Malcolm Turnbull is the new Liberal party leader after this morning’s surprise leadership spill rebounded on Brendan Nelson. Nelson almost salvaged a mostly disastrous ten months at the helm of the Opposition with his audacious move to call the spill last night. It caught the overseas-returning Turnbull on the hop while simultaneously denying Party-pooper Peter Costello the media attention his book launch so richly did not deserve. But the writing seemed on the wall after the ABC’s 7.30 Report revealed Turnbull had the numbers. And so it proved in the party room vote which Turnbull won by 45 votes to 41.
The result almost exactly overturns the margin he was defeated by in November’s leadership election after the Coalition was tossed out of office. It looks like at most just one or two people have changed their vote in the meantime. However crucially, the make-up of the party in the Senate has changed since 1 July with six members retiring and four new incoming members.
The political narrative also changed rapidly last week after it became clear that Peter Costello was merely using the leadership speculation to fuel sales of his newly-published memoirs. Nelson’s supporters immediately rallied around their boss demanding he be given “clear air” to establish his leadership. However with the latest opinion poll still only giving him a 16 percent approval rating, the air remained heavily polluted around the good doctor and the narrative quickly moved on to the expected Turnbull spill.
Although he didn't control them, the sudden turn of events has nicely suited the member for Wentworth. As Turnbull did not call the spill, no-one can now accuse him of putting the knife into Nelson’s back. And he has always been open about his long-term goals. While the margin of victory was narrow, his election is likely to immediately halt Liberal leadership speculation and turn the focus back on the Government.
For Kevin Rudd, Turnbull’s victory is probably the most challenging outcome. Nelson was an embarassingly inept leader who failed to land a heavy blow against the Government. Though a Government minister in the Howard administration, Turnbull is not as tainted as Costello would have been over the tattered economic record Labor inherited. And Turnbull will be likely to commit to a “small target” strategy agreeing with the Government in the main, on the intent of its environmental and social agenda. What Turnbull will do is provide a strong intellectual focus that “Emo Man” Nelson so conspicuously failed to deliver in his tumultuous months at the top.
Despite the departure of Australia's answer to Comical Ali, Labor will still be favourite to win the next federal election in 2010 or earlier. But the possibility of their becoming a one-term Government rose with today’s news. These are tough economic times for any Government, and the tide is turning against Labor in the states. A likely heavy (and thoroughly justified) defeat in NSW in the 12 months leading up to the election would give Turnbull further momentum. On the positive side, the difficult task of a political sell for an emissions trading scheme may now win bi-partisan support. All in all, today’s result is a good one for the health of Australian democracy that sees heavyweights now leading both major parties. Most mercifully of all, the media will finally have to find something else to talk about now that Dr Nelson has been put out of his long, slow and lingering misery.