One morning with Malcolm Turnbull
On life in politics
Malcolm Turnbull, Sydney, March 2012. © Julia Kingma
He is the leader the Liberals rejected, but plenty of voters still want him, on both sides.
Sometimes the result of the narrowest election truly matters. If a few hundred citizens of Florida had voted for Al Gore rather than George W Bush in 2000, there would have been no invasion of Iraq and the question of climate change action might still be on the US political agenda. Or, to move from the global to the local, if in December 2009 a couple of Liberal Party parliamentarians had voted for Malcolm Turnbull rather than Tony Abbott, Turnbull might still be leading the Liberal Party, he or Kevin Rudd might be prime minister, and the political culture of populist conservatism that overtook Australia during the Howard years might by now be losing its grip.
With these thoughts in mind, I emailed Malcolm Turnbull requesting an interview. He accepted within minutes, stipulating only that we did not discuss Tony Abbott. This suited me; I had no intention of pressing him pointlessly on whether he was satisfied with his present political lot – Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband – or whether he hoped once more to lead the Liberal Party. I wanted to speak with him because he was almost the only senior politician in Australia who seemed willing to go ‘off message’. Also, because since losing the Liberal Party leadership he had delivered a series of unusually interesting speeches on a wide variety of topics outside his portfolio, which were crucial to the future of the nation – the rise of China, the global politics of climate change, the need in Australia for a sovereign wealth fund, WikiLeaks and the rule of law, democracy and the decline of newspapers. Most importantly, it seemed to me that Turnbull was the principal inheritor of the noble but now threatened liberal tradition stretching from Alfred Deakin to Malcolm Fraser, and the principal obstacle to the Howard-inspired and Abbott-led transformation of the Liberal Party from small-l liberalism to populist conservatism.
Many people think it was a matter of accident that when Turnbull finally came to Canberra it was as a member of the Liberal Party. During our morning together in his parliamentary office in Canberra, Turnbull acknowledges he has been offered a safe Labor seat on several occasions, once by Paul Keating. He claims that he was never seriously tempted. He would not be comfortable within the tradition of Labor; elements of the Labor Party – in particular its trade union wing – would not be at all comfortable with him. Turnbull offers a rather conventional distinction between Liberal and Labor philosophy. “I think the best way I’ve been able to really distil it is that the Liberal view of the role of government is to enable the citizen to do his or her best. Whereas [with] Labor on the other hand, deep in their DNA is a belief that government’s role is to determine what is best.” Turnbull reminds me that he was a member of the Liberal Party in 1973, a distinctly unfashionable position on the political spectrum for a young man of unusual talent, energy, imagination and ambition during the heady days of Whitlam.
Later, he sends me the text of the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture he delivered shortly before the conservative rebellion that robbed him of his leadership. He explains this is the clearest exposition of his philosophy. In the lecture, Turnbull embraces the rhetoric Menzies deployed against Chifley during the historically decisive 1949 election campaign. “Are we for the Socialist State, with its subordination of the individual to universal officialdom of government … or are we for the ancient British faith that governments are the servants of the people?” He also quotes from Menzies’ famous 1942 “forgotten people” radio broadcast. “Are you looking forward to a breed of men after the war who will have become boneless wonders? Leaners grow flabby; lifters grow muscles.” It is clear from the speech that Turnbull favours a muscular, individual enterprise form of liberalism. Like Margaret Thatcher, whom he quotes, he favours “strong” but not “big” government. Like most contemporary economic liberals, he is suspicious of the growth of the welfare state.
Turnbull roundly condemns Kevin Rudd’s post–global financial crisis reminder about the pivotal role of government action at this time of upheaval, and in defence of the social democratic tradition. Rather implausibly, Turnbull blames “big government” – the home mortgage practices of the state-owned companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – and not “market fundamentalism” for the implosion of the US financial sector.
When I put it to him that politicians with an interest in ideas join the Liberal Party for the overarching value of freedom but those who join the Labor Party have a greater interest in the balancing virtue of equality, Turnbull disagrees. Like most Australians, he regards himself as a natural egalitarian. Turnbull has certainly kept a keen eye on the recent growth of inequality, especially in the United States, and accepts that growing inequality is an issue governments need to be concerned with. From the examples he gives, however, it soon becomes clear that the kind of equality he is most attracted to is not so much greater equality of outcome or even opportunity but what the historian John Hirst has called the typical form of Australian egalitarianism, the “equality of manners”. Turnbull tells me he was shocked by the unselfconscious acceptance of social hierarchy he encountered as a student at Oxford. His ideal community, rather, is the Australian surf club, where wealthy bankers rub shoulders with factory workers on equal terms.
In all these ways, then, Turnbull reveals himself to be not a secret Laborite or serendipitous Liberal but a true-believing member of the non–Labor Party tradition founded by the fusion of the George Reid free-traders and the Alfred Deakin protectionists in the first decade of the twentieth century. I have learnt that some time after he lost the Liberal Party leadership, very senior Labor Party people thought of asking Turnbull to defect with the prospect of becoming Labor leader. The idea strikes me as rather bizarre. If Labor is not social democratic it is nothing. Malcolm Turnbull is not a social democrat. He is a classical liberal.
Yet if Turnbull clearly belongs within the Liberal Party, equally clearly it is to its small-l liberal wing. All members of the Liberal Party genuinely believe, with different degrees of purism, in what some would call economic freedom and others neoliberalism. (Paradoxically, probably the least purist are those conservative members of the party, like Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz – known inside Turnbull’s office, as I discovered, as “the DLP” – whose political ancestry can be traced back to BA Santamaria and the tradition of Roman Catholic social action.) Fewer contemporary members of the Liberal Party, however, believe in social freedom or civil libertarianism. Malcolm Turnbull, who does, is the most important representative of this now greatly weakened tradition within the party.
Examples abound. Before Abbott closed the discussion down, Turnbull was one of the most conspicuous advocates of a conscience vote on gay marriage, which he favours. To advance the cause, he conducted a careful survey of the opinions of the members of his Wentworth electorate, where opinion was strongly in support. Similarly, Turnbull proved to be almost the only federal politician who powerfully protested a police raid – sanctioned by the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, and cheered on by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd – on the gallery where Bill Henson’s photograph of a nude, pubescent girl was displayed. Though Turnbull owns artwork by Henson, his protest concerned the rule of law. Henson’s photograph might have been ‘edgy’ (perhaps too weak a word) but the chance of a prosecution was non-existent.
There is an even more striking instance of Turnbull’s civil libertarianism. When Julia Gillard claimed that Julian Assange of WikiLeaks had broken Australian law by publishing 250,000 US State Department cables, of all parliamentarians it was Malcolm Turnbull, in a speech at the Law School of the University of Sydney, who most persuasively chastised her. As a young man, Turnbull had been involved in the Spycatcher case where the British government sought to prevent the memoir of a former MI5 agent being published in Australia. As he pointed out, in this case the High Court had ruled that it had no warrant “to protect the intelligence secrets” of even a friendly foreign government. But Turnbull went further. Assange had merely done what journalists do. If he had committed a crime, why was that not also true of the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age? Even more seriously, Assange had been at least indirectly threatened with assassination by no less a figure than former American vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, with her call to treat him like a member of Al Qaeda. Gillard had remained silent. Turnbull was appalled: “When an Australian citizen is threatened in this way, an Australian prime minister should respond.”
Malcolm Turnbull is, then, not merely the most prominent civil libertarian in the contemporary Liberal Party, the heir to what one might call the Alan Missen tradition. On a string of current social freedom or civil liberties issues he has been well to the left of Labor premiers and prime ministers.
There is, however, much more to the idea that Malcolm Turnbull is the heir to the Deakinite tradition of the Liberal Party than his civil libertarianism. Under the prime ministership of John Howard, attitudes to questions concerning ethnicity and race – the meaning of the dispossession of the indigenous population, the idea of multiculturalism, assumptions about the loyalty to Australia of citizens of Muslim faith or ancestry – were transformed inside the Liberal Party and therefore, more generally, within the political culture. John Howard famously refused to offer an apology to the stolen generations and, at least until the eleventh hour, repudiated the symbolic dimension of the movement for indigenous reconciliation. He argued that multiculturalism threatened to turn Australia into a nation of tribes. His deputy, Peter Costello, thought multiculturalism was “mushy”. On many occasions Howard, Costello and other senior ministers implied that there was an open question about Muslims’ loyalty to Australia and that if Muslim citizens did not wish to obey our laws they should pack their bags and leave.
Almost all members of the Liberal Party have been influenced to some extent by the changing mood of the party, and the country, during the Howard years. Almost miraculously, Malcolm Turnbull seems entirely unaffected.
Paul Keating was the prime minister deemed most responsible by Liberals for imposing the yoke of political correctness on the shoulders of the Australian people. In our conversation, it becomes clear that on questions connected to race and ethnicity – and indeed not only them – Malcolm Turnbull is a Keating admirer. In the history of Australia’s belated recognition of the injustice done to the indigenous people, a radical break came with the speech Keating delivered on 10 December 1992 at Redfern:
The problem starts with us, the non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with an act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers.
I ask Turnbull whether he thinks Keating’s Redfern speech was a significant moment in our history. “I think he did very, very well with that. Absolutely.” What, then, does Turnbull make of John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the stolen generations? “He painted himself into a semantic corner, in fact, where he ended up passing a motion which expressed great regret but wasn’t prepared to use the word sorry. You’d have to be a rabbinical scholar of the highest rank to be able to tell me what was the difference, saying ‘I have very great regret’ and ‘I’m sorry’.” (Although not a rabbinical scholar even of the lowest rank, I politely disagreed.)
Turnbull accepts in principle the idea of the proposed referendum on indigenous recognition in the constitution. But he is concerned that the mood of the country has altered since the Redfern speech and Keating and that, as a consequence, if the referendum fails, it will do great harm to the cause of reconciliation. “So it should not be put up.”
Though still a staunch republican, clearly Turnbull was badly burned by the failure of the 1999 republic referendum. He now believes that referendums for substantial change need more than bipartisan support. They succeed only where, as in the 1967 indigenous referendum, there is effectively no opposition at all. Turnbull tells me he was far more angered by the republicans agitating for direct presidential election than by the constitutional monarchists. “I think some of them were quite dishonest … Peter Reith was completely cynical. I said to him at the time: ‘You are totally shameless.’ And he said, ‘Of course I’m shameless, I’m a politician.’” Turnbull believes the republic issue should return to the centre of the political stage following the death of the present queen. He repeats his standard line: in Australia there are now more Elizabethans than monarchists.
At no moment in our conversation does Turnbull seem more animated than in our discussion of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is more than the recognition of Australia’s great ethnic diversity or the success of the post-war migration program. It involves a celebration of the ways in which Australia has been enriched by the fact that citizens of non–British or Irish ancestry do not have to shed older ethnic identities and assimilate to become fully Australian. During the Howard years, the celebratory aspects of multiculturalism were repudiated. Under Rudd and Gillard they have not revived. But there can hardly be a member of the federal parliament who is a greater enthusiast for multiculturalism in its celebratory dimension than Malcolm Turnbull. Even as a university student, in the dying days of the assimilation era, he was dismayed to find that many of his fellow students of Greek heritage did not know any Greek because they had been discouraged from learning the language of their parents. And presently, as the member for Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, he is delighted that non-Jews celebrate the festival of Hanukkah and non-Chinese the coming of the Chinese new year. What kind of madness is it to think that Australia is diminished or threatened as a result? Turnbull has an interest in the history of the once-great multicultural centres of Islamic civilisation, Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria. “Are the great cities of the Middle East or the Levant stronger or poorer for becoming monocultural?” For Turnbull that question answers itself. He entirely disagrees with historian Geoffrey Blainey’s claim, still embraced by John Howard, that multiculturalism poses a threat to national integrity by turning Australia into “a nation of tribes”. This is a fantasy, a “straw man”. Nor does Turnbull believe that multiculturalism has “gone too far in accommodating Muslim minorities”, as John Howard told the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Washington think tank, in 2010. His only misgiving about multiculturalism is when its proponents suggest to people like him that they should think of themselves not as Australians but as ‘Anglo-Celts’. I ask him whether he believes there is a danger of Australia becoming a nation of tribes, or what he calls a “hyphenated” or “caravan” culture. Very emphatically, he assures me he does not. We have got the balance right.
This leads to a puzzle about Turnbull. Malcolm Fraser, a patriarch of the Liberal Party, has watched with increasing disillusionment under John Howard and Howard’s true heir, Tony Abbott, the gradual and inexorable shift of the party to the right on the questions of indigenous reconciliation, multiculturalism, Muslim immigration and asylum seeker policy. Because of this shift in social values, Fraser has abandoned his membership of the Liberal Party. He now characterises the politics of its present leader as “dangerous”. He regards Malcolm Turnbull as the most prominent true liberal in the party and his defeat at the hands of the party’s conservatives as a bitter blow. In turn, Fraser’s distaste for the direction in which Howard and Abbott have led the Liberal Party is fully reciprocated by its ideologically inclined members. The economic liberals describe the period of the Fraser government in almost biblical language as “seven wasted years”. The social conservatives regard his contemporary criticisms of Howard and Abbott on questions of human rights, ethnicity, religion and race as treachery and an old man’s pathetic desire to find favour and forgiveness from the Left.
What does Turnbull think of Fraser? Although Turnbull is an economic liberal, he summarily dismisses the “seven wasted years” description as unfair. Fraser was elected four years before Thatcher and five before Reagan. “I think a lot of the criticism of Fraser is very anachronistic. You’re criticising him for not doing in the ’70s what it became fashionable to do a decade later.” Turnbull is even less sympathetic to the party’s social conservatives’ dismissal of Fraser. He thinks Fraser was fundamental to the success of multiculturalism and praises his work in the area of indigenous reform. He tells me he regards it as a great mistake of the contemporary Liberal Party not to celebrate Fraser. When I later let Turnbull know that I intend to argue that he is the true heir and successor to the tradition within the Liberal Party that began with Alfred Deakin and ended with Malcolm Fraser, he makes it clear that he would be very flattered to be compared with Deakin, and indeed with Fraser.
But the puzzle remains. Howard despises Fraser. Fraser despises Howard. They represent the alternative social trajectories of the Liberal Party. Yet Turnbull seems genuinely to admire them both. He regards Fraser as a great “social progressive” and believes the Howard government was, on balance, “very, very good”. To me this is like a commentator on the Iraq invasion praising the contributions of both John Pilger and Christopher Hitchens.
An illuminating moment comes during a discussion of Julia Gillard. When I raise her admission that she was not really interested in foreign affairs, Turnbull counters that she must have been dissembling. “It couldn’t possibly be true … The woman’s a confection … To say that you’d rather be sitting around in a children’s kindergarten than worrying about foreign affairs when you’re Prime Minister of Australia … The idea is to look after the national interest.” His remark makes one thing transparent. Unlike Gillard and Abbott, the Shadow Minister for Communications is interested in international relations and Australia’s place in the wider world. And not merely interested: concerning such questions he is a man who is indifferent to contemporary Australian mainstream orthodoxy and determined to think about the new strategic landscape for himself.
Turnbull has, in a previous speech, mocked those who go to Washington “doe-eyed”. He confirms to me he was referring on that occasion to Gillard, who last year flattered Congress with the thought that Americans “can do anything”. “If you go to Washington and gush and goo over Americans, they say, ‘Well of course, we’re the imperial power … Yes, absolutely, we’re fabulous’ … But there is no point in imagining that you’re going to earn any respect by just simply being there, sycophantic.”
Like all potential Australian prime ministers, Turnbull is a friend of the United States and a supporter of the alliance. Yet his view of contemporary America is far from gushing. Turnbull thinks American politics is becoming “profoundly dysfunctional”. Despite the “staggering” budget deficit and public debt, “what’s depressing about the debate in America is that so much of it is actually just innumerate”. Turnbull is particularly scathing about the recent trajectory of the Republican Party and the influence of the Tea Party, which he describes as “extreme”, “reactionary” and “radical”. He says the consensual Republican idea that the budgetary situation can be improved by cutting the taxes of the wealthy is “just bizarre”. He thinks that American voluntary voting encourages Republican extremism and the search for “hot-button issues” to bring out the voters, like abortion or guns or gay marriage or Obama as a secret Muslim. He is concerned about the fragmentation of opinion and collapse of the rational centre. A few decades ago, American citizens across the political spectrum listened nightly to sober and balanced mainstream news anchors like Walter Cronkite. Today, in the era of cable, liberals take their opinions from MSNBC and conservatives from Fox News. He has spoken to politically experienced Americans who think “the lack of bipartisanship” in Washington has been “quite shocking”. He is profoundly concerned about the “self-evident” corrupting influence of “the power of money”. America now looks to him “like a country that is barely governed”. To put it mildly, these views are not those of a conventional member of Canberra’s political elite.
Turnbull spoke very eloquently in parliament on the tenth anniversary of September 11, quoting at length from a speech delivered by Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence in the Great Synagogue, Sydney.
We confront the ambivalence of our psyche expressing on the one hand our profound grief that the world is damaged and that we are bereft. But we express on the other, defiance and ongoing struggle; a striving to renew and rebuild. The physical may crumble but the spirit endures.
But he is altogether clear-eyed about the American intelligence, foreign policy and military failures that have flowed as a result. Too often since September 11, the actions of America and its allies have played into the hands of the enemy by alienating young Muslims living in Islamic lands or in Western countries. “People who demonise Muslims are very much playing into the hands of Al Qaeda.” He recalls a conversation with John Howard, where he pointed out that one of the terrorists responsible for the London outrage was, like Howard, a cricket lover, but with a Pommy accent.
Concerning the military action in Afghanistan, Turnbull’s position is complex and ambivalent. The cause was just, but just cause is not sufficient. Before a commitment to war there must be a realistic possibility of victory. George W Bush had forgotten “the Colin Powell doctrine. You do not get involved in these military expeditions unless you can bring overwhelming force to bear, and win.” The United States and its allies did not learn as they should have from the Soviet failure in Afghanistan. For too long after the invasion, Afghanistan was neglected due to George W Bush’s preoccupation with finishing his father’s unfinished business in Iraq. There is now little prospect of what many in the West think of as victory. In particular, the corruption of the Karzai government inhibits the possibility of winning Afghan “hearts and minds”, the necessity of which is the key lesson, learnt in the Malayan uprising, of what Turnbull describes as “Counter-Insurgency 101”. Any achievable peace in Afghanistan will be messy and unsatisfactory. It will necessarily involve compromise with elements of the Taliban. And, as Turnbull told parliament in a speech last November, we owe our troops not simply “loyalty, devotion and gratitude” and “rah-rah patriotism” but also honest and intelligent analysis of how and why we got into this war and what can now realistically be achieved. Afghanistan should remind us, once again, that wars are far easier “to get into than to get out of”.
Turnbull judges the invasion of Iraq with less ambivalence and greater certainty. Though he believes the Howard government cannot be blamed for the Anglo-American intelligence failure that justified the war – we had no assets in Iraq of our own – he does regard the invasion as a disaster. Inevitably wars are judged in large part according to their consequences. “The argument for saying it was a mistake and misconceived is a very powerful one … There are plenty of people on both sides of politics in the United States who take that view.” Turnbull’s summary goes like this. The casus belli was false. Thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives have been lost. “The Christian communities have been huge losers in Iraq.” And, as a reminder that Turnbull belongs instinctively to the realist school of international relations: “The big strategic winner has been Iran.”
Turnbull’s foreign policy realism is no more evident than in his position on the greatest development of our region and era: the rise of China. Turnbull has been thinking hard about its strategic implications for Australia. Influenced by economist Angus Maddison, he thinks the world is gradually returning to the situation that prevailed before the industrial revolution when the per capita income of China (and India) was roughly equal to the per capita incomes of the European-based agrarian societies. He is also preoccupied with the thought that we must learn from the gradual collapse of international order before the outbreak of war in July 1914 that saw the rise of a new great power, the German Empire. Turnbull has also been impressed by the ultra-realist Henry Kissinger’s recent book, On China. Believing China has no desire to impose its system of government or philosophy on the rest of the world, Turnbull contends it would be catastrophic if its rise was greeted in the way the wilder elements of the neo-conservative movement in the United States now advocate, by a policy similar to Cold War “containment”. In a speech Turnbull delivered last October, he accepts Kissinger’s contrast between “missionary US exceptionalism based on ‘an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world’ with China’s disinterest in claiming its institutions are relevant outside China”. Turnbull must grasp the radical implication of this argument. It not only means that China does not pose the kind of threat the Soviet Union once did. It means that if there is now a threat to world peace it comes more from the American mindset of missionary exceptionalism than from the self-absorbed Chinese view of their own civilisation as being at the centre of the world.
Turnbull regards the debate in Australia about the rise of China as much more primitive and intolerant than the debate in the United States. “You know, the debate here seems to be for the most part, ‘Gee whiz, it’s fantastic they’re buying all our stuff.’” While, as he puts it, “all the galahs in the petshop” are talking about the rise of China, most blithely believe that China’s economic growth will make no difference to the Asia–Pacific strategic balance. Like Australian defence specialist Hugh White, Turnbull recognises this cannot be true. According to Turnbull, everyone benefited from two generations of American supremacy in the Asia–Pacific region – even, indeed especially, the Chinese. But Turnbull is emphatic: this era is now drawing to a close. “The Pax Americana has been fantastic for everybody concerned … But hello, wake up.” In general, Turnbull supports White’s idea that the best outcome for the future of the region is not at all an American withdrawal from the Asia–Pacific region but an Asian Concert of Powers, roughly similar to the situation in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. I ask him whether he agrees with White that Australian diplomacy could at least try to help Washington view the rise of China in a less alarmist way. “I think we can … Most Australian ambassadors and foreign ministers have sought to do that, on both sides.” Turnbull is not worried about the drift of US China policy should a Republican win this year’s presidential election. He anticipates “pragmatism”. The last “ideological” Republican president was George W Bush. “That was not regarded on either side of politics as an unqualified success.”
When Turnbull began last year to speak like this about China, the Australian’s foreign editor, and Tony Abbott’s friend, Greg Sheridan, launched an extraordinary attack. “Malcolm Turnbull has delivered two important speeches on China that help explain why he was such a disastrous Liberal leader and why he should never be considered for the leadership again … The speeches are not left-wing. Rather they are devoid of political values at all.” Despite Sheridan’s venom, Turnbull does not appear greatly fazed. Sheridan is one of those who “just want to demonise China and demonise anyone who doesn’t demonise China”. Turnbull recognises the importance of pressing China on the question of Tibet, as he made a point of doing when Chinese leader Li Keqiang was in Australia. He fully accepts the importance of maintaining the dialogue on human rights with Beijing. “But I think we’ve got to recognise that we can’t run China and that the fundamental objective of our foreign policy is to advance the interests of Australia.”
For a century and a half, Turnbull continues, China has been “beaten, humiliated, raped, expropriated”. When Mao took power in 1949, he claimed: “We have now stood up.” In turn, Australia should not be afraid of standing up to China. Turnbull cites his opposition to the Chinese state’s control of Australian resources via Chinalco’s attempted takeover of Rio Tinto as a case in point. He is not only a republican. At least with regard to ownership of Australian resources by the Chinese state, as opposed to multinational companies, he is a nationalist.
There are three interpretations of the reason Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal Party leadership in December 2009. One suggests that while the liberals in the party voted for him and the conservatives for Abbott, during his period as leader Turnbull appeared to be indifferent towards or even contemptuous of the group that Turnbull tells me forms the large majority of the parliamentary party – the pragmatically inclined and ideologically uncommitted. Another argues that Turnbull was deposed by the Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott group not so much because of his support for the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme but because he was the first leader in a quarter of a century who had shown disturbing signs of wishing to return the Liberal Party to true liberalism. A third interpretation suggests that the fight against any genuine action on climate change was so vital to the party’s core conservatives that they were determined Turnbull must go. There is probably some truth in all three interpretations.
Since his removal as leader, Turnbull has moved through three distinct positions on the politics but not the principle of the response to the threat of climate change. The first was outright opposition to the Coalition’s policy of “direct action”. In February 2010, when the Rudd government introduced its emissions trading legislation, he crossed the floor, declaring:
Having the government pay for emissions abatement, as opposed to the polluting industries themselves, is a slippery slope which can only result in higher taxes and more costly and less effective abatement of emissions. I say this as a member and former leader of a political party whose core values are a commitment to free markets and free enterprise … Schemes where bureaucrats and politicians pick technologies and winners, doling out billions of taxpayers’ dollars, neither are economically efficient nor will be environmentally effective.
The second, following his return to the shadow cabinet, was opposition by stealth and implication – by summarising the plain meaning of direct action with brutal directness and without the politician’s customary obfuscation. In May 2011, on the ABC’s Lateline, Turnbull explained the argument for Coalition policy like this:
If you believe that there is not going to be any global action and that the rest of the world will just say it’s all too hard and we’ll just let the planet get hotter and hotter, and, you know, heaven help our future generations – if you take that grim, fatalistic view of the future and you want to abandon all activity, a scheme like [direct action] is easier to stop.
Not surprisingly, this landed him in political hot water. Since that time, regarding the Opposition policy of direct action, he has more or less maintained a silence.
When I ask him whether he thinks climate change action is a moral issue, he agrees. Climate change action or inaction will determine the kind of Earth passed on to the next generation. Moreover, the countries most savagely affected by unmitigated climate change, like Tuvalu or Bangladesh, “have made the least contribution to it, and have, more often than not, the least means to deal with it”. Morality without practicality, however, will get you nowhere. I ask Turnbull if he regrets that people’s acceptance of climate science now seems to depend on whether their politics are left or right. Revealingly, he slightly misunderstands my question. “The Coalition’s official position at any rate is not to deny the climate science.”
But what about the unofficial position? Isn’t he disturbed that the ideological Right in Australia has moved towards climate change denialism, as illustrated by John Howard’s recent preface for a pamphlet published by Lord Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, the key denialist think tank in the United Kingdom? One of Turnbull’s advisers, having joined the conversation, suggests Howard was merely saying that the debate should be open. I reply that Howard has gone further in his recent autobiography. Turnbull asks: “What does Howard say?” I point out that he calls himself a climate science “agnostic”. “Well, I think an agnostic means he’s not persuaded by it.” To which I reply: “If you’re not persuaded by it, it means you don’t accept it.” Turnbull does not disagree.
The conversation moves back to the United States, where climate change denialism is a prerequisite for contenders for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. “It is astonishing,” says Turnbull. “There you are in the most scientific nation … the nation of enlightenment. And you’ve got a series of leading candidates, leading people in the Republican Party, all of whom have had to recant their past positions. Romney you know, Gingrich, all of them have had to, in order to survive in that bizarre environment, do these flip-flops. There’s been a very successful war against science.” Led by whom, I ask. “Often people with vested interests. The Koch brothers are good examples of that. There have been plenty of books written on this. There is a marked similarity between the orchestrated campaign to denigrate climate science and the campaign to denigrate the critics of the tobacco industry.”
Given what had happened in the United States, how does he remain a climate change action optimist?
“Well, I’ll tell you what my ground for optimism is. I think that there are two big players in this, that is China and the United States. The Americans are in a period of dysfunctionality on this, but it has to be said their emissions are not growing … So the big problem is China, frankly. Now the Chinese are very alert to it and are introducing an emissions trading scheme. It’s a trial and it’s got a very small price, but the Chinese do take it seriously. I think we’re more likely to see leadership out of China than America. Will the world take action? I think it will. My concern is that it will be too late to avert much of the damage. But having said that, there’s a lot we don’t know … If we’re still burning as much coal as we are today we will be leaving a very dangerous planet for our children.”
Should the Liberal Party follow the Republican Party to denialism, would he, I ask finally, remain a member? Turnbull dismisses the question as “hypothetical” and the trajectory as “inconceivable”. Australian politics is “more commonsensical and more moderate” than this. No “credible leader of a major party” would be able to get away with saying that “the IPCC is rubbish, climate science is all wrong”. Climate change denialism was indeed “contrary to the views of I think just about everybody in the Coalition party room”. Our initial agreement inhibits me from mentioning it, but Turnbull knows as well as I do that the most senior member of the Coalition party room has, on at least one occasion, described as “absolute crap” the view that climate change scientists have reached a consensual position on the reality of anthropogenic global warming.
On a recent episode of the ABC’s Q&A program, one of Turnbull’s fellow panellists criticised the group behind the anti-Kony social media campaign for pandering to the public demand for over-simplification. Turnbull smiled. That was certainly easier than trying to inject complexity into general debate, he joked. Another young man on the program suggested that Turnbull start a new party to end the disillusionment with politics his generation now felt. The audience cheered. Turnbull, as impolitic as usual, beamed.
It is not as though he hasn’t tried to lead by example. Since losing the party leadership and changing his mind about his initial impulse to quit politics, Turnbull has continued to take the opportunity to deliver a broad-ranging series of outstanding public lectures, all of which have been heavily footnoted.
According to my trope of Turnbull as the last true Deakinite Liberal, in them only one great theme is conspicuously missing – social policy. Turnbull strongly supports the Productivity Commission–endorsed disability insurance scheme. Yet, perhaps because he is an economic liberal and not a social democrat, he has not put his mind to other potentially very costly but also vital extensions of the Australian welfare state: the scandalous neglect of the mentally ill and their families, for example, or the dental health of those very many Australians of limited financial means.
Two of his interventions, one outside and one inside his shadow portfolio, have public policy implications. Turnbull believes the mining boom and the favourable but almost certainly temporary terms of trade are being squandered. Until recently the notion that Australia’s per capita GDP might be 15% higher than that of the United States, as it was in 2010, would have been regarded as ridiculous. He advocates the establishment, once debt is paid off, of a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund where, perhaps, the savings are invested abroad as a counterweight to the so-called “Dutch disease”, the damage caused by the rise in the value of the Australian dollar to other export-exposed parts of the economy. In a recent article in the Australian Financial Review concerning Wayne Swan’s essay in the March issue of the Monthly, Turnbull argues, implicitly at least, for a new mining tax to support his sovereign wealth fund. He even criticises Swan for capitulating in 2010 to the great vested interest of the mining corporations.
Turnbull has excelled in his own portfolio, too. Last August, at the National Press Club, he delivered a technically complex and highly sophisticated critique of the Labor Government’s plan for the nationwide delivery of fast-speed broadband, along with a practical, apparently well thought-out alternative. The second question from a journalist concerned some inconsequential remark made that day by Peter Reith: “Moving away from the telecommunications area for a moment …” Turnbull was reduced to sarcasm. “You will be back there in a minute, I’m sure.”
Turnbull fears Australians are losing the ability to conduct nuanced debate about serious public issues. “There would be a thousand words written about personalities and leadership in the press gallery here for every one that’s written about policy … I think I’m more optimistic about global action on climate change than I am about the standard of public debate improving.” And then quickly, “I’m only kidding.” Did he think then he might be too rational for the life of politics? “Maybe. Who knows? It’s probably a conclusion for you to make. You’ve probably got to be irrational to get into it in the first place.”