The Politics    Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Malcolm Turnbull: Still not Tony Abbott

By Sean Kelly

The new PM goes to Washington

It is worth reminding ourselves, every now and then, how much has changed in the past few months – the main difference being that Malcolm Turnbull is hot, and Tony Abbott is decidedly not. 

Of course, sometimes it’s not necessary to remind ourselves, because the new prime minister is overly keen to do that himself. Last year he set unnecessary Liberal Party brushfires burning by telling the parliament that when it came to terrorism this was “not a time for gestures or machismo”, a naked takedown of the man who used to do his job. He may as well have screamed “HEY AUSTRALIA, IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED, I’M NOT TONY ABBOTT!”

The PM has learned since then, and is now content to let his own gestures tell the story, rather than hammering us all over the head with unnecessary exposition of his not-Tony-Abbott-ness.

This week he is in Washington, following up on US President Barack Obama’s apparently surprise invitation late last year. These are often good opportunities for Australian leaders to look statespersonlike, appearing with people far more important than they and speaking “for Australia”, rather than, as is more common, when on domestic soil, simply “to Australia”.

So far the trip seems to be going well (with the minor exception of this accidentally public posting of a discussion about what caption should actually be posted on the PM’s Instagram account). The PM has met with Australian troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, given a major speech, and throughout all this largely failed to court controversy.

That’s an achievement in itself, and will probably do the PM a minor bit of good with voters, who will be happy to see their new leader settling into the job with only minor ruffles.

But he’s done more than that, too, and so let me briefly do the job that Malcolm Turnbull used to do himself and remind you all that Turnbull is very clearly not Tony Abbott.

Abbott began his prime ministership’s approach to terrorism with fairly reasonable comments on the role of Islam, but over time – probably not coincidentally, as polls worsened – he became blunter and broader and more strident. Shortly after being deposed he was demanding a reformation take place in Islam, an unfortunate comment which served to tar an entire religion. (His comments were not as simplistic as some made out, but they were still pretty bloody simplistic.)

Turnbull, speaking to an American audience this week, was consistent with his nuanced comments to date in Australia:

We should not be so delicate as to say ISIL and its ilk have ‘got nothing to do with Islam’. But neither should we tag all Muslims or their religion with responsibility for the crimes of a tiny terrorist minority. This is precisely what the extremists want us to do. Today, they want us to turn on the Muslim communities in our midst because it reinforces their narrative to young Muslims that America or Australia does not want them, that they have no future here, that this is not their country too.

Turnbull knows he is under pressure from conservatives in his party to turn up the rhetorical heat on Islam, but, even as a factional war threatens to boil over in NSW, he is sticking to his position. He continues to point out, as he has since the beginning of his leadership, that we cannot hold an entire community responsible for the actions of a few. It is a message that must be repeated.

Note, too, his implied support for ongoing immigration of Muslims into Australia and America, against the hysterical cries of Donald Trump and some of Australia’s own shock jocks. This, too, is a simple message that the PM, with the tallest soapbox and the loudest megaphone around, needs to repeat again and again.

It is worth noting in passing, though, that first line of Turnbull’s. These western leaders who are supposedly arguing ISIL has “nothing to do with Islam” have recently become a favourite strawman of the right-wing commentariat. Where, exactly, are these leaders? Search the phrase and up pop hundreds of comment pieces attacking generic “government officials” who say ISIL has “nothing to do with Islam”, with names rarely named. In fact, most officials are careful to walk a far more nuanced line – very similar to Turnbull’s own, in fact – which Turnbull no doubt knows. It is hard not to see the inclusion of that line in Turnbull’s speech as a sop to those right-wing commentators and their followers.

Still, that is a minor complaint. So far Turnbull’s approach to this vexed issue has been suitably complex. His speech managed to canvass calls for a more sophisticated approach to ISIL’s online propaganda; a possible partition of parts of Iraq and Syria; a consideration of who should lead the ground war; and the above discussion of Islam.

The PM will be hoping the rest of his trip goes as smoothly as it has so far.


Today’s links

  • A boycott of the Oscars is getting a lot of attention. The boycott is because of the marked lack of non-white people getting nominations.
  • Tom Switzer is the lone voice in the wilderness of Australian opinion pages calling for Tony Abbott to stay. I don’t think he’s right, but I enjoyed the piece. And more Liberal factionalism. Meanwhile Andrew Clennell has a brutal look at the divisions in the NSW Labor Party.
  • Clive Palmer’s political career may be on its last legs.
  • The ANZ-Roy Morgan consumer confidence index “reached its lowest level since Malcolm Turnbull took the reins as prime minister, suggesting the ‘Turnbull effect’ may be wearing off”, says the Guardian.
  • Immigration Minister Peter Dutton makes a decision that will please people not usually pleased with him: the visa of a “pick up” expert who has previously joked about his “rape van” has been cancelled.  
  • The Turnbull government has a plan for more trees in cities. And the world’s oceans are getting warmer, faster

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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