Much Ado About Malcolm

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Much Ado About Malcolm

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is far from the transformational figure he hoped to be.

Much Ado About Malcolm
Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed

When Malcolm Turnbull was first elected to the Australian Parliament in 2004 there was only one position he, and everyone else, expected him to pursue. He wasn’t entering politics to simply be a good local member of parliament, or attempt to influence government policy. He wasn’t even looking to simply become prime minister; he was planning to become a transformational prime minister. A leader who mattered, today, tomorrow, and in the annals of future historical analysis.

There are people with ambition who seek to achieve things in their lives, and then there is Malcolm Turnbull. While studying law at Oxford he was simultaneously working for The Sunday Times in London as a journalist, as well as contributing articles to magazines and newspapers in the United States and Australia.

As a lawyer in 1986 he represented former MI5 operative Peter Wright, successfully preventing the British government’s attempts to suppress the publication of Wright’s book in Australia. Yet high profile cases fighting powerful governments were hardly satisfying for him. By 1987 he had started an investment banking firm, and thus it was only a matter of time before he became the chair and managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia.

As a venture capitalist he was an early investor in many early web-based companies, and as chairperson of the Australian Republican Movement he could have declared himself the Father of the Republic, had the 1999 referendum to remove the British monarch as Australia’s head of state succeeded.

Turnbull is currently the prime minister of Australia, but he’s nothing like the prime minister he thought he would be. Having acquired the position via a party coup, he made serious enemies of many conservative MPs in his own party who were already suspicious of his urbane worldview. But, needing their support to maintain his position, he has significantly compromised both his desired positive advocacy, his grand global vision, and his previously declared positions on a number of important issues.

In 2009, in his first stint as the leader of the Liberal Party while in opposition, Turnbull wanted the party to support the Labor government’s proposed emissions trading scheme. Due to this attempt at bipartisanship over the issue of climate change the party replaced him as leader with Tony Abbott, a staunch climate skeptic. Turnbull subsequently voted with Labor on the scheme, alienating himself further from conservative elements within the Liberal party, but his principled stance won him the respect of those who desire serious action to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions.

However, Prime Minister Turnbull no longer supports an emissions trading scheme, repeating Abbott’s language that such a scheme is “a tax that will push up power prices, destroy jobs and slow economic growth.” This despite recent polling indicating that almost three-fourths of the electorate are either very or fairly concerned about climate change.

As a previous supporter of legalizing gay marriage in Australia via a parliamentary vote, Turnbull now advocates the compromise adopted by those opposed to the issue; a non-binding national plebiscite. Alongside the $160 million cost, a public campaign around a plebiscite is seen to be a highly divisive and potentially dangerous process, sure to inflame emotions and ramp up malicious rhetoric.

Due to his about-face on issues such as these, which provide major signals to the public about a politician’s values and worldview, Turnbull has lost much of his credibility, and his downward slide in approval ratings has been significant.

When he first disposed of Tony Abbott as prime minister, Turnbull rode an extraordinary wave of public support. The country recognized someone fit for the position now held it, and heaved a national sigh of relief.

Turnbull’s initial pronouncements as prime minister were designed to reshape public debate in the country. He declared an end to the “three word slogans,” insular worldview, and relentless negativity of Tony Abbott, and attempted to realign the Liberal Party toward a more positive, modern, and cosmopolitan outlook.

The founder of the Liberal party, Robert Menzies, claimed to be a strong descendant of the Whig philosophical tradition and viewed the party as a “progressive and forward looking” force in Australian politics. Yet, despite some flirtations with a more philosophically liberal worldview during the prime ministership of Malcolm Fraser, this has never been the predominant outlook of the party. As a party formed from an array of anti-Labor forces within the country, opposition toward the Labor Party, with little active vision of its own, has remained the party’s dominant sentiment. This sentiment found its embodiment in Tony Abbott, with his rabid disdain for and aggressive attacks on the Labor Party being the defining characteristic of his time as leader of the Liberal Party (both in opposition and as the government).

Turnbull sought to change this. Upon dispensing with Abbott in the party room, he declared to the country that his would be a “thoroughly liberal government… committed to freedom, the individual and the market” and that “[t]he Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.” He sought to place Australia within an enthusiastic global context, not entrench it within a nostalgic local one. “There’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian,” became his mantra.

Rather than simply being the embodiment of the disconnected Davos Man, Turnbull would prefer to model himself as the broader, more engaged, Monocle Man. Canadian journalist and publisher Tyler Brûle’s venture, Monocle Magazine, promotes the worldview of the hyper-aware cosmopolitan elite, focusing on culture, entrepreneurship, design, food and fashion, and how these all connect to an understanding of global affairs.

This confident liberalism, one of big picture ideas and entrepreneurial verve, is where Turnbull wished to take both the Liberal Party and the country, yet while leading a party weighed down by conservative MPs former Prime Minister Paul Keating has labelled “pre-Copernican” in both vision and action, he has found himself thoroughly stifled instead.

In an era where Australian prime ministers and party leaders are compelled to sleep with the light on due to an embedded culture of party coups, Turnbull does not have the internal party support to implement his vision for the country. The grand rhetoric and lofty goals of his initial days as prime minister (and his pre-prime ministerial fantasies), has devolved into the inane three word slogans and negative sniping that he declared he would avoid. The irony is that the more Turnbull has embraced the tactics of his predecessor, the more his reasoning for having replaced Abbott rings hollow. And more importantly for Turnbull, the more his approval ratings have sunk.

Despite the grand disappointment that now surrounds Turnbull, he somehow still maintains his underlying gravitas. The public are aware that much of Turnbull’s current rhetoric and policy prescriptions are simply part of the Faustian Pact he made to with the party’s conservative elements to secure the leadership of party. The electoral thrashing the conservative Coalition would have received had Abbott remained had prime minister has been averted, but this still doesn’t provide security for the current prime minister.

If Labor is able to make significant inroads into the Coalition’s 21-seat majority in the upcoming election, Turnbull will not be able to claim any great mandate from the public, and the mandate he currently has from his party will be tenuous.

It is here that Turnbull finds himself in a great bind. Viewed with great suspicion by his party’s conservative base, and deemed highly disappointing to the more moderate and progressive elements within the country, he has created an environment for himself where he simply lacks the room be the transformational prime minister he envisaged himself to be. Due to the current nature of the party system in Australia, his constituency is not the Australian public, but those in his party who acquiesce to his leadership.

This situation has led to political commentators fantasizing that had Turnbull been a member of the Labor Party, with its modern shift away from its socialist roots toward policies born of rational pragmatism rather than ideological commitment, he would have easily been able to convince the party of his cosmopolitan liberal vision. He would be free to lead the country into both the Digital Century and the Asian Century unencumbered.

Yet in an interview in 2012, when asked why he chose the Liberal Party as his preferred vehicle to propel himself into the country’s top job, he stated he believed “that the Liberal view of the role of government is to enable the citizen to do his or her best. Whereas [with] Labor on the other hand, deep in their DNA is a belief that government’s role is to determine what is best.”

Of course, this is a perspective born of a positive, consequentialist, classical liberal line of political thought, a view limited within the Liberal Party, or greatly hobbled by Fusionism at best. A similar line of paternalistic thought, which Turnbull identifies within Labor, runs deeply through conservatism. While the Labor Party may see both the educated middle class, and the union heavies, as holding “The Knowledge” to guide society, Australian conservatism still sees the Great White Father, and romanticized traditional institutions, as maintaining this function.

It is the tensions that have evolved from these conservative, traditionalist instincts rubbing up against the exponential change brought by modern free trade that has left conservative parties globally in a state of aggrieved confusion.

Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard believed that providing “points of anchorage” in the form of nationalism and traditional social structures would temper the anxiety brought about by these globalizing forces. Yet instead this strategy moved people in two different directions, restricting their ability to understand the changing modern world, and ramping up their grievances.

Since John Howard’s defeat in the 2007 election there has been no one within the Liberal Party with the authority to keep the party’s coalition of ideas from butting heads. This civil war within the party is a far greater phenomenon than just differing personalities or policy prescriptions; it is the struggle to maintain an outdated political alliance.

Due to this, the Liberal Party, despite a likely election victory, seems to be coming to the end of its useful life. With his great ambition, Turnbull could be the man to realize this and create a new political alliance more suited to, and capable of understanding, modern reality. In doing so he could potentially become the transformational prime minister he desires. Yet if he continues to ruin his credibility with poor judgement and a lack of courage, then this will become increasingly unlikely, and his legacy will be one of great disappointment instead.