Monday, October 26, 2015

Today by Michael Lucy

Moving windows
Malcolm Turnbull’s charm offensive is about changing our idea of what’s reasonable in politics


Malcolm Turnbull had a busy weekend. Not only did he celebrate his 61st birthday on Saturday but he also gave something back to the media that has been giving him such a good run: several sit-down interviews (one for the Age and the SMH, one for the Australian, one for the Guardian and one for the AFR).

Turnbull loves to talk and he loves to explain, so this sort of wide-ranging discussion of his own views suits him very well. He knows his audiences, too: to the Australian he talked about economic reform and union corruption, while to the SMH and the Age it was infrastructure spending and public transport, with some digs at the banks for raising interest rates. The Fin got balanced budgets and tax reform, while the Guardian got hospital funding and Borgen.

There was not a huge amount that was new in the chats, and not a lot of detail about policy, but there was a lot of talk about ideas. Turnbull already has our hearts, if you believe the polls, but this kind of interview is a play for our minds: he doesn’t just want to be loved, he wants to be understood. (To fans of the small but growing “talking ideas with Mal” genre, I can recommend Robert Manne’s 6500-word entry from 2012.)

Journalists love this stuff. You can almost sense the relief, after Tony Abbott’s three-word slogans and weird gaffes, at being able to have something like a normal conversation with the prime minister. Today’s papers had some follow-ups, including a lengthy discussion of the hermeneutics of prime-ministerial office décor.

Of course, Turnbull didn’t talk to everyone: he just talked to everyone who matters. Eagle-eyed observers will have noted above that there was no interview for the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney tabloid that was Abbott’s favoured communications channel.

As Paul Keating (apocryphally?) said, when you change the prime minister you change the country, and one of the changes Turnbull is trying to make here is to redraw the boundaries of “reasonable” political conversation (aka the Overton window). Tabloid populism and ideas like climate-change denial, having enjoyed some access to the corridors of power, are now being shuffled back off to the fringes. (Turnbull’s grown-up, sophisticated centrism has problems of its own, but that’s another issue.)

These changes don’t go unnoticed by those now on the outer: Eric Abetz’s outbursts last week were a classic sign of relevance-deprivation syndrome. And Andrew Bolt today is worried that Turnbull has already moved the party too far to the left. Turnbull no doubt thinks he’s safe to discount rumblings from the party’s ever-dwindling conservative rump. What can they do, after all? Vote Labor? For the moment, at least, they have nowhere else to go.


Today’s links

  • Turnbull has also been at pains to make it clear that he is putting no pressure on Tony Abbott to leave parliament. No pressure at all.
  • Alan Finkel, currently the chancellor of Monash University, will be Australia’s next chief scientist. Among other things, Finkel is an advocate of nuclear power.
  • A byelection in North Sydney, the seat vacated by Joe Hockey, will be held in December. The Liberal preselection is causing a minor ruckus.
  • Hopes of negative gearing reform may be premature.
  • Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler, who should know, has some thoughts about political memoirs.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.



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