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Malcolm Turnbull talks to his Monthly mate

21 April 2012

11:00 AM

21 April 2012

11:00 AM

He is the darling of the urban sophisticates, a passionate advocate of green causes, ambivalent about media regulation and he won’t allow anyone to mention Tony Abbott’s name – at least not during his interview with Robert Manne.

What on earth is Malcolm Turnbull still doing in the Liberal Party?

Manne’s gushing cover profile piece in the current issue of the Monthly helps explain why so many Liberals and conservatives can’t stomach the Member for Wentworth, sometimes nicknamed in Liberal circles ‘Malcolm Turncoat’. It starts with the extraordinary stipulation that Tony Abbott would not be discussed. In normal circumstances, a senior member of the Opposition, loyal to his leader, would seize upon any opportunity to promote that leader, especially with an election not too far away. Like Sherlock Holmes’s dog that did not bark, this is highly significant. Toten schweigen?

The Liberal party is the custodian of the centre-right tradition in Australian politics, yet we have a former Liberal leader who is a hero to people who are as unlikely ever to vote for the party of Menzies and Howard as Speccie readers subscribing to Meanjin.

The Opposition under Abbott stands far higher in the opinion polls than it ever did under Turnbull. These days, the two-party preferred average poll is about Coalition 56 Labor 44. When Turnbull was leader in 2009, the result was the same – in reverse! Manne claims ‘a conservative rebellion robbed Turnbull of his leadership’, as though it was a personal possession. In reality, the Liberal party under Turnbull was heading down the gurgler, thanks in no small part to its leader’s stupid support for higher energy costs, the very issue that has been a political godsend for the Coalition ever since Abbott’s elevation to the leadership coincided with the Copenhagen fiasco. (The less said about the Godwin Grech debacle the better.)

Throughout the Monthly interview, Abbott is the unspoken elephant in the room. Almost everything Turnbull says can be taken as being by implication an attack on his leader. Manne reveals later that he has heard Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz are known in Turnbull’s office as ‘the DLP’, the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party that the arch-Catholic Bob Santamaria formed at the height of the Cold War. If true, it is not intended as a compliment.

Labor’s strategy is to target Abbott personally, and it has mobilised its most reliable Praetorians in the media and associated penumbra to this end. This is a time when a loyal supporter should fly his flag without equivocation. Manne, whose hostility to Abbott is undisguised, plainly sees Turnbull as the man with the capacity to move the Liberal party, without Abbott, in a desirable leftward direction. Never mind that such a stance, as public opinion polls show, is out of touch with Middle Australia.

Turnbull’s claim that Australia needs a Sovereign Wealth Fund – a socialist device to tell private enterprise it does not know how to invest – indicates a perhaps surprising economic primitivism and a belief in government control of investment. It is reminiscent of the crude state-sponsored economic nationalism of some of Gough Whitlam’s goofier ministers, or John McEwen’s quasi-corporatism, and sits very oddly with Turnbull’s small-government rhetoric and attacks on socialism. The only place the wealth for the Sovereign Wealth Fund could come from would be taxation, as if Australia hasn’t a big enough public debt already. In fact, Turnbull has stipulated raising it by a new mining tax, on top of the carbon tax, which of course he fervently supports. What all this will do to the mining sector’s international competitiveness is another matter.

Manne claims Turnbull is a ‘small-l’ liberal in the now allegedly threatened tradition ‘stretching from Alfred Deakin to Malcolm Fraser’. Deakin was the architect of protectionism, which, taken to its logical conclusion, meant state control of trade, industry, agriculture and in fact the whole economy. Fraser failed to undertake overdue and necessary reforms in the direction of economic liberalisation.

Turnbull’s high-profile leadership of the Republican movement caused deep emotional divisions in the Liberal party. Howard managed to paper over them brilliantly, but they remain long-lasting and quite unnecessary wounds. High-profile republicanism also showed a political gift for picking losers. While Turnbull claimed with unbalanced hyperbole that John Howard had ‘broken the nation’s heart’ (by not campaigning against himself?), Australia’s heart remained stubbornly unbroken.

Again, the Finkelstein report on media control, pushed by Labor and the Greens, which any civil libertarian should have condemned without more ado, brought an ambiguous reaction from Turnbull, the Liberal party’s media spokesman, who stated: ‘It has been said that the legal arrangements at present [that is, defamation laws against a background of ordinary freedom of speech] do not adequately advance the public interest.’ Said by whom? And inadequate how?

Despite Turnbull’s refusal to discuss Abbott, most of the article is a dog-whistle attack on the Liberal leader, his allies and his policies. Manne claims that Turnbull alone, ‘almost miraculously’ seemed ‘entirely unaffected’ by former Prime Minister John Howard’s alleged suggestion that Muslims who did not wish to follow Australian laws should leave the country, part of Howard and Abbott’s alleged moving of the Liberal party rightwards. If this interview is an attempt to boost Turnbull’s popular standing at Abbott’s expense, broadcasting this allegation seems an odd way of going about it.

Similarly, according to Manne, ‘there can hardly be a member of the federal Parliament who is a greater enthusiast for multiculturalism in its celebratory dimension than Malcolm Turnbull.’ Multiculturalism, since 9/11, has been increasingly unpopular as an ideology. Men of the calibre of Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, (and even Turnbull’s friend, David Cameron) have forthrightly denounced it. In the article, the many and reasoned critiques of multiculturalism, like those of allegedly human-caused global warming, are simply dismissed. And Manne tells us that Malcolm Fraser, possibly the least respected figure on both sides of Australian federal politics, regards Turnbull’s defeat ‘at the hands of the party’s conservatives’ as a ‘bitter blow.’ (If this came from another source one would see it as an attempt to do Turnbull in.)

We are told Fraser’s policies during the seven wasted years were merely unfashionable, rather than wrong. In fact the dries such as Bert Kelly and his heirs and some of the think-tanks such as the
Institute for Public Affairs had been beating their heads against a stone wall for years trying to galvanise the Fraser Government into economic reform. Incidentally, Turnbull in this article appears to give more praise
to Fraser and even Paul Keating than he does to the second longest serving Prime Minister John Howard, whom he served as a cabinet minister.

The upshot of the Monthly article is that Turnbull, egged on by Manne, is hoping to lead a Liberal party in which he can repeat the Cameroons’ failed tactic in Britain of wrenching the Coalition not just to the centre but in some ways to the left of Labour. It’s a fair bet the Australian Coalition won’t make the same mistake here.

Hal G.P. Colebatch is writing a biography of the ‘Modest Member’ and anti-tariff campaigner, Bert Kelly.

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