Comment: Turnbull is playing the long game

Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra, Thursday, June 5, 2014. Mr Turnbull has been accused of destabilising Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (AAP)

Malcolm Turnbull has lashed out at Andrew Bolt and locked horns with Alan Jones over suggestions he's eying the leadership. Make no mistake, he's in it for the long haul.

It’s now been more than a week since Malcolm Turnbull had a 'secret' dinner in a public place with Clive Palmer of the eponymous party. Since then, the possibility of a re-ascendant Turnbull has spooked at least two staunch Abbott supporters, if not the Prime Minister himself.

At the time, the dinner may have seemed nothing more to Turnbull than a serendipitous opportunity to literally bring the recalcitrant Palmer to the table. Palmer had announced earlier that neither he nor his Senators-elect would speak to the government about passing the budget until the Palmer United Party was afforded official party status and given the additional resources this status attracted.

Even so, Turnbull would have also welcomed the chance to contrast his superior political negotiation skills with those of the Prime Minister.

For there is no mistaking that Turnbull is playing the long game, and part of that strategy is to woo the parliamentary colleagues whose votes could sometime in the future reinstall him as party leader.

... Turnbull is unlikely to ever be leader again unless the Abbott Government’s right-wing agenda is completely repudiated by the broader Australian community and consequently abandoned by the Coalition parties.

This courtship to date has mainly involved Turnbull putting on bravura performances each Question Time, in which he regales Liberal frontbenchers and backbenchers alike with bitingly entertaining commentary on the previous government’s failure to deliver the NBN as promised.

The Cabinet minister has reportedly also been putting his public popularity to good use by helping backbenchers campaign in their electorates.

But the Minister for Communications is still a long way from his goal, with the extreme right wing of the Liberal Party standing between him and its attainment. In fact, Turnbull is unlikely to ever be leader again unless the Abbott Government’s right-wing agenda is completely repudiated by the broader Australian community and consequently abandoned by the Coalition parties.

It appears that Turnbull has therefore concluded that the only way to deal with the Right is to undermine and eventually destroy the legitimacy of its agenda.  This is where his incendiary clashes with the warriors of the far right – Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones – come into play.

Following the secret public dinner, Bolt took the bait first. Using his tabloid-based blog and the Prime Minister’s appearance on his weekend television chat show, Bolt tried to expose Turnbull’s 'hidden' agenda to usurp Abbott. However the pugnacious commentator wasn’t planning on Turnbull using the full force of his lawyerly artillery to respond with a withering denunciation of the misdirected suspicions of Abbott’s number one cheerleader.

The same applied to Abbott’s other great fan, tabloid radio’s Alan Jones, who yesterday also tried to take Turnbull to task for, well, being Turnbull. If Jones had been expecting Turnbull to be humbly apologetic, he was left sorely wanting. Turnbull took Jones head on, accusing him and Bolt of being the real 'bomb throwers' and destabilisers of the Abbott Government by inventing party dissent where there was none.

These head-on clashes with political Neanderthals Bolt and Jones serve several purposes for Turnbull.

Firstly they thrill his fans on social media and in the broader community, who love to hate Turnbull’s flawed broadband policy but celebrate his (limited) moderate credentials. This week’s Essential Poll bears this out with 37% of Labor voters and 35% of Green voters claiming to prefer Turnbull as Liberal Leader but only 27% of Liberal voters feeling the same.

Secondly, the stoushes again demonstrate Turnbull’s leadership credentials to colleagues along with his willingness and ability to stand up to media bullies.

And finally, as Katharine Murphy posited in Guardian Australia, Turnbull’s denunciation of the extreme right warriors is part of his attempt to bring the national political conversation back to the centre, where Turnbull just so happens to be the most credible and competent candidate for Liberal Party leadership.

This last task will take some time, but Turnbull seems to be in no hurry. He indicated as much last night on ABC’s 730 when he said he didn’t have "any plans, any desires or any expectations to be the leader” but "having said that politics is an unpredictable business".

Turnbull’s been biding his time since losing the leadership to Abbott by one vote in 2009. He would see no point in bringing on any challenge until community views and political circumstance align in his favour.

Paula Matthewson is a freelance corporate writer and political blogger. After being a Liberal adviser from 1989-93, she spent 20 years as an industry lobbyist. Paula tweets at @Drag0nista and blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog.

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