Is Turnbull a politician? – an update

Wednesday, 10 February 2010 

To watch Turnbull give his speech for the ETS two days ago was to be reminded of a few things. First, unlike many on the current Coalition front bench, he can actually string a few sentences together to make an argument. His subtle knifing of Abbott’s climate change plan as basically a slush fund to buy off polluters was, as widely noted, more damning and to the point than what the government has achieved over the last few days.

But that coherence was also because Turnbull was doing what used to be a straightforward thing for a Liberal, simply articulating what big business wants. They want certainty, something roughly in line with current international practice and all dressed up with a nod to the ‘market’ to disguise all the industry subsidies the ETS actually entails.

The problem for the Liberals, of course, is that what big business wants is pretty well what the Labor government is giving them, and so for a party that was supposed to be all about popularising big business interests, there is nothing left to do. So we have Abbott and the search for conservative values and an audience to pin it on. Yet if Turnbull was regarded as an ‘experiment’ by senior Liberals, then Abbott’s playing around with anti-politics sentiment is really mixing the explosives in the lab.

Joyce is only the most immediate sign of how dangerous this anti-politics strategy can be for an establishment party like the Liberals. With the economic debate having hollowed out, the Liberals’ lead in economic management is merely giving credit for them being the party of business, and therefore the ‘economy’. This is essentially what is giving them a lead even when, as during the GFC bail-out, they were on the unpopular side of the economic debate. The more they pursue this anti-politics strategy, however, the less this identity of the Liberals becomes true. If Howard or Costello were still around and such a comment came from the Labor side, you could imagine them barely blinking before telling us all how much such public doubts about Australia’s sovereign debt was actually costing the tax player and business in higher interest. But such acumen is lacking from a government still in a bit of a post-Copenhagen funk.

It is this potential detachment of Abbott’s Liberals from big business interests that allows Turnbull a possible way back in. Rather than necessarily having the broadest appeal to the ‘middle ground’, Turnbull’s real potential advantage is being able to articulate what the Liberals’ true core supporters (big business) actually want at a point when their interests diverge from the government. This would seem a far more viable strategy in the longer term than Abbott running around trying to make a whole new core audience out of nothing but some values that neither he nor Joyce can say out loud without causing trouble.

For now, while the right goes through its ‘re-birthing’, or whatever it is, that will mean a certain detachment from the party for Turnbull. This was again on display on Monday. There was some fretting in the press about how Turnbull will bear to be so isolated from the party by betraying it and crossing the floor on his own. Turnbull would no doubt say it is small beer compared to splitting a front bench over a deal that had already been agreed. But just as it was widely seen as likely Turnbull would step down after the conservatives walk-out in November, it mis-reads his position. It is less a position of bravery than a detachment and lack of reliance on the party he is in.

In some ways, Turnbull’s detachment from the Liberals resembles Rudd’s from the ALP. The difference is that whereas Rudd generally knows how to use that detachment from the political process to his advantage, Turnbull has often been in awe of it. Whereas Rudd can at times tap into and use anti-politics sentiment, Turnbull seems almost oblivious to it.

Turnbull’s blindness to this basic and powerful fact of Australian political life was fully on display during the republican referendum when Howard turned a republican electorate against him by campaigning against a ‘politician’s republic’. Turnbull also underestimated the power of it when his opponents tapped it into it last December in the guise of climate change scepticism. Even on Monday, there was no real sense that Turnbull had realised what had happened in November and why the political climate had changed since Copenhagen. Yet without a Liberal party nominally able to support him, Turnbull will inevitably have to discover it to remain politically viable. If he did, then from where things stand now, there seems a possibility of reconstituting something recognisable as an Australian political right.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 10 February 2010.

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4 responses to “Is Turnbull a politician? – an update”

  1. shal on 10th February 2010 8:54 am

    Think you’re a little harsh on the govt’s response to Barnaby’s gaffe. Tanner nailed him and the rest lined up to have their go. and i think the govt allowed the finance industry to also have their go at pointing out the irresponsibility of Joyce’s thinking (if that’s the right term) out loud

  2. James on 10th February 2010 11:28 am

    I think Abbott’s Coalition is very much looking like a right-wing Australian political outfit. Joyce seems to have taken on the role of appealing to the One National mentality with his ignorant economic comments, while Abbott is appealing to rednecks who vote Lib or Nat. This approach seems to have conservative ALP seats in Queensland and NSW in mind, as they are the seats that enabled Rudd to form a government. It’s a risky approach for the Coalition, as their irresponsible economic flakiness could cost them some wafer thin marginals in the cities. Meanwhile, Abbott’s “yes we can” mantra seems primarily aimed boosting his back bench’s moral and intimidating the Libs’ wets into submission to tow the party line.

  3. Nick on 10th February 2010 3:33 pm

    How do you suggest Turnbull would tap into this anti politics if he got it ?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 10th February 2010 6:54 pm

    I think in a way that Turnbull is starting to do it already by by-passing traditional political forums to get his message across and using the new media like his blog, twitter etc. to be a sort of über backbencher. Even compared to Rudd there is no one using the alternative media channels with such intent.

    He will also tap into this anti-politics sentiment a bit when he crosses the floor, which the media may seem as terribly brave and principled but for many people, voting for what you agree with, makes common sense. It will certainly highlight others like Hunt etc. who will be voting for what they don’t agree with out of ‘loyalty’. Loyalty to what? Their careers?

    The fact that Abbott allowed the cameras in to see that pathetic “yes we can” moment just shows how much he confuses internal and external politics.

    On the government’s reaction to Barnaby’s comments, I agree they have gone in hard, but not so much in the right direction. By calling him ‘irresponsible’, I think they are not fully crediting what Joyce is trying to do.

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