Such a state of affairs presents an ideal opportunity for the party to redefine itself, and there is only man with the energy and intellect to drive such a project Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

I worked with Turnbull on the 1999 republic referendum campaign. While he copped criticism for his style of running the Australian Republican Movement, much of it unfair, without his leadership the issue of Australia having its own head of state would not have been so high on the political agenda so that even arch monarchist John Howard felt he had to hold a referendum on the matter.


What Turnbull possesses, and which appears to be lacking in would-be leadership rivals in a post-Howard world, is a capacity to organise and motivate. This will be essential if the party is not to fall apart, as it did through much of the 1980s, into bickering, personality-driven factional warfare.

Second, Turnbull is keen on policy development. When he chaired the Liberal Party's think-tank, the Menzies Research Centre, prior to his entering Parliament in 2004, he brought it to life. He recruited bright young thinkers and the centre produced thought-provoking ideas on, among other things, housing affordability.

The challenge facing a post-Howard Liberal Party will be to reposition and renovate itself. It must do this otherwise it will stagnate and fragment. The Liberals need only look at their British cousins, the Conservative Party, to know that this is the case.

When the Conservatives lost office in 1997 after an 18-year stint, it simply became a right-wing rump, and only in the past year or two under its youthful leader, David Cameron, has it sought to remarket itself as a centrist party.

The advantage for the Liberals in electing Turnbull as their post-election loss leader is that he has less identified with the Howard years than any of his rivals.

Peter Costello, Tony Abbott, Brendan Nelson and even Alexander Downer each carry with them the baggage of the Howard years, for better or for worse. And would they really be prepared to take the party by the throat and pummel it into shape so it is competitive for the 2010 election?


Turnbull, on the other hand, has nothing to lose by becoming leader straight after the election. He has already succeeded in his other careers of business and the law and he is a newcomer to national politics.

Turnbull has been focused on environmental policy since becoming an MP, first as parliamentary secretary for water and as Environment Minister.

Given the extent to which climate change and water scarcity will be high-order issues for a Rudd government, it will be useful for the Liberal opposition to have as its leader someone who has a firm grasp of policy in these areas.

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First published in The Canberra Times on September 24, 2007.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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