August 2009


Turnbull’s challenge

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

John Howard appeared to be a practical and commonsensical man of affairs. In reality, he was not only an unusually ideological prime minister but also, according to an entirely accurate self-estimation, the most conservative leader in the history of Australia. Influenced by the patterns of thought that had taken hold since Thatcher and Reagan, he attempted to reshape Australia along neo-conservative and neo-liberal lines.

Already it is becoming clear that his attempt has failed. A decade ago, when John Howard led the Coalition and Pauline Hanson fascinated the country, the ideological balance of the electorate tilted very clearly to the Right. Since 2007, however, opinion polls have consistently shown that younger Australians have abandoned the Liberal Party. They have also shown, as George Megalogenis pointed out in the Australian on 11 April, that the parties of the Left (Labor and the Greens) have a very comfortable lead over the parties of the Right (the Liberals and the Nationals). The meaning of this shift in the ideological balance has one obvious party-political implication. Howard’s attempted makeover of Australia – his populist conservatism especially on matters connected to ethnicity and race; his mimetic pro-Bush foreign policy; his climate change foot-dragging and denialism; the passionate enthusiasm he expressed for American-style capitalism before the arrival of the Great Recession – has bequeathed to his Liberal Party successors a toxic legacy that they must overcome.

Malcolm Turnbull entered Australian politics as the head of the republican movement. Although since then his republican convictions have rather unnervingly faded, his earlier enthusiasm provided at least some reason to believe that when he won the leadership of the Liberal Party last September he might tackle the Howard legacy and wrest the party from the Right. There were other grounds for hope. Unlike so many contemporary Liberals, Turnbull had shown no signs of atavism on the question of ethnicity and race. While the previous Liberal leader, Brendan Nelson, agonised in public about the apology to the Stolen Generations, Turnbull treated the misgivings of the Howard loyalists with fitting disdain. He showed no sympathy for the long campaign this group had waged against what they call the black armband view of history. Unlike Howard, he was not frozen in a permanent argument over Indigenous issues with the Left. Also unlike Howard, Turnbull was not allergic to the idea of multiculturalism. In the case of the recent attacks on Indian students, it was not surprising that he responded in a manner almost identical to Rudd. Like Rudd, Turnbull denied that Australia was a racist country, but without the kind of prickly defensiveness that Howard would have shown. Like Rudd, he praised the success not merely of Australian postwar immigration but of the multicultural experiment with which it had become associated.

Since Howard’s loss of office, on certain issues Turnbull has even positioned himself to the left of Rudd. As a Christian social democrat, Kevin Rudd expressed disgust at the public display of Bill Henson’s photograph of a naked, nubile girl. As an inner-urban aesthete and a committed civil libertarian, Malcolm Turnbull, almost alone among Australian politicians, sprang to the defence of Henson and of Art. More surprising have been his occasional foreign policy interventions. In its recent White Paper, the Rudd government had justified a massive arms-expenditure program on the basis of a future China threat. In response, Turnbull argued against the “containment” of China and about the dangers of any policy premised on the assumption of an inevitable clash. On the question of relations with China, Turnbull can be opportunistic or clumsy. At one time he accused Rudd of acting like China’s ambassador abroad. At another he suggested that he pick up a phone and “demand” that the arrested Australian businessman, Stern Hu, be released. Yet on the broadest strategic question – the threat to the region that, in the long term, the rise of China does or does not pose – Turnbull is a moderate. He is the first postwar Liberal leader whose policy on China has outflanked Labor on the Left.

Climate change has, however, been the most important instance of Turnbull’s attempt to transcend the Howard legacy. While he was Howard’s Minister for Environment, Turnbull let it be known that he supported Kyoto ratification. He was also probably responsible for the Howard government’s eleventh-hour conversion to an emissions trading scheme. As Liberal leader, he has tried to go further. In the summer of 2009, while Rudd was composing his anti-neo-liberal essay for The Monthly, Turnbull was preparing a David Cameron-like attempt to re-position the Liberal Party as more radical than Labor on the question of climate change. Turnbull described the Rudd government’s exclusive concentration on an emissions trading scheme as “bureaucratic” and “sterile”. In addition to emissions trading, he called for a more courageous and imaginative program based on government investment in alternative energies, biochar, reforestation and geo-sequestration. Turnbull committed his government to the construction of two clean-coal power stations. He claimed that by 2020 he would reduce carbon emissions far more substantially than Rudd.

Insofar as Turnbull had any strategy for taking his colleagues with him, it seems to have been to garner support across the party spectrum by balancing his leftward positioning on climate change with an equally bold rightward positioning on the question of the Great Recession. Turnbull responded to Rudd’s The Monthly essay with undisguised contempt. After the astonishing collapse of the global financial system, he continued to defend the free-market faith without even a hint of what Alan Greenspan had called “shocked disbelief”. Even though the IMF had urged investment in large-scale stimulus programs; even though Australia had one of the lowest debt burdens in the developed world; even though Turnbull admitted, at least sotto voce, that in government his deficit spending would be only marginally lower than Labor’s – nonetheless time and time again he indulged in the most time-honoured Liberal rhetoric about the Labor Party as the big-spending, debt-addicted, socialist wreckers of Australia. In part, no doubt, Turnbull was sincere. By instinct he is a neo-liberal. But in part this kind of rhetoric was the price he probably believed he had to pay if he was to make inroads into the ranks of Howard loyalists and convert his party to something for which he seemed genuinely to care: bold action over climate change.

On 16 May, Paul Kelly argued in the Australian that a Coalition refusal to support the Rudd Government’s emissions-trading legislation would be “a manifest act of political suicide”. This was precisely the course that Turnbull was soon obliged to take. By now, the National Party and the Howard loyalists inside the Liberal Party were committed to the cause of climate change inaction. By now, an atmosphere of climate change ‘scepticism’ was growing. Turnbull was forced to capitulate. He advocated further concessions to trade-exposed emissions-intensive industries. He warned the Business Council of Australia against climate change co-operation with Labor. He even risked the creation of a double-dissolution trigger by arguing for the postponement of any decision on the emissions trading scheme until both the outcome of the Copenhagen conference and the shape of the US legislation had become clear. Even a hint by Turnbull on 20 July that the Coalition might allow an amended bill to pass was angrily rejected by both Wilson Tuckey, who called his leader “arrogant”, and the entire National Party. The bold, imaginative course on climate change Turnbull had promised in the summer had by now all but been abandoned.

By late June, Turnbull’s political fortunes were flagging. He had lost control inside the Coalition over climate change. He had lost support in the country through his opposition to Rudd’s conspicuously successful and highly popular nation-building stimulus program. Was there really nothing he could do? At this time, Turnbull thought he had discovered from a Liberal Party mole inside Treasury that the prime minister had tried to win financial favours for a friend. If so, Rudd had lied to parliament. Turnbull called for the resignation of the prime minister. At the very moment that his leadership was seriously strengthened by Peter Costello’s decision to end the longest striptease in the history of Australian politics and belatedly announce his impending retirement, Malcolm Turnbull seems to have believed he might destroy his other political rival with a single knockout blow.

As the world now knows, the evidence on which Turnbull relied was a forgery. As with Howard and Keating and, before them, Menzies and Evatt, between Turnbull and Rudd there exists a deep and sincere and fully reciprocal loathing. Rudd undoubtedly enjoyed the opportunity now presented to humiliate Turnbull in parliament. In a fortnight, Turnbull’s satisfaction rating dropped from 44% to 25%. His standing as preferred prime minister reached the danger level of 18%. Turnbull’s plans to refashion the Liberal Party had effectively collapsed. In a metaphor that Turnbull would appreciate, in one reckless gamble all his political capital had been spent.

It was obvious by now that Turnbull had both comprehensively overestimated his own political capacity and underestimated the difficulty of outmanoeuvring the Howard loyalists inside the Liberal Party. To combat their influence and to promote the interests of moderates would have required from him subtlety, guile, charm, the capacity to show loyalty and to win it in return, perhaps above all patience. Unfortunately, these are precisely the qualities that Turnbull lacks. As Annabel Crabb has shown in her perceptive and amusing Quarterly Essay, ‘Stop at Nothing’, Turnbull is not merely the kind of person who does not suffer fools gladly. If he is bored, he is the kind of person who terminates conversations mid-sentence. If there ever has been a solo flyer in Australian politics, it is Malcolm Turnbull. Occasionally, in the life of politics, the quality of character proves decisive. The story of Turnbull’s failed attempt to overturn the Howard legacy inside the Liberal Party is one such case.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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