Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The rise and rise of Malcolm Turnbull

A few years back as he was running for Liberal Party preselection a friend asked Malcolm Turnbull why he hadn’t instead decided to enter parliament through the Labor Party.

“I’ve thought about it” he is said to have replied, “But the Labor Party would never accept a multi-millionaire as its leader.”

Now just over two years after abandoning one of Australia’s most impressive business careers to enter parliament as a backbencher he’s been elevated to the leader’s inner sanctum – the federal cabinet.

Asked yesterday to confirm the story about the Labor Party he didn’t directly reply but insisted instead that he joined the Liberal Party back in 1973 when he was 18 years old and loading fruit at Sydney’s Haymarket. “The only party that I have been a member of is the Liberal Party and I can assure you I wouldn’t have been working in the city markets in if I was a millionaire."

It was during his employment at the fruit markets between finishing school and starting university that he first made contact with the Labor movement... As he remembered it yesterday, “I think I had been sacked or I was having some problems with my employer so I went down to the trades hall to ask for help. Barry Unsworth listened with a modest amount of interest and said, you should see another trades hall official Bob Carr.”

“Bob didn’t seem particularly interested in my employment issues in the market, but then uttered the line I’ve never forgotten, which was: Do you know I’ve just read a fascinating book on the politics of Eastern Europe, would you like to borrow it?”

Malcolm Turnbull says he realised he wasn’t going to get much help from the Labour movement, but after that he and Bob Carr became very good friends.

While making a fortune as a high profile lawyer and then merchant banker he came into contact with politics again in 1993 when the Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating appointed him to his Republic Advisory Committee to prepare an options paper outlining the route by which Australia could become a republic.

He became chairman of the Australian Republican Movement and when in 1999 the proposal was put to a referendum and defeated declared that “whatever else John Howard achieves, history will remember him for only one thing - he was the prime minister who broke the nation's heart.”

Malcom Turnbull has sought to distinguish himself from the Prime Minister in other ways as well. Before entering Parliament he described John Howard as “uncomfortable with many features of modern Australia”. While in Parliament he put on his website links to documents outlining some of the very exciting ideas being proposed for a system of carbon emissions trading in Australia, at the time when the Prime Minister itself had said spoken out the idea.

Malcolm Turnbull is now the Environment and Water Minister and will be in a position to push some forward these ideas. The Prime Minister has said he is no longer necessarily opposed to emissions trading and has set an inquiry into the best way of doing it, due to report by the middle of this year.

Through his role as Parliamentary Secretary for water and before that as a backbencher passionate about finding solutions Malcolm Turnbull has probably amassed more knowledge about the problems and what’s needed to fix them than anyone else near the seat of power.

He describes himself as “a relentless picker of other people’s brains” and said yesterday he had no doubt Australia already had the technology, the skills, and the commitment to fix the problems. He is now in a position to make it happen.