Tony Abbott’s office has come under fire recently for “gagging” shadow ministers, in particular Malcolm Turnbull. The opposition’s communications spokesperson has purportedly declined numerous print and television interviews in recent weeks under the instruction of his leader. Peter Van Onselen of The Australian believes this is bad form by Abbott: that it’s stifling the coalition’s message and putting Abbott’s leadership rivalry with Turnbull ahead of the party’s interests. Laurie Oakes seems to think the same thing. There might be some truth in both claims but from the pragmatic perspective of a leader hoping to become Prime Minister, it’s just sensible politics.
If Malcolm Turnbull isn’t the most effective communicator in the parliament he must be close and I have no doubt that he is the best man to develop and sell the opposition’s communication policy. But to limit his actions to just that are contrary to his character. Turnbull is not like the other leadership alternatives in the party; he is a man who has achieved practically everything else he could desire in public life and for him leading the government in the final frontier. He has no desire to be a cabinet minister; he’s already done that under John Howard. He might be content with being treasurer but certainly nothing less.
For Abbott to give him more leash would be a very noble thing to do but it would invite the downfall of his own leadership. Turnbull’s leadership ambitions are now so transparent he now no longer even bothers to rule out a future challenge and Tony Abbott is entitled to protect his leadership.
The government’s polling is now diabolical and can only really be salvaged by displays of incompetence by the opposition. Abbott’s political aspiration for the next two years should be to maintain the status quo. In the case of Malcolm whose current goal is to win over public support as an alternative leader of the opposition and use this to force the hand of the Liberal party room, maintaining the status quo is not achieved by granting Turnbull unfettered freedom. If Abbott’s leadership becomes sufficiently vulnerable there is no doubt that Turnbull will make a play for it, especially with the upcoming election appearing of the drover’s dog variety.
Some people have even suggested Abbott should appoint Turnbull as shadow Treasurer, I can’t think of a sillier idea. Yes Abbott would get a dynamic communicator with a brilliant grasp of detail and economics squaring off against Wayne Swan but he’d be undermining his own economic credentials something spectacular. As I’ve previously noted, Turnbull is unlikely to take the gesture in good faith. Recall Brendan Nelson appointed Turnbull as shadow Treasurer and didn’t that boost the good doctor’s leadership credentials.
I can see why many Liberals would like to see Turnbull let loose and why they’d salivate at the idea of him as Treasurer in an Abbott government but really and truly, for those who’d like to see an Abbott premiership, it’s not in their interests.