Malcolm Turnbull arrives for question time. Photo: Andrew Meares
THE BOWLING club at Ocean Grove south of Geelong is hardly a hive of political activity but a fortnight ago its meeting room was packed to capacity to hear a talk on the National Broadband Network.
I suspect it wasn't the subject matter, or the offer of a free afternoon tea, that packed the hall on a Wednesday afternoon, but the speaker, Malcolm Turnbull, the Federal Member for Wentworth and Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband.
With a year to go before the federal election, Turnbull was invited to speak in the most marginal federal electorate in the country, by the Liberal candidate, Sarah Henderson, who is already campaigning hard to win Corangamite from sitting Labor member Darren Cheeseman.
Turnbull gave a masterful performance. He kept his speech short and then fielded questions from the mostly elderly audience on everything from how governments create money to ''Where's the money coming from?'' to fund the Coalition's promised increased spending on defence. And of course he answered technical questions about the Coalition's much preferred and more cost-effective option for broadband for Australia.
Not one person asked about the Liberal Party leadership, or Tony Abbott. But everyone could see that Turnbull is real leadership material.
While a possible Kevin Rudd challenge to Julia Gillard's leadership of the Labor Party attracts most media attention, a Turnbull dethroning of Tony Abbott before the next election is not out of the question. It should not be forgotten that, at the height of the carbon trading debate in 2009, Abbott only won the Liberal leadership by one vote from Turnbull. The carbon tax is now dying as an issue and Abbott's conservatism on other issues leaves him vulnerable on a number of fronts.
The polls show that, overall, voters prefer the previous leader of both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. There is an obvious reason why these figures should be taken with a big grain of salt. When asked whether they prefer Rudd or Gillard, committed Coalition supports tend to nominate Rudd as a way of undermining the current Labor leader. Similarly, committed Labor supporters say they prefer Turnbull over Abbott.
The Roy Morgan Poll conducted in September illustrates this. The poll found overall that Turnbull was preferred as Coalition leader ahead of Abbott - 42 per cent to 19 per cent (other candidates accounted for the remainder). But among Liberal voters Abbott was slightly preferred to Turnbull, 33 per cent to 32 per cent.
In Labor's case, Rudd was overall preferred to Gillard by 34 per cent to 22 per cent. But among ALP voters, Gillard was preferred, with 43 per cent, compared to Rudd's 38 per cent.
The fact that Abbott is only slightly ahead with Liberal voters is significant. There is no doubt that the vast majority of Liberal voters would be comfortable with Turnbull's leadership of their party. The elderly people at the Ocean Grove Bowling Club would remain welded-on Liberal voters despite his open support for such controversial issues as gay marriage or a republic. On almost every issue except management of the economy, Turnbull and Abbott have been on opposing sides for many years. Abbot was executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy when Turnbull was chairman of the Australian Republican Movement. Abbott holds conservative Catholic views on abortion and gay marriage while Turnbull is a progressive. And of course Abbott orchestrated Turnbull's downfall as leader of the opposition because of Turnbull's support for the government's carbon pollution reduction scheme. Global warming, and the government's program to combat it, would be one major difficulty for Turnbull as leader of the Coalition before the next election.
He would have to rewrite the Coalition's current policy and, to be consistent with his previous stand, announce that his government would transition into an emissions trading scheme, just as Labor plans to do.
Turnbull's recognition of the global warming threat would be welcomed by the scientific community, but would win him no sympathy from the anti-science shock jocks, including the rabid Alan Jones. It was no surprise to find that Turnbull was among the first to condemn Jones' disgraceful comments on the death of Julia Gillard's father. Unlike other Liberal frontbenchers, Turnbull has nothing to gain from kowtowing to Jones - Jones will never give him the free run he gives Abbott.
As Coalition leader Turnbull would not need Jones's backing. In the end, the votes from Jones's conservative listeners will flow to the Coalition no matter what.
The additional middle-of-the-road votes Turnbull would attract are a bonus that would guarantee Coalition victory in many marginal seats - votes from women, votes from republicans and middle of the road environmentalists.
Turnbull's credentials to manage the Australian economy are as good as any in Parliament, and better than most.
Abbott has proved to be a most effective Leader of the Opposition and it might be asked why the Liberal Party would want to replace him. The answer is that his era has passed. This will become more apparent as time goes on.
The polls show that, were an election to be held today, Abbott would win a comfortable majority.
But the election is some time in the future and it is future-thinking policies that Abbott lacks. His 1950s thinking just won't do in the second decade of the 21st century.
If Liberal Party members come to recognise this and turn to Turnbull, their election victory will be assured.