Don’t mention the republic or how far his leadership qualities could take him – these issues do not occupy the mind of the new Liberal candidate for Wentworth.
In fact, just when Malcolm Turnbull’s elevation to the national political stage is all but assured, he has suddenly become dismissive of what many would argue helped get him there in the first place. Even the idea of an Australian republic.
“The issue is not on the agenda at present – I don’t think it’s a front-of-mind issue with many Australians,” the former Republican movement leader said yesterday.
“Will it be a frontline issue again? It’s hard to say. A compelling argument is to say it won’t come up for reconsideration until the Queen goes. That would certainly be a watershed. I am a republican, but I’m not going to Canberra, trying to go to Canberra, with the intention of unfurling the republican banner.”
Some government frontbenchers gave Mr Turnbull a less than warm welcome yesterday – the day after he deposed Liberal colleague Peter King from the blue-ribbon Sydney seat of Wentworth. The Prime Minister, John Howard, was cordial. He said he and Mr Turnbull had “buried the hatchet” since the new Wentworth candidate claimed the PM had “broken the nation’s heart” with his opposition to a republic in 1999. Mr Howard said Mr Turnbull would be “a very fine addition” but would not be drawn on whether he would get a place on his front bench should he win Wentworth. It was normal for new members to do “a little bit of time learning the ropes”, he said.
The Treasurer, Peter Costello, was a little more stiff. Mr Turnbull is widely regarded as a potential leadership rival to Mr Costello, his fellow republican. Mr Costello offered: “I congratulate him on his win. By the same token, I send my commiserations to Peter. It’s a pretty stiff deal that he has been given after three years.”
Mr Costello was also less inclined to bury the republic. “We know that, in theory, most Australians are in favour of a republic – we know that. The critical question is whether a majority agrees on the form it should take.”
The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said it was too early to tell how far Mr Turnbull would go, but suggested: “All people, when they come into Parliament, need a bit of experience on the backbench, understanding how the partyroom works, how the committee system works. I think that is the important grounding that they need.”
Grounding? Mr Turnbull got a taste of that on Saturday night when he was dragged through a five-hour preselection at Bondi’s Swiss Grand hotel, which he eventually won – 88 votes to 70.
From the moment he faced an expectant media with his wife, former Sydney lord mayor Lucy Turnbull, the Malcolm Turnbull of old was all but unrecognisable. In his place was a reserved candidate, looking drained, who said he was “humbled” – to the extent that he was not concerned about the prospect of entering the Parliament as an opposition MP. “If that were to happen I will be a very competitive member of the opposition. A number of people have said to me today, are you concerned about being in opposition? In some respects opposition would suit my temperament.”
On this count, Mr Costello was unimpressed. “I would