Turnbull's 'smile that wins'

As Tony Abbott scrapes and grimaces through political blunders, Malcolm Turnbull is leading voter preferences for Coalition leader. How long could Turnbull's luck last?

In the PG Wodehouse story 'The smile that wins', protagonist Adrian Mulliner is advised by a doctor to smile whenever his acute indigestion flares up.

Following this advice, and smiling for the first time in years, he discovers an unnerving quality of his grin – it gives observers the impression that he knows their little secrets, forcing them into all manner of nervous behaviour.

Not only does one smile convince a guilt-ridden Baronet to hand over a 'wedding present' of £50,000, but a second smile aimed at the Earl of Brangbolton (who's been cheating at cards all day) wins Mulliner the Earl's daughter's hand in marriage. (Watch a section of the BBC's TV adaptation of the story here).

Now who do we know in Canberra with such a smile?

Surely after this week's Nielsen poll results, the answer must be Malcolm Turnbull. The poll found that across all voters, 63 per cent thought Turnbull should lead the Coalition. And more worryingly for Tony Abbott, 53 per cent of Coalition voters thought so too. Abbott's own support among Coalition voters has slipped to 45 per cent.

Turnbull left the Liberal Party leadership with a severe case of political dyspepsia in December 2009, but has since mastered a smile that, apart from restoring him to full health, has recently helped push his successor Abbott into a few errors of judgement.

Abbott has been wrong-footed in the past week by a vicious, if fatuous, debate over whether or not he punched a wall close to the head of a fellow student politician in 1977. Whether or not the event took place seems irrelevant – it's Abbott's 'response' that has been kicked around in the press by a scrum of angry-left and angry-right commentators. You can see the flush of student excitement in their cheeks.

Today it looks as if Abbott's description of visiting Muslim leader Taji Mustafa as a "preacher of hate" may be entangling him in another nasty set-to.

While Mustafa does seem to be clearly linked to 'hateful' published material – ABC journalist Leigh Sales presented Mustafa with violent anti-Jewish material from his own organisation's web site – Abbott may be picking a fight that can only bring him grief. Though the Coalition yesterday attacked the government for letting Mustafa into the country, they were unable to point to any procedure or rule that had not been enforced to protect Australia from this perceived menace. On top of all that, Mustafa has already gone home.

And through all of this Malcolm, with that smile, can say what he likes – effectively calling time on his own side's Question Time tactics last week, and the week before reminding voters of his pro-gay marriage position (calling for civil unions as a stepping stone to the real thing).

A common criticism of this kind of success is that Abbott bears all the responsibility of leadership, while Turnbull bears none. However, that critique won't really fly this time – Turnbull is the one happy to comment on policies, while Abbott remains in the holding pattern of "you'll see our policies in plenty of time for the next election".

Another common criticism is that Turnbull is just the favourite candidate amongst liberal media commentators – the ultimate man-crush for male press-gallery journos and, umm, just a crush for the ladies.

Really? Look at the unusually passionate columns and broadcast appearances of commentators such as Greg Sheridan and Christopher Pearson in the past week. Abbott too has his coterie of devotees.

The truth about the 'Turnbull question' in relation to the Liberal Party leadership is that if he ever returned to power, he'd be forced by his own side into a lot of policy positions that he did not personally like – such are the demands of leadership.

He would be forced into the same kind of extreme fiscal consolidation Tony Abbott is planning, making him the Campbell Newman of Canberra – that's nothing to smile about.

If he chose to keep the 'carbon tax', he would likely have to weaken its already modest pollution-cutting measures, despite being a long-term fan of pricing carbon.

Likewise, his hands would be tied on rolling out a full-fibre NBN, despite its appeal in liberal and left-leaning circles, after such a long time campaigning for a copper/fibre system.

And social reforms such as gay marriage would be almost impossible to get off the ground.

In short, as deposed leader he has all the luxury of reminding Australians of what a civilised, urbane man with a nice smile would do for the country, while Tony Abbott scrapes through each increasingly difficult day wearing something more like a grimace – one that became considerably worse after Monday's Newspoll showed Labor and the Coalition at a two-party-preferred vote of 50:50 (a rogue poll, no doubt, but unsettling all the same).

For now, though, Turnbull must be enjoying the ride. As Adrian Mulliner puts it in the Wodehouse story, "I'd go so far as to say things are moderately oojah-cum-spiff."

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