22 Aug. 2007

Is Malcolm Turnbull Planning A Coup?

There's a lot more to this Turnbull-Cousins pulp mill stoush than meets the eye. The future leadership of the Liberal Party appears to be at stake.

To recap: Environment Minister Turnbull has given the go-ahead to the controversial Gunns Ltd mill, saying it will meet environmental standards. Geoffrey Cousins, a former CEO of Optus Vision and long-time friend of PM John Howard, has loudly criticized the decision, provoking a highly personalized media catfight with Turnbull.

Cousins and a group of fellow businessmen are even running full-page ads in Murdoch papers to attack Turnbull's decision. Revealingly, the ads wont be run down in Tasmania, where the mill is to be built, but in Turnbull's own (now marginal) Sydney electorate. What does that tell you?

I have been trying to find out what Cousins' interest is in opposing the mill - is he a shareholder in an opposing operation, for example? But there seems to be no obvious self-interest here. So I can see only two explanations:

A) Cousins is genuinely opposed to the mill on environmental grounds (yeah, right), or

B) Cousins is operating as a proxy for the PM.

Howard's lack of support for his minister is telling:
"My view is Mr Turnbull is an excellent minister and Mr Cousins is an excellent bloke and director of Telstra," Mr Howard said. "I don't have anything further to say."
Howard could probably silence Cousins with one word, if he wanted to. Instead, he is prepared to put a blue ribbon Liberal seat in jeapardy, just months out from the election. What does that tell you?

I'm thinking that Turnbull has been trawling the corridors in Canberra, seeking out disgruntled supporters for a leadership bid (either before or after the election). I'm thinking Howard sees that threat as serious enough to justify the risk of losing the seat of Wentworth, not to mention even more damage to his cabinet's credibility on environmental issues. And I'm thinking Cousins and his fellow Sydney businessmen are hoping to dump Turnbull from his seat (either before or after the election).

There's a lot on the line for the Libs right here.

UPDATE: Here's a thought - is Turnbull the leaker? Only a few select people have access to the Crosby-Textor polling data that has been repeatedly leaked to the media.