Malcolm Turnbull appears to have single-handedly blown what was an already remote chance of becoming Prime Minister with a reckless and possibly futile bid to destroy Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership.
The legal-eagle-turned-politician, with a reputation for flying high and taking spectacular risks in the business world, the Opposition Leader made a monumental misjudgement in the world of politics to which he is a relatively new player.
And reports suggest that Mr Turnbull has damaged his reputation internally after rebuffing warnings from his more prudent colleagues to lower his sights and try to inflict damage on Treasurer Wayne Swan, rather than try and bring down Mr Rudd.
Relying on an e-mail he had neither ever seen nor been permitted to see, Mr Turnbull was either convinced by others or had convinced himself that there was a gigantic cover-up, inside the Department of Treasury and the offices of the Prime Minister and Treasurer, of behind-the-scenes efforts to help out a Queensland car-dealer and friend of Mr Rudd’s.
On the face of it, there appeared to be some overtures to help out John Grant Motors, one of the hundreds of car-dealers suffering from the withdrawal of two big overseas finance companies earlier in the year.
However, it is also the case that Mr Grant did not seek, nor was given any benefit, and that most of the efforts appeared to be ensuring that Mr Grant felt he was being looked after rather than doing anything concrete.
This is not unusual in politics – businessmen, party officials, heads of organisations all get treated “differently”.
However, Mr Swan did insist to the Parliament that Mr Grant was treated no differently from any other car-dealer. It was up to the Opposition to prove its case.
Taking the word of a senior public servant (who, according to reports, was a long-time Liberal Party friend working inside Treasury), Mr Turnbull decided to instead charge the PM with corruption and the Treasurer with misleading the Parliament. He called for both men to resign.
The e-mail of course has turned out to be a fraud.
Some Liberal MPs are trying to digest the implications of the so-called “Utegate” affair, while a few are clinging to hopes that Godwin Grech, the senior Treasury official at the heart of the controversy, was the victim of an elaborate sting.
There are two investigations underway into the so-called “Utegate” affair, by the Australian Federal Police and the Auditor-General, into the “person or persons” who fabricated the e-mail.
It is therefore still possible that some piece of evidence may emerge to assist Mr Turnbull’s charge that people at the very top of the Rudd Government were acting corruptly in pushing the case for a Labor mate and donor, John Grant Motors, or alternatively that a “frame-up” of Mr Grech was endorsed by someone in the Government or in Treasury.
The weight of evidence suggests, however, that a tiny coterie inside the Opposition leader’s office got carried away in trying to expose Mr Rudd, and that Mr Turnbull himself got swept up in the thrilling prospect of being able to bring down the Government in one fell swoop.
Polling after the damaging week suggests voters have already written off Mr Turnbull, but he is not likely to be challenged unless the “Utegate” episode is repeated.
The only possible realistic alternative would be 43-year-old Joe Hockey, but, while he is superficially popular via his morning television appearances sparring with Kevin Rudd, he lacks the policy depth and particularly the political toughness for the job.
The only man who could do the job – Peter Costello – does not want it and has moved on.
Politics is full of ironies.
Mr Costello never became PM because he was too cautious and not ambitious enough, while Mr Turnbull may never become PM because he is too reckless and overly ambitious.
Drilling a wildcat oil well, snaring a deal, or floating a dot-com company in the middle of a sharemarket boom can pay off big time in the business world.
A fair chunk of Mr Turnbull’s $100-odd million fortune originated from just one punt – ironically, on an e-mail company called OzEmail – the first Australian tech stock to list on the US stockmarket.
It has been reported that Mr Turnbull paid $500,000 for his OzEmail shares in 1994 and sold them four years later to WorldCom for $57 million.
The now discredited “Utegate” e-mail has considerably exhausted Mr Turnbull’s political capital, while Ozemail is now defunct – a mere memory of the madness of the dotcom boom.