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Could Malcolm Turnbull MP make a difference to the Liberal Party?

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 9 October 2003

Malcolm Turnbull's bid to be the next Liberal MP for the prestigious federal seat of Wentworth in Sydney's eastern suburbs is as daring as any corporate raid he has been involved with in his 25-year career as a banker and lawyer.

If Turnbull gets elected to Parliament his presence will be a challenge to a Liberal Party that under John Howard has little tolerance for anything other than cautious and conservative men and women.

While Turnbull, Australian Republican Movement chairman, was understandably frustrated by elements of the Liberal Party during the 1990s republican campaigns, he never loathed the party itself. That's why he cooled off for 12 months after the republic referendum loss of 1999 and told Howard he wanted to rejoin the party.


I got to know Turnbull well because I was national campaign director of the ARM for the 1999 campaign. While I've never had detailed discussions with him about the philosophical and social beliefs, I have formed the view that he is in the mold of former NSW premier Nick Greiner and federal leader John Hewson: economically rational and socially liberal.

Like Hewson and Greiner, Turnbull has benefited from an international career and understands that Australia will not prosper by adopting protectionist and xenophobic policy positions or constitutional conservatism. Also like them, Turnbull is intellectually bright. But as Greiner and Hewson found out, being intellectually superior to your colleagues has a down side.

With such an outlook, Turnbull would have more in common with the majority of those who live in the Wentworth electorate than the incumbent MP, monarchist-supporting patrician tory Peter King.

It is likely that the majority of voters in this well-educated, higher-income-level electorate would see little wrong with the tactics Turnbull is using to unseat Mr King - wholesale enlistment of new party members to take over the local party machine. And party members shouldn't complain about it, either.

The federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, Environment Minister David Kemp and Education Minister Brendan Nelson all came into parliament by unseating sitting members at preselections in a similarly brutal way.

And what does Mr Howard make of Mr Turnbull's conduct? Once again, harking back to the 1999 referendum campaign, I never thought that Turnbull was as visceral in his contempt for Howard's undermining of the republican case as some other members of the "yes vote" team. When Turnbull rejoined the Liberals, Howard welcomed him publicly.


Howard will want to ensure that he does not leave the Liberal Party in the same state that Robert Menzies left it in 1965, with all the highly talented frontbenchers shipped to embassies or retired.

From Howard's perspective, a Liberal Party front bench that boasts ambitious men such as Costello, Abbott, Nelson and Turnbull is just an exercise in good succession planning.

One question that does remain unanswered in many minds is the extent to which Turnbull is a team player. After all, he is a man who has run his own shows for many years.

It is also fair to say he doesn't suffer fools gladly. He likes spelling out ideas and policies in a range of areas and that will test the culture of a party that is not keen, under Howard, on public dissent or even differing shades of opinion. Since Turnbull took over the chairmanship of the Liberal party think tank, the Menzies Research Centre, it has produced two major reports on higher-education reform and home ownership. When he launched the former report in April last year, Nelson couldn't wait to ditch it.

Turnbull is an idiosyncratic, passionate and decent character. His style might not suit everyone, but his selflessness in pursuing a cause he believes in will make him an asset to the Liberals. The real question is: will Howard's Liberal Party be able to cope with someone as different as Malcolm?

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This story was first published in The Age on 7 October 2003.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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