March 2016


Turnbull’s rightful place

By Don Watson
Turnbull’s rightful place
The prime minister does not seem to be himself at all

“All joy wants eternity,” Nietzsche said, speaking of woe and eternal recurrence. And, “we all get carried out in the end”, Paul Keating said, speaking of prime ministers. Politics affords joy to a very few and extinction to everyone. The few, longing for eternity as they do, are generally the least prepared for death and suffer grievously when it comes.

How could we not love politics? A little different each time, but the same heartache and revenge over and over.

Sometime back in the 1990s, when Bronwyn Bishop was cantering around the country in an improbable and alarming effort to lead the Liberal Party, I recall someone (not Bob Ellis, I think it was Malcolm Turnbull) saying there was once a time when, among Liberal lawyers, only a silk could entertain such an aspiration. But now, so far had the party fallen, in his view, any old solicitor could bestride the thing. And of course, it came to pass, though not in the person of Ms Bishop. This was about the time when, by many reports, Malcolm Turnbull was seriously thinking of hitching his old Volvo to the Labor Party.

Well, it took its time, but the rightful order has been at last restored. He might have come via Goldman Sachs (in this financial age, an all but obligatory detour for the smartest cookies), but a silk is back in charge. (Well, he would have been one if Kerry Packer hadn’t called.) And the joy is so palpable at the Lodge that the whole country seems a bit in love – even if he’s the proverbial daffodil on a dunghill. Even if the once great silken party is now so torn by factions that the new leader has to tell them they don’t exist and then weather their guffaws. Even if he will soon have Barnaby Joyce filling in for him whenever he goes abroad or takes a holiday. Even if he’s obliged to deny his own beliefs and make the case for reactionary causes against which he has defined himself and devoted part of his life to overthrowing, and must appease the authors of them. Even if he has inherited the rubble of his predecessor, and even if he knows that he will be stalked forever by the Revenant, grim and rictus, himself his own dungeon, keeping his wound green and feeding his thirst for retribution.

Not to rain prematurely on his joyous parade, but might we wonder if the spectre of eternal return does not haunt the prime minister. Does he find himself thinking that, like the sailor from whom he takes his second name, he, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, is the only man on whom he can depend? In bed at night, or in a cabinet meeting, might it not creep into his mind that William Bligh woke one day to find that he was commander not of a ship but of a drifting lifeboat, and thereafter could neither contemplate his companions without a sense of insult creeping in his veins nor look away if he wanted to avoid being sconed with an oar?

William Bligh had no choice, of course: just row and row. And then see revenge exacted on the mutineers, and then suffer mutiny again, and see revenge again. Unrelenting and unalterable, at every turn Mr Bligh was never anyone but himself. But Mr Turnbull, having just realised the deepest yearnings of the self, seems not to be himself at all.

Think of it. Under the Border Force Act, up to two years’ jail for speaking out against abuses on Nauru and Manus Island; under the new ASIO laws, up to ten years’ jail for reporting on special intelligence operations, even botched ones, ever; under the same national security laws, virtually unrestricted surveillance of computer data; under the reinstated Australian Building and Construction Commission, denials of basic civil liberties. Wouldn’t the barrister of Spycatcher days have torn it all to pieces? Meanwhile, the believer in science and an emissions trading scheme is joined with the non-believers and the vested interests in denial; the man who believes in “agility” and “innovation”, “brilliant young men and women” and the “frontiers of change” watches a new CEO take a hatchet to CSIRO climate science, and apes the example of his predecessor on education policy and lets Gonski languish. The republican of the ’90s is joined with the monarchists; the believer in same-sex marriage leads those who loathe the idea, and is tied by them to a crazy plebiscite; the ideological bedfellow of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is in bed with the mob who bedded down with George W Bush and are disposed to line up with his mad-dog Republican successors. The man who defended Gillian Triggs when Tony Abbott mugged her now defends the rigid (and repellent) policy she opposes.

Of course, compromise sits equally with ambition and belief at the heart of politics. But it is almost impossible to believe that Malcolm Bligh Turnbull wants to go down as nothing more than a great compromiser or, worse, as a prime minister who puddled around in the politics and dodged the real tests of power – the ones that turn the country in the direction that on principle you think it ought to take. Interviewed by Barrie Cassidy in early February, he poured us another warm bath. It was like watching Bob Hawke in the prime of his contentment, fangs withdrawn and brimming with the spirit of Westminster collegiality and consultation. There was the policy on the one hand and the politics on the other, and you had to do the policy first and then the politics, the prime minister said. You’d swear he understood the Mysteries, that all we needed was some of his reason and optimism and we’d have unicorns again.

Not that anyone should think the approach can’t yield decisive results. The PM told Cassidy that he had pretty well ruled out increasing the GST on policy grounds without even getting to the politics, which we can be fairly sure would have ruled it out if policy considerations hadn’t. That’s a result, to be sure – especially for the leader of the Opposition and the federal treasurer, who had to return to base just when they were getting airborne. By contrast, a land tax, the PM said, would pass the policy test but fail the politics, so that could be ruled out too.

The essential difference between Hawke and the Turnbull we are presently watching is that, for all his reconciliations with business, the Great Reconciliator never let us think he was anything but Labor: a pragmatic and reformed kind of Labor in which a concern for the workers and a concern for the profit share were one and indivisible, but Labor just the same. If you could not always see his fangs, you could sense them. John Howard managed much the same effect, but like Hawke his roots were in older times.

By comparison, Malcolm Turnbull, in so many ways a perfect fit for the modern cosmos, is in danger of sounding deracinated. Of contemporary politics, Carmen Lawrence wrote recently, “We’re invited to take part in an elaborate game, one in which the players face off as deadly opponents when they are, in reality, largely indistinguishable.” The less there is to distinguish the players, the more deeply they feel a need to affect profound differences. Abbott went so far with this the electorate reckoned he was loopy. Turnbull distinguished himself in more measured terms. “This will be a thoroughly Liberal government,” he said on the night he took the prize. The Guardian spelled it “liberal”, a mistake but also a measure of the hope his election brought to liberals as well as Liberals. It’s possible he meant to blur the distinction, to satisfy not only the baying reactionaries in the Coalition but also a political centre desperate for calm and light.

“It will be a thoroughly Liberal government, committed to freedom, the individual and the market,” he said, as if the old refrain still serves a distinguishing purpose that a commitment to universal happiness or rhinoceroses does not. Would any among a couple of million unaffiliated and undecided voters have been less happy if he’d said he was committed to a fair go for all? If he had stepped from a different meeting to say that he would be leading a thoroughly Labor government, committed to freedom, the individual and the market, would they have noticed an anomaly?

Which makes the hypothetical question irresistible: does he sometimes ask himself, what if, all those years ago, he had chosen Labor, or Labor him? After, say, a death struggle with Kevin Rudd to replace Kim Beazley in 2006? Or after Simon Crean in 2003? Or more recently: called up to lead Labor from the backbenches to which, Churchill-like, he had retreated after Abbott brought him down? Would he be more at home now?

Just think: Labor gets Neoliberal Man, a brilliant advocate, proven in modern business and technology, and the chap most likely to draw its way all those “knowledge workers” the unions failed to charm. Of course, he has to put up with the CFMEU and a few other rough outfits, but he doesn’t have the National Party braying from the stalls. He has a party room a persuasive liberal reformer can carry in the main: he’ll carry it on climate, on the republic, on education, indigenous recognition, same-sex marriage – win an election and he could carry it on pretty well anything, and bright young things will be joining up to follow him into the future. He makes the Labor Party the social democratic party it must one day become, and, surfing on the swell, like Alfred Deakin in the first years of the Commonwealth, leads Australia to the spirited, open (and, yes, innovative) social democracy of Labor’s late 20th-century dream.

He gets carried out to be sure, but in a coffin inscribed “Malcolm Bligh Turnbull: Labor hero and maker of 21st-century Australia”. Eternity after all.

In barren times we can be forgiven our little fantasies. The question is, which fantasy? The fantasy of the Saviour that might have been? Or the fantasy of the Saviour that never was? We should know by Christmas.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing. The Passion of Private White will be published in November.

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