Zen and the Art of Being Malcolm Turnbull

It mostly involves sitting around not bringing attention to himself.

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Feb 10 2015, 6:00am

Malcolm Turnbull didn't put his hand up for yesterday's spill, but then maybe he didn't need to. What Abbott described as a near death experience (39 members of his own 100-member ministry want him out) may prove to be the beginning of a terminal illness, in which case the Minister for Communication's silence wasn't loyalty, just patience.

Malcolm Turnbull is a guy who gets what he wants. From an unremarkable Sydney background he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and became a barrister. From there he was an advisor to the Australian Consolidated Press, publisher of such institutions as the Daily Telegraph and Australian Women's Weekly, before going on to found a successful law-firm. He then worked as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs, then as a venture capitalist, before joining politics in 2003. In short, Malcolm Turnbull's life choices are generally built around winning. It's just a question of game-plan.


Shaking hands in Afghanistan. Image via Flickr user Corporal (CPL) Ricky Fuller

Dr Chris Salisbury is an expert in policy, strategic policy, and political leadership from the University of Queensland. He thinks the front bencher's reluctance to take a stance was "undoubtedly clever." According to him the electorate, as well as the Liberal Party, is currently too volatile for any leader to manage effectively. "The leadership might be a poisoned chalice," he said, "so I think Turnbull is smart to give Abbott the space to improve, or hang himself. It's just a waiting game."

Waiting might also be good for Turnbull's standing in the party. Within his own ranks he's still the guy who voted for Labor's carbon tax, but maybe there's an opportunity change that. After inheriting the politically toxic National Broadband Network (NBN) last year, as Communications Minister Turnbull has installed a new company CEO and implemented a much more businesslike approach to running fibre optic cables across the continent. The scheme's issues aren't over yet, but with the next federal election most likely not happening until the end of 2016, the NBN could achieve a happy end. And if this happens, Dr Salisbury believes it would make a strong lever to prise away the leadership position. "It would be a much safer issue than, say, climate change," he said.

Another reason for Turnbull to keep his head down is to avoid the fall-out on public broadcaster budget cuts. Not that Turnbull will ever reverse direction but Abbott and Hockey are currently taking the blame. In a year's time however, SBS and the ABC could be yesterday's news. That could be a better time for a former Communications Minister to take the spotlight.

In a fruit shop in 2009. Image via Flickyr user Malcolm Turnbull

While taking a back seat on the spill was smart timing-wise, Dr Salisbury also thinks it furnished Turnbull with some useful information for later spills. As he said, "Malcolm now has the luxury of knowing the level of discontent in the party. I guess that down the track when things get jittery, Turnbull might look at numbers of another spill and decide to go for it."

Unsurprisingly, it seems Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has also recognised Turnbull's long-game aspirations. While the Labor leader could previously go weeks without a Turnbull reference, Turnbull is now as much a target as Abbott. Yesterday Bill Shorten pointed out the elephant in the room, declaring Turnbull wanted nothing but to "blow the prime minister from his seat" and he'd "do and say anything" for the opportunity. In an odd way Turbull could be flattered.

The best final word on all this probably comes from the man himself. On Sunday morning at 6am, Turnbull was stepping out for a walk with his wife when a Channel Ten reporter drilled him over his leadership plans. Asked whether he supported the Prime Minister he said, "We don't require our MPs and ministers to pledge loyalty morning, noon, and night. It's like saying to someone playing for the Roosters, do you support the team? Do you support the team? Of course we're part of the team. But we have a process going on."

Follow Julian on Twitter: @MorgansJulian

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