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Grattan on Friday: An assertive Turnbull steps out and shapes up

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has shown this week that he won’t be fenced in within the. government or fitted up by right-wing commentators. AAP/Gary Schafer

Was Malcolm Turnbull being forensically honest, or poking the anthill with a stick?

Either way, his comments on Thursday’s 7.30 program were less than helpful to an embattled government.

Asked by interviewer Sarah Ferguson whether he could say “hand on heart” that he no longer harboured any desire to lead the country, he said: “I don’t have any plans, any desires, any expectations to be the leader. That’s true.”

Standard stuff. But then: “Having said that, Sarah - and I’m going to be very honest with you here - politics is an unpredictable business so people say to me often, ‘Do you think you’ll be leader again?’ And I say my prospects are somewhere between nil and very negligible and I think that is probably about right.”

When Ferguson put it to him that his ambition was not yet extinguished he first told her not to play games with him, and then made the lame point that “I don’t think there is any member of the House of Representatives who, if in the right circumstances, would not take on that responsibility.”

By making such a deliberate qualification, however small, Turnbull has provided ammunition to the right-wing commentators he’s attacked for suggesting he is undermining Abbott.

Having said that, I don’t think Turnbull is making some leadership play and I’d say his assessment of his chances of a comeback is pretty accurate. It’s just that deep down the alpha dog is never going to totally renounce the dream of being top dog (and indeed, why should he?).

To understand the current shenanigans around Turnbull, one needs to factor in a few things.

The Communications Minister and member for Wentworth is pure “wholemeal” in an age when politicians are more usually (and safely) white bread. He’s a former Liberal leader who aspired to be prime minister, someone who’s made a life – and a fortune – outside politics, a person of culture, a networker and tech head, and a good deal else besides.

He’s a small-l liberal in a seat of that persuasion; a believer in emissions trading, gay marriage and other policies, causes and institutions – including the ABC – that are either unacceptable or unfashionable in a Liberal Party that’s moved sharply to the right.

A cabinet minister with a healthy sense of his abilities – including as a powerful advocate – Turnbull doesn’t like to be marginalised. He felt he was isolated on the perimeter after the budget; the Prime Minister’s office played military HQ as it managed the ministers and Turnbull found it near impossible to get high-profile media gigs. (One cynical Liberal quipped he should be delighted, given how the budget is going down.)

Even less does he like to be attacked by the right-wing commentators who act as Abbott’s praetorian guard (except when he thwarts them).

Is Turnbull stalking Abbott, sending out signals in a calculated hunt for his job? Hardly, despite his 7.30 let-out. Times are terrible for the Liberals but they are not about to consider dumping the Prime Minister. Anyway, if he were seriously angling, Turnbull would be quietly creeping towards the right, not challenging with a megaphone its media loyalists.

Rather, Turnbull is determined that he won’t be fenced in within the government or fitted up by its cheerleaders. He is not making a leadership bid - but he is proclaiming he will be his own man and he wants a decent slice of the action. (He’s upped his profile in question time, where his performances are full of wit and attacking, redolent of Paul Keating and Peter Costello.)

Turnbull is saying: don’t mess with me, whether you are Andrew Bolt or the Prime Minister’s office.

The public spark for the outbreak of Turnbull trouble was his invitation last week (in a texted message) to Clive Palmer to join an informal dinner at a Canberra restaurant.

It was a very Turnbull gesture, but Andrew Bolt saw something more calculated - “an unmistakable message to Liberal MPs - replace Abbott with Turnbull as prime minister and maybe Palmer will play ball [with the government]”.

Turnbull’s blast against Bolt after Monday’s column – which linked the dinner and Turnbull’s appearance at the launch of a parliamentary friends of the ABC group to make a case against him - wasn’t just driven by what the columnist had written that morning.

Abbott had appeared on Bolt’s TV show on Sunday, when Bolt asked why Turnbull was wooing Clive Palmer on his own, adding “it looks like he’s got his eye on your job”. The Turnbull camp suspected a set-up between the two mates, although Turnbull was assured it wasn’t.

After on Monday describing Bolt’s column as “quite unhinged” and “bordering on the demented”, Turnbull on Thursday took on broadcaster Alan Jones, another spruiker for Abbott.

Or Jones took on Turnbull, depending how you look at it.

Jones - who like Bolt thinks Turnbull hasn’t put his shoulder into selling the budget - hectored, lectured and insulted, asking Turnbull to “say after me” that he totally supported the budget repair strategy (“Alan, I am not going to take dictation from you”).

Jones reminded Turnbull that he was a former Wallabies coach and said if a player had secretly socialised with an All Blacks player on the eve of a test “the player would be sent home, Malcolm”. (“We are not playing football,” was the Turnbull response.)

Turnbull kept his volatile temper tightly under control, but got in plenty of punches, accusing Jones (and Bolt) of doing Labor’s work in undermining a united government, and “promoting the impression that I’m after Tony Abbott’s job” (which Jones denied, on the grounds Turnbull hadn’t a “hope in hell” of getting it).

In defence of the Palmer dinner, Turnbull made an obvious and sensible point. The government would need the support of Palmer’s PUP to get through the Senate legislation opposed by Labor and Greens. “Let’s assume he is standing in the way of our budget repair [as Jones had said]. Do you think the best way to get him out of the way, Alan, is to abuse him in the sort of language that you’re abusing me with?”

It’s unlikely that Bolt or Jones will back off, if they see fresh opportunities. They hate much of what Turnbull stands for; besides, they need enemies to rail against.

Turnbull may not back off either, if they continue to provoke. He said what he had done was to “call a spade a bloody shovel and call this out for what it is”. If he retreated, Bolt and Jones and others of their ilk would be emboldened.

If there are further incidents, it will be awkward for Abbott. Asked the other day about Turnbull’s spat with Bolt, Abbott said he would always support one of his frontbenchers against a member of the fourth estate. That might become burdensome.

What’s happened over the past couple of weeks is that Turnbull has made it clear he is going to exercise his rights as a former leader and the party’s most popular senior figure (shown again in this week’s Essential poll). Unless he entirely kicked over the traces (which is unlikely) he can’t be stopped from doing so.

Abbott needs not just to live with this - he should give Turnbull a bigger political role and use him to advantage.

This might be difficult for the PM, especially when he’s on the back foot, and wouldn’t please some cabinet colleagues, who don’t want Turnbull in the limelight. But a measure of leadership is the ability to juggle the restless bishops in the broad church.

Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest Julie Bishop, here.

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