REPUBLICAN, MERCHANT BANKER, RHODES SCHOLAR, politician, lawyer: Malcolm Turnbull is a man of many hats, but one distinctive jacket. When he sauntered on the set of ABC’s live current affairs show Q&A late in 2011 sporting a black leather coat, the symbolism seemed too perfect.
Parliament’s self-styled Wild One, the member for Wentworth seems to delight in rebelling against his party on issues such as gay marriage and carbon pricing, and delivering elegant admonishments of Australia’s political class and media for its cynicism and negativity.
With every sly denial of his leadership aspirations, each garrulous appearance on Q&A, or feisty entanglement on Twitter (take his rebuke of Rupert Murdoch), Turnbull’s star seems to soar higher: a Roy Morgan poll at the end of last year found 50 per cent of respondents preferred him to lead the Coalition; in comparison, the man who deposed him by a single vote three years before, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, polled a measly 15 per cent.
But is Abbott in fact responsible for Turnbull’s meteoric resurgence?
After the 2009 leadership spill, Turnbull retreated to the backbench. That year he spoke 960 times in Parliament; in 2010, that number plummeted to just 150.
After the 2010 election, his undoubted policy mastery was rewarded with the communications portfolio — an important brief, but one unlikely to give the loquacious Turnbull too many sound bites. His time at the dispatch box increased slightly in 2011, to 180 speeches, but fell again last year to its lowest number since 2006: just 99 speeches.
According to last year’s Hansard records, Malcolm Turnbull — a man with a lot to say — was one of Parliament’s least vocal members.
There’s little doubt that keeping Malcolm quiet is a deliberate strategy on behalf of the Liberal leadership: the party is dominating the two-party preferred polls, but Abbott’s own disapproval rating sits at a whopping 63 per cent. If voters like the brand but are sour on the leader, why give Abbott’s most obvious — and popular — alternative the chance to preen in the chamber?
But here’s a curious phenomenon. As this Global Mail analysis shows, the less Malcolm Turnbull talks in Parliament, the more popular he seems with the voters.
We noted above that, for Turnbull, 2011 was a relatively reticent year. Yet across Roy Morgan polls his preferred leader rating leapt from 28 points in February to 38 by November.
Last year when, as mentioned, his cultivated cadences rarely rang out in the House, Turnbull climbed from 37 points in January to an impressive 50 by year’s end.
Accordingly, when he was leading the Opposition, addressing Parliament several times each sitting day and regularly fronting the media to spin and obfuscate like any other politician, his popularity sank — from 34 per cent in December 2007 after Kevin Rudd became prime minister, to 24 per cent in July 2008 when he was sniping at Brendan Nelson’s short-lived leadership, to 13 per cent in the midst of the “Utegate” debacle.
Few people pay attention to Parliament’s day-to-day business; surely Turnbull’s speeches, and the questions he poses during Question Time, don’t themselves increase or diminish his public popularity.But their frequency may be a guageof his closeness (or otherwise) to the Coalition’s leadership, policy and strategy, the extent to which he’s associated with the Liberal Party’s brand.
And freed of any partisan responsibilities, permanently at the Coalition’s periphery, Turnbull doesn’t need to line up lockstep behind Abbott, play attack dog to get on the evening news, mouth empty, focus-group tested rhetoric to the media, or engage in the other grubby necessities of political life.
Instead, he can be whatever suits him: a politician who abhors the state of politics, a Liberal Party member yet fiercely independent, a member of the political class and its greatest critic; or indeed a politician surfing the wave of Australian disillusionment with politicians.