June 2016


Turnbull’s frolic

By Judith Brett
Can Malcolm Turnbull survive on optimism alone?

Malcolm Turnbull has told us again and again that there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. Really? What about the gold rushes of the 1850s, when hopeful young immigrants flooded into Victoria; or the mid 1950s, when the long boom really took off and ordinary people had more jobs and houses and whitegoods than their parents raising families during the Depression ever dreamed of; or the early 1970s, when the social movements were in full swing and the Whitlam government was just around the corner?

Of course, Turnbull’s statement is not a historical proposition at all, but a claim about the mood best suited to the times we live in. “We have to be optimists,” Turnbull told David Koch on Sunrise last year, and an optimist he is, about the promises of agility, innovation, creativity and the rest of it.

It is no doubt a very exciting time to be Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister at last, with his final chance to shape the future. But what about the rest of us? Do Turnbull’s excitement and optimism capture and enhance something in the public mood, or is he off on a frolic of his own?

There are two strong arguments that his optimism is a frolic of his own. The first is global warming, now a climate emergency as the world heats at the swifter end of climate scientists’ predictions. At the Climate Code Red website, David Spratt reports NASA’s satellite data on this February’s mind-blowing temperature spike. The average global temperature in February hit 1.35 degrees Celsius above the global norm for the past 50 years and close to 2 ºC above the pre-industrial benchmark of the mid 18th century. And the further north on the planet, the greater the increase from the norm, with February in Alaska, Scandinavia and much of Russia being 4 ºC above monthly averages, and a massive 6 ºC above average north of the 75 degree latitude line; melting resulted in the lowest extent of Arctic sea ice ever recorded for February. Global average temperatures were also smashed in March and in April. On these figures, the goal of the Paris Agreement to keep the increase to 1.5 ºC is already a pipedream.

We are already seeing devastating impacts: coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef; a wildfire in Alberta raging through the boreal forests, and the northern hemisphere fire season is just beginning; drought in the Mekong Delta ruining rice farmers. How, in the face of such events, can one be optimistic? True, the politics of responding to climate change have improved a lot since Turnbull replaced the flat-Earther, and deniers and sceptics have largely disappeared from public view. But Australia is still a laggard in global responses.

If we had enough time, the incremental politics of slow boring through hard boards would no doubt eventually reduce the world’s carbon emissions to safe levels. But we don’t. So where in all this is optimistic Malcolm Turnbull who knows that climate change is real and dangerous, not to mention his mealy-mouthed minister for the environment? There was no mention of climate change in the budget, and they are running a scare campaign about power prices against Labor’s policy of 50% renewable energy by 2030. Bill McKibben’s comment in the February issue of the Monthly gives the most plausible explanation, which is that they are caught in the classic Augustinian trap: Oh Lord, make me chaste – but not yet; not until all the climate sceptics have been flushed out of the Coalition, not until the fossil-fuel and energy companies have had time to transition into renewables and maintain their dividends, not until a technological breakthrough by our agile, creative scientists has made renewables a lay-down misère. But this is magical thinking, not political leadership. Fear, not optimism, is the realistic government response to the climate emergency.

The second argument for Malcolm Turnbull’s optimism being a frolic of his own with little purchase on the public mood is Australia’s escalating generational inequality. Since Wordsworth’s enthusiasm for the transformative possibilities of the French Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”), political optimism has been strongly associated with the young and their belief that their energies and ideas can make the world a better place. It was because Gough Whitlam tapped into the confident optimism of young baby boomers that his government is remembered for its transformation of the Australian political landscape rather than its bungled governing. But there is no such youthful spirit today to give public wings to Turnbull’s optimism.

Generations X and Y and millennials are generally finding it much harder to make their way than did their parents and grandparents. Jennifer Rayner makes the case in her book Generation Less. Soon to be 30, she compares her life as a renter in insecure work with the lives of her parents at the same age: “settled, prosperous parents of three. Homeowners; tenured workers tucking away super and long-service leave.” Those born after 1980 are more likely to be in casual, contract or insecure employment than their parents and grandparents were at the same age. They advance more slowly in their careers. And they are far, far less likely to be buying a house, and so are likely to be renting from one of Australia’s growing number of landlords who negatively gear their investment property (or properties) and hope for capital gains as house prices rise even further beyond the purchasing power of aspiring young home-buyers.

It’s hard to be optimistic when you’re facing a lifetime of renting, as the government gives tax breaks to people to buy their sixth property but not to you for your first. There are many factors pushing up house prices, but negative gearing is one. With Labor’s modest proposal to rein it in and the government’s refusal to do anything about it, negative gearing has become a symbol of generational inequity at the heart of this election campaign, putting Turnbull on the side of the comfortable middle-aged trying to get ahead rather than the anxious young trying to get started.

Alfred Deakin, the most significant prime minister of the Commonwealth’s first decade, was also an optimist. He regarded pessimism as a moral failing, describing it in an unpublished essay on ‘Optimism’ as “a frost which threatens religious morality and society”. From when he first entered Victorian politics in 1879 as an idealistic 22-year-old, Deakin abhorred the negative “Obstructionists” who stood in the way of progress, and in 1906 he famously attacked the policy of George Reid as nothing but a “necklace of negatives”. In the 1880s, Deakin’s optimism was in line with the general mood of the country, as the Australian colonies prospered from increased migration and plenty of British capital. When the economy crashed in the early 1890s, Deakin’s optimism took a hit, and he almost put politics behind him for good. For the rest of the decade he refused ministerial office. But he stayed on, his optimism fed by the prospect of federation, for which he worked tirelessly. Federation was an optimistic, nation-building project, and once the Commonwealth was inaugurated Deakin committed himself to securing the legislative foundations of its key institutions and policies.

Deakin was prime minister three times during the Commonwealth’s first decade, and never once did he lead a party with a majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Minority government was the order of the day, with governments always hostage to the next no-confidence motion. After Federation in 1901, there were five changes of government on the floor of the house before Labor won the 1910 election and became Australia’s first government to lead with a majority in its own right. The politics were bitter and often personal, and there were long periods in which little legislation was passed.

Deakin’s optimism and courtesy helped him navigate the turbid parliamentary waters, but his real lifeline was his unwavering policy commitments to building Australia’s white population, protecting its infant industries and securing an independent defence capacity. He was also fuelled by a determination to pass a whole raft of practical legislation needed to get the Commonwealth up and running, from settling the site of the new capital to establishing an office of statistics. During his three periods as prime minister, party concerns for political survival were secondary to his determination to go “straight on” while he had the power to achieve practical outcomes. His optimistic nature no doubt helped him in this, but his optimism was grounded in a clear sense of legislative purpose. We may not agree now with all his policies, but that is not the point. He knew what he was in politics to achieve, and he tried to achieve it.

Malcolm Turnbull’s public persona has some similarities to Deakin’s: he is charming, courteous, never at a loss for a word, a good writer, and he promises to bring the Liberal Party back to the moderate centre of Australian politics that Deakin helped create. And both are self-proclaimed optimists. But where Deakin’s optimism was steadied by his unwavering policy commitments, Turnbull’s seems free-floating, like thought bubbles in the wind, anchored neither in the mood and urgent needs of the time nor in his own core beliefs.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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