The Febrile World of Australian Politics

By Browne, Peter | New Statesman (1996), February 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Febrile World of Australian Politics


Browne, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


In the mid-1970s the man who is likely to replace Tony Abbott as Australian prime minister--a prospect made more likely by a failed backbench revolt by Liberal Party MPs early this month--made a speech from the floor of the Cambridge Union. On stage, impressed by the young Australian's intervention, was the then editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans.

After he had spoken, the student, Malcolm Turnbull, received a note. "Good speech," it said. "Come and see me in the Gray's Inn Road tomorrow." When Evans proceeded to offer him a job, Turnbull said he was returning to Australia to finish his law degree. As Turnbull recalled 35 years later, Evans was taken aback. "Think of what awaits you," he said. "Law will certainly make you more money than journalism--but where does it end? Chief Justice? Or much worse." He shivered slightly. "You could end up a politician."

In Melbourne, a city that has voted Labor at every federal election since 1990, this kind of self-deprecation goes down well. Turnbull did become a politician, but he made quite a name for himself as a lawyer--most famously when he thwarted the Thatcher government in the 1986 Spy catcher trial. His high-profile career produced a larger-than-life political persona, fuelling efforts to reclaim the Liberal leadership, lost to Abbott in 2009. But his scarcely concealed (though often well-founded) view that he is the smartest person in the room has made relations with fellow Liberal MPs rocky.

The man Turnbull must unseat, still only 16 months in to his ill-starred prime ministership, could not be more different. If you compare their positions on climate change (which Abbott described as "crap" while Turnbull was negotiating an emissions-trading scheme with Labor's Kevin Rudd), on same-sex marriage (Abbott takes his cue from Sydney's Catholic hierarchy; Turnbull is more in step with his urban constituents) or on an Australian republic (Abbott knighted Prince Philip last month; Turnbull spearheaded the late-1990s pro-republican campaign), it is hard to believe they belong to the same party.

Unfortunately, the centre of gravity within the government (a coalition with the rural-based Nationals) is closer to Abbott's position than to Turnbull's. Among the electorate, it's the other way around. …

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