Malcolm Turnbull’s accession to the prime ministership was greeted with a wave of euphoria, high expectations and even love. But was this because it was widely believed that Turnbull would really provide a sea change in Australia’s political direction, or was it just huge relief, from all sides of the political spectrum, that two years of gross incompetence, mendacity, inconsistency, confrontational politics, inhumane policies, and of a massively unpopular government, were finally over?
There is little doubt that since the change, Parliament is a happier workplace, and that people generally are more relaxed about politics. Turnbull has claimed he will foster discussion of issues rather than shouting those simple-minded three word slogans.
As he enthused to the Brisbane Club in an encouraging eight word slogan, “We’re creative, we’re innovative, and increasingly we think globally”. Yet he looks and sounds like a statesman, the sort of person one feels comfortable with having as prime minister.
On the other hand, he assured his extreme right wing that there would be no policy changes; that is, apart from abolishing dameships and knighthoods. In short, it looks like we are in for the same old nasty politics, if wrapped in a nice smile.
The cold-blooded Peter Dutton has not only been retained but his sadistic treatment of refugees, and especially the arguably criminal treatment of the pregnant and seriously traumatised Abyan, has been publicly supported by Turnbull.
He has also embraced Greg Hunt’s Direct Action climate policy, widely regarded by climate scientists as expensive and ineffective. This is especially surprising given Turnbull’s previous concern with climate change and his negotiating a bipartisan carbon pricing scheme. That cost him the leadership of the Liberal Party, as he might have realized, in which case his commitment to carbon pricing was admirable.
But if he really believed that Direct Action was as useless as he once said it was, how could he now embrace it with apparent enthusiasm? A leader of integrity would have retained his stance but then would work hard to bring his party along with him. Perhaps he will in due course but so far his evident hypocrisy is doing him damage.
Likewise he claims to be strongly supportive of same-sex marriage with Parliament as the best way of handling the matter, yet he adopted the strategy of a plebiscite – again to please the extreme right in his party. They, it seems so far, are calling the shots in the party, not the party leader.
So is Turnbull just a clever wordsmith, a man who plays with words to suit the occasion? At school he was champion debater, skilfully arguing whatever case was put before him; a skill he also put to use in his career as a barrister.
This bodes ill politically for us, because Turnbull’s debating skills can be highly persuasive. It seems that whatever his real feelings on a matter, he will argue the case that serves his current purpose best. Abbott was quite unable to communicate with either the electorate or the Senate, which was just as well because that led the Senate to reject his worst policies. But Turnbull insists that he is supporting those same policies, so with his communication skills he will be much more likely to get them passed in the Senate.
This is frightening for those who do not espouse radical neo-liberalism, which is the majority of Australians. On the other hand, in saying he would retain Abbott’s policies could simply be one of those arguments that secure him his immediate wish-list. Whichever way you look at it, Turnbull is either a hard line neo-liberal, or a liar. Not good, either way.
One view of Turnbull is that he is simply biding his time, as he did so effectively in ultimately wresting the leadership back from Abbott. Prior to the next election he will be safe enough from both the extreme right and from at least 60 per cent of the electorate. But after he has won the next election with his sleepy smile and soothing words, while retaining his predecessor’s hard right policies, he could be in a fix.
He could do what we expect him to do, which is to make fairer tax and welfare systems. This would infuriate the corporate lobbyists and the hard men on the right of the party. Election won, those hardliners could dislodge him from the party leadership, and there are rumblings to that effect already, to be replaced by … ?
My skin crawls as I think of the possibilities. But would even the diehard right wingers in the Liberal Party be so silly as to emulate Labor in swapping leaders so soon after an election? To avoid that, Turnbull could continue to appease the right but doing so would betray those who expected better things from him.
There is even speculation that Turnbull may be another Rudd: all talk, little action beyond symbolic nods in popular directions and impulsive lurches without thinking things through – think Godwin Grech, for example (The Monthly November, 2015). Even worse for the Liberals, by the time of the following election Labor might – against the odds it must be said – find a leader of prime ministerial quality and policies that appeal to the electorate.
Whatever the final outcome, the future looks not quite as reassuring as our first joyful reaction to the departure of the embarrassingly incompetent Abbott.
So what next?
Despite recent assurances, Shorten has provided no evidence that Labor will provide clear alternatives come the next election. He is certain to lose. The sensible thing would be for the Labor Party to accept that, depose Shorten after the election (the usual thing after a lost election) and not before (Labor at it again). The hard part then would be to search for a convincing leader and some policies that aren’t Liberal-lite.
Since Kim Beasley’s leadership, who John Howard rightly condemned as lacking the ticker, the Labor Party has turned itself into corkscrews with a right hand thread. In fear of being wedged, and against most Labor Party principles, the ALP is in lockstep with the Liberals on anything to do with security, such as Control Orders on youngsters suspected of being potential terrorists, wars that are none of our business but that the US has decided to embark upon for their own paranoid or grandiose reasons, retaining metadata on the whole population; on asylum seeker policy and all the cruelties and flouting of international law thereby involved; on neo-liberalism itself, which admittedly was first taken on board by Hawke and Keating and which the Liberals now go the whole hog in legislating to optimise corporate profit, implanting regressive tax policies, and as we now know, agreeing to free trade agreements that benefit the corporate world and not the general populace.
Even the way politics is played are now common to both parties, such as factionalism and forcing politicians to vote the way they are told by the party heavies (although these were pinched from Labor by the Liberals). Labor policies may be softer than Liberal, but the general direction is the same. As Alfred L.C. van Amelsvoort wrote:
I believe, if you put the majority of Liberal, Labor and Nationals together, ignore the rhetoric and look at the policies, we have a one-party “consensus” with little choice for the voter. The dominant political parties are owned, operated and controlled by the Corporate-Industrial Complex and thus the political leaders. (“Australia’s democracy: A one-party consensus.” Independent Australia, 5 November 2015).
Given that commonality, any distinction between parties is based on personalities. The question the electorate asks, egged on by the press, is: “Who would make the better prime minister?” They do not ask: “What party has the better policies?” for that is now an empty question. The most important policies, except possibly those on climate change, favour corporate Australia over ordinary people. It means that all people who disagree with neo-liberal policy – and they are a large majority – are disenfranchised. We have been sidelined by that corporate-industrial complex and their stooges, who are our political leaders.
We should be extremely angry about that.
For the two-party system to work, Labor must form a genuine opposition offering important alternatives to the Liberals. Possibly Jeremy Corbyn-style, possibly something different again, but first they would have to find a leader of prime ministerial material who can rise above factional and union ties. I can think of few possibilities…
Penny Wong has been hiding her talents or, like Maxine McKew, she hasn’t been allowed to display them; Tania Plibersek initially impressed with her fervour and humanity, but today she is rather more centrist. Once good people get into Parliament a process of institutionalising seems to occur, of which the individual concerned may be unaware.
Many politicians, especially on the Labor side, enter Parliament no doubt with the highest ideals but most morph into cogs in the party machine. They are forced to. Politicians should be allowed to express views that differ from party ruling, to even cross the floor, but to do so means political suicide. Enforced solidarity kills initiative, creativity and political imagination, which is what we sorely need right now.
Another insidious process is party pre-selection of political candidates. One of the few Labor politicians who is currently doing a superb job is Lisa Singh. She was recently dumped from first place in the Senate ticket to the unwinnable fourth place. The reasons for that may be imagined – female, highly competent, unaligned left, full of initiative – but surely not what ALP State Secretary Dowling commented, “At the end of the day, you have to respect the democratic processes that the party has in place.”
Usually when a political statement begins “at the end of the day … ” crap follows, as here.
Thoughtful voters will vote Singh Number One, Green and independent candidate for the rest. Not that pre-selection scandals are the prerogative of the Labor Party. Joe Hockey’s replacement for the seat of North Sydney was a factional deal, which resulted in the fast-tracked selection of Trent Zimmerman – hence the heckling PM Turnbull received at a Liberal meeting when he unwisely remarked that the Liberal Party has no factions.
Preselection of candidates is undemocratic. We are forced to vote for the candidates that have been preselected for us, not for the candidate we think might best represent us. This is the Chinese style of elections. The people of Hong Kong vote for candidates selected by Beijing, all of whom are of course pro-China and will behave as Beijing dictates.
Western countries rightly decry this, but many do exactly the same thing. Thus, any Labor or Liberal candidate who steps outside the bounds dictated by the party will suffer. Politicians on both sides are told in effect: “This is the way you will vote and if you don’t you will be expelled from the party.” That effectively makes backbenchers redundant, so that if all backbenchers were sacked it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to parliamentary outcomes. Just think of the money that would save! At present we have government by oligarchy at the cost of government by democracy.
A two-party Westminster system only works where the parties offer genuine alternatives for the public to vote on, and where there are no minor parties. But today in some electorates, the Greens and some independents garner more votes than one or other of the two major parties. By definition then we don’t have a two-party reality, yet we retain a Procrustean two-party structure.
Labor and Liberals alike do their utmost to preserve this structure, as for example in their cynical voting-above-the-line strategy for Senate elections, or having to do deals in forming a hung parliament. The last is wrongly sold to us as a disaster, but what it does is to force discussion and negotiation about issues, and naturally they are more thoughtfully voted on.
In fact the hung Parliament under Gillard was more effective in passing more progressive bills than most parliaments since Federation. And Abbott’s large majority government achieved little or nothing positive.
Two-party systems are comparatively rare in Europe. In Holland for example there are about 30 parties, with roughly nine represented in parliament at any given time. This means that parties discuss, negotiate and vote on issues rather than along party lines. This surely results in more effective and representative legislation.
A further consequence is that the influence of the corporate-industrial complex is greatly lessened. Corruption must decrease as the number of parties involved in decision-making increases. Surveys consistently show that trust in government and the general well-being of people are far higher in Holland and in similar power-sharing governments in Scandinavia than in Australia. That’s worth thinking about.
It is therefore encouraging to see that many people (but not enough) are recognising that the two-party system is not delivering for Australians: ironically, we can thank Tony Abbott and his grisly team for much of that. Thus we see Independents like Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon maintaining their faith with the electorate while the electorate in turn retains their faith in them.
Indeed Xenophon (and his own party) will be a game changer in South Australia. The Greens too are again on the rise, and more irony, the attempt by the rogue right to corrupt Senate preferences surprisingly resulted in some effective representation even if I personally don’t agree with many of the things some of them support.
The important thing is that they stood up to Abbott’s bullying and as being of us, so to speak, they wouldn’t stand for blatant unfairness, and their voices are authentic. So refreshing after the piped verbal muzak that the party hacks relay from their respective party headquarters.
What next? The future is unclear. There are signs of instability in both Liberal and Labor parties, but the voices outside those traditional sources of political power are becoming louder. And may they increasingly do so.
*John Biggs is a retired academic who now writes fiction (Black Dog to be launched at Hobart Bookshop 19th November: TT HERE ). He turns to non-fiction when angry, and when the cause of his righteous anger is political he gives heartfelt thanks to Linz for Tasmanian Times.