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Mal has jumped the gun

By Peter Brent - posted Thursday, 18 September 2008

If winning elections was all about ability, energy and determination, the Coalition would be the strong favourite to take government in 2010. If the just-minted Malcolm Turnbull isn't the most centred, talented individual ever to occupy the position of federal Opposition leader, he must come close.

But winning elections is not mainly about those things. Timing is more important. If a government is ready to lose, a competent Opposition will beat it. Otherwise, forget about it. And while the continuing bad news from Wall Street makes it just possible this will happen in 2010, Turnbull is unlikely to still be Liberal leader.

Assuming a three-year term, the next election is 26 months away. No federal Opposition leader has lasted that long since Kim Beazley stood down in 2001.


And Gough Whitlam aside, all successful federal Opposition leaders in living memory were installed only months out from their winning election. (John Howard's 1995-6 tenure, at 14 months, was the longest.) This is partly because an election on the horizon keeps the troops focused and the job secure. It's also because electors get quickly tired of whinging Opposition leaders (and there is no other kind).

This is why Tuesday's Liberal party room vote has very likely dealt a mortal blow to Turnbull's prime ministerial ambitions. The most likely course of events sees him being toppled some time in the next two years, his political brand trashed.

Just imagine the tight leadership vote last December had gone the other way. Today it would be Turnbull who had just been chewed up and spat out by the worst job in politics. And Brendan Nelson, rather than having to recover from 10 months of horror, would instead be the heir apparent. Journalists would hang off his every word.

It's in the timing.

Nelson wasn't a bad Opposition leader. His schmaltzy brave heart earnestness and populist instincts could have worked well against an old and vulnerable government, particularly one led by a clinical control freak. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now Turnbull is there.

The Liberal Party hopes the tumultuous days are now over, but the term poisoned chalice wasn't coined for nothing. The position determines the person more than vice versa. Perhaps after a decent honeymoon, opinion polls are likely to fall back into line, once again regularly showing the Opposition lagging behind the Government. If not at first, then eventually.


Several dozen Newpolls doing their fortnightly work, chip-chipping at his leadership. Two years is too long.

It is a mundane fact that new governments can usually expect at least two terms, which means that the first Opposition leader rarely wins. It's not lack of talent; on the contrary, they are often the best and brightest. But no first-off Opposition leader has become prime minister since 1914. Instead, they have capped off an otherwise much-admired public life with disappointment and, indeed, personal sadness.

Clever Peter Costello for avoiding that fate. The former treasurer's decision not to run last December shows he understands the cyclical dynamics. He could still take the leadership any time, but continues to reject it, while not quite ruling it out for the future. Vanity - the need for attention - probably plays a part, as do those publishing requirements. But it surely also indicates he doesn't think the time is yet right. If he took the job now, he would be unlikely to last until the election. Even if he did last, he probably wouldn't win. Instead, the position would ruin him.

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First published in The Australian on September 17, 2008.

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About the Author

Peter Brent is publisher of, a website devoted to Australian politics. He is also a PhD student at the Research School of Social Sciences, ANU. He is a member of the Australian National University's Democratic Audit of Australia.

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