Malcolm Turnbull has an opportunity to seize the initiative against a deteriorating economic outlook.
If there's such a thing as a good election to lose, then the 2007 federal election qualifies -- and Malcolm Turnbull could be the luckiest man in politics. Consider what has happened since November: a financial crisis has gripped the world and the chances of a worldwide recession increase hourly.
Even those not having their superannuation shredded start to take notice when the Dow Jones Industrial Average drops 500 points in a day.
In the popular perception, Kevin Rudd is not particularly popular or unpopular. There's a feeling the Prime Minister has exhausted his box of symbolic symbols.
FuelWatch and GROCERYchoice were meant to allay voters' concerns about petrol and food prices. Labor has been only too happy to claim it has the solution to every problem. One wonders what its solution will be to a world financial meltdown.
There have been big swings against Labor governments in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, while in NSW the ALP has imploded.
The coalition has a "brand" strong on economic management and the parliamentary party and, while containing differences of opinion, it is not riven by the factionalism of past years. The swing the coalition needs to regain office is not huge.
Despite this, the odds would still be on Labor winning the next election. Incumbency is powerful and, as yet, the federal ALP has not revealed itself corrupt or incompetent. In any case, recessions don't guarantee victory for an opposition -- a recession wasn't much help to John Hewson in 1993.
Turnbull, due to circumstances outside his control, has become Opposition Leader at a propitious time. His challenge is to ensure the things in his control are managed, and managed successfully, and the thing he has most control over is policy.
Turnbull shouldn't leave policy to his shadow ministers -- the job of policymaking is simply too important. He has more policy ideas than practically all his shadow ministers put together.
So far, the media focus has been on his ideas about matters such as the republic and reconciliation. But of more significance are his views on the role of government, on which he's quite different from John Howard.
Howard tolerated -- and sometimes encouraged -- bigger government and higher public spending on the basis that the middle class should be supported.
He was willing to let the commonwealth interfere in realms of policy that had once been the exclusive preserve of state governments -- such as health and education -- and he had no qualms about extending government's reach into people's lives and their domestic relationships. "Big government conservatism" is an apt description of much of Howard's agenda.
Turnbull, on the other hand, believes government should be smaller, taxes should be cut and politicians shouldn't regulate personal behaviour.
In the present political context this is radical stuff -- not that Turnbull is afraid of suggesting radical things. For instance, he's publicly advocated vouchers in school education to give parents choice and improve outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Not even Howard, a fierce defender of non-government schools, was willing to use the V word in public.
Similarly, Turnbull's instincts would lead him in the direction of the complete deregulation of the university system.
The same goes for telecommunications and the media.
Turnbull brings to the role of opposition leader great communication skills, an outstanding intellect and an enormous capacity for hard work. In developing policy, he should follow his instincts because in nearly every case those instincts will be correct. Except when it comes to climate change and the emissions trading scheme.
Turnbull has been at the forefront of the Liberals' support for an ETS. But, given the prospects for the world economy, the last thing that the country needs is a new tax.
And the ETS is more than just a tax. As Rudd and Ross Garnaut have admitted, the ETS involves nothing less than the total transformation of the national economy. Life will be difficult enough for businesses without them having to navigate the bureaucratic and regulatory maze of an ETS.
Now is the worst possible time to embark on the ETS adventure. If Turnbull was to withhold Liberal support for the ETS, there's a good chance Labor would grab this as an excuse to delay -- at the very least -- the introduction of the scheme.