22/04/2010 - 00:00

Turnbull bows out unfulfilled

22/04/2010 - 00:00


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Malcolm Turnbull has alwys had an obstinate streak.

FAILED Liberal leader, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, made three bids to enter federal parliament to become prime minister – twice via the Liberal Party, the other by using the Labor Party as his stepping-stone.

The first came in 1981, while a 26 year old, when he sought Liberal endorsement for Sydney’s swish seat of Wentworth.

One-time Fraser government attorney-general, Bob Ellicott, decided to retire, opening the way for a pre-selection contest for the prized seat.

But former state Liberal leader, Peter Coleman, emerged victorious.

Mr Turnbull’s next bid was far less public, some may even say clandestine.

As head of the Australian Republican Movement, he was in regular contact with senior and lower level Labor politicians, all of whom backed his republican crusade.

Over those years he dropped several broad hints to some of these politicians.

One who revealed this was former prime minister, Bob Hawke, who said Mr Turnbull asked him to help find a safe Labor seat.

Incidentally, Mr Turnbull’s prime ministership model was based on Mr Hawke’s 1983 fast-track into The Lodge.

Two others, Labor leader Kim Beazley, and former South Australian senator, Nick Bolkus, confirmed Mr Hawke’s disclosure.

Clearly the Labor Party’s senior MPs were far more astute judges of Mr Turnbull’s suitability for federal politics than the Liberals, including especially John Howard, who’d strongly backed his third bid to get to Canberra.

That attempt came in 2003 when then multi-millionaire Mr Turnbull spent $600,000 of his own money in his successful toppling of Wentworth’s sitting Liberal member, Peter King, after which he bankrolled his own election campaign.

Because he’d chosen to barge into federal politics in such a costly manner, we can safely conclude that Mr Turnbull outlaid more of his own money in his bid to become prime minister than came back to him by way of salary and perks during his first term as member for Wentworth.

For what it’s worth, this probably makes him unique among all who avidly sought the prime ministership.

That said, his other distinguishing trait was that, whenever it came to the crunch, he’d invariably opt to be a splitter rather than conciliator.

He’d shown a lack of a cooperative spirit – an essential ingredient if one is to achieve anything in politics – even before splitting Wentworth’s Liberals with his anti-King move.

His modus operandi included calculated Turnbull-at-a-gate approaches whenever he wanted something on his terms.

And it’s this proclivity that was to be his undoing, not once but twice.

First came his mishandling of the republican issue.

Second was his decision while Liberal leader to be a flag bearer for Kevin Rudd’s tax on all energy usage – the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Let’s briefly look at both bungled moves and consider the probable reason for the uncompromising Turnbull approach to politics.

Mr Turnbull decided sometime in the early 1990s that he wanted Australia transformed into a politicians’ republic. Interestingly, he’d earlier been a member of Ausflag, which sought to scrap the Australian flag that features the Jack in the hoist, the Federation Star, and Southern Cross.

Perhaps it’s also not coincidental that much of his business activity involved senior Sydney Labor personalities, suggesting he’d imbibed much of their outlook on several key issues.

For instance, he established an investment bank, Whitlam Turnbull & Co Ltd, with former NSW Labor premier, Neville Wran, and former State Bank of NSW chief, Nicholas Whitlam, son of Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam.

Between 1993 and 2000, while heading the ARM, he was appointed by then PM Paul Keating to investigate legalistic details of transforming Australia into a republic via a nationwide referendum.

The main reason for his defeat in the 1999 referendum to transform Australia into a politicians’ republic was his refusal to countenance the proposal that presidents be directly elected by the people.

He wanted politicians, meaning the political party bosses, to choose all presidents.

This crucial difference split the republican movement into the ARM/Turnbull wing that Labor backed, and a democratic republican wing, with those in the latter throwing their weight behind the monarchist vote since they preferred no change to an undemocratic politicians’ republic.

If Mr Turnbull had backed the democratic republicans he’d have gotten his republic for Australia’s federal centenary in 2001.

But it had to be the Turnbull way.

Then that other crusade – taxing all energy usage.

Again, this had to be done his way, which turned out to also be the Kevin Rudd way – an emissions trading scheme based on the flawed European system that’s required several rescues.

However, even before he was toppled as Liberal leader – because of his highly selective manner of tabulating and announcing crucial party room voting – an anti-Turnbull mutiny was brewing.

It started with the Godwin Gretch fiasco where Mr Turnbull, like South Australian Liberal leader, Martin Hamilton-Smith, fell hook line and sinker for a bit of technological trickery – a phoney email.

Such amateurism isn’t tolerated for long in the now 66-year-old Liberal Party.

So when the Turnbull mutiny materialised, with frontbenchers fleeing the shadow cabinet in the wake of hundreds of thousands of emails and phone calls to Liberal MPs from longstanding rank and file Liberal members Australia-wide, his fate was virtually sealed.

The party the late Sir Robert Menzies founded had never seen anything like it.

Mr Turnbull thus has the unenviable distinction of taking the party to a point where tens of thousands of members nationwide were set to resign.

Notwithstanding such an imminent catastrophe, unbelievably, he continued to stick to his guns, and lost the leadership by just one vote.

State Scene has quizzed several WA federal Liberal MPs on what would have happened if Mr Turnbull had won the leadership vote.

The responses were always stone-faced silence.

And when it was suggested to each that the party would have split, with some of their colleagues perhaps moving into the National Party, no denial was forthcoming and the topic was quickly changed.

Since State Scene believes Mr Turnbull brought the Liberal Party to the brink of its first ever split, something Labor has experienced three times, it’s necessary to ask from whence his uncompromising splitter trait comes.

As strange as it sounds, it may well emanate from the fact that his middle name is Bligh, which originates from former NSW governor, William Bligh (1754-1817), who not only lost his Royal Navy ship during the famous 1789 Mutiny on the Bounty, but followed up by sparking the even less illustrious 1808 Sydney-town Rum Rebellion.

Mr Turnbull’s earliest NSW colonial ancestor, John Turnbull, avidly backed governor Bligh, and subsequently named his youngest son, William Bligh Turnbull, in memory of the troubled governor he’d so ardently backed.

And this Turnbull tradition survives to this day.

It seems that not only the name, Bligh, has remained with the Turnbulls, but so has the desire to get one’s way, often at the price of sparking mutinies of one sort or another.


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