Spycatcher lawyer to lead Australia opposition

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The Independent Online

A charismatic former lawyer who took on the Thatcher government over Peter Wright's Spycatcher memoirs, and went on to lead Australia's republican campaign, will challenge Kevin Rudd's Labor government at the next election in 2010.

Malcolm Turnbull was elected leader of the conservative Liberals, the main opposition party, today after his predecessor, Brendan Nelson, was dumped by his parliamentary colleagues. Dr Nelson had been handed the poisoned chalice of leadership after John Howard, the former Liberal Prime Minister, was ousted last November following 11 years in power.

Mr Turnbull, a multi-millionaire former merchant banker who became an MP only in 2004, has never made any secret of his prime ministerial ambitions. During a press conference today, he portrayed himself as a man of the people who had endured financial hardship and understood the concerns of Australians "doing it tough".

In 1986, as an abrasive young barrister, he successfully represented Mr Wright, a former MI5 agent, against the British government's attempt to ban publication of his book in Australia. Mr Turnbull's cross-examination of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, prompted the latter's admission that the government was prepared to be "economical with the truth" in order to protect national security.

In 1999, after a republican referendum was defeated, an emotional Mr Turnbull said Mr Howard would be remembered as "the prime minister who broke this nation's heart". Five years later, he became a Liberal MP, and within two years of winning his seat was a member of Mr Howard's Cabinet.

His elevation to the party leadership came after Dr Nelson, who has put up with months of backbiting and record low personal poll ratings, unexpectedly called a leadership contest. His decision backfired on him, with Mr Turnbull - who narrowly lost to him last year - narrowly winning this time.

With Mr Rudd still riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, political pundits say there is virtually no chance of the Liberals and their coalition partners winning the next election. But Mr Turnbull's promotion could accelerate moves towards an Australian republic, since Mr Rudd - who has promised to reopen the constitutional debate - would be certain of his support. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he looked forward to working with Mr Turnbull "on a bipartisan basis".

In general, though, Labor can expect much tougher opposition. Mr Turnbull, a more impressive orator than Dr Nelson, is widely admired for his energy and intellect. However, his critics - who include many within his own party - regard him as pushy and temperamental.

The wealthiest member of parliament, he represents a seat covering Bondi Beach and some of Sydney's most opulent harbourside suburbs. But, as he reminded Australians yesterday, he was not born into privilege. His mother left the family after his parents split up and he was brought up by his father, who was often short of money. They lived in rented flats.

A Roman Catholic convert, Mr Turnbull is considered a liberal on social issues. He supported Mr Rudd's apology to the Aboriginal "Stolen Generations" - which is believed to have cost him the party leadership last time. He and his wife, Lucy, who was Sydney's first female Lord Mayor, are regarded as a formidable power couple.

Tim Costello, a fellow republican campaigner, recently described him as an "utter force of nature", adding: "When you're on the wrong end of Malcolm, it's terrifying … the thunder in the face and and often … over the top tongue lashing."

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