Most people with views on politics, who are not motivated solely by self-interest, believe some political values are more important, and some interpretations of them are more plausible or compelling, than others. On controversial issues they defend their opinions by arguing from a sense of what these values require.

Politicians are no different. If asked about their political philosophy they speak of core concerns – of policies, practices, laws or institutions they wish to improve or defend or get rid of. If pressed they justify these opinions by appealing to the more abstract values they see themselves as sharing with the community – values such as freedom, justice, honesty, fairness, general welfare and human dignity.

Coherence is all-important because, when politicians use these standards consistently, treating like cases alike, they maximize the degree to which all citizens are treated with equal respect and concern.

Skeptics say this is naïve. Such arguments, they say, must be rhetorical, because abstract standards are too ‘spongy’ to decide concrete cases – it all depends on who interprets them. This leads cynics to suggest that many, perhaps most people, interpret them to further their own or party or class interests, and there is some truth in this. There are also questions of genesis and authority – where do these commonplace values ‘come from’ and why are they important?

Despite these critics most politicians treat the above values as important and cite them as ‘principles’. They cite them in parliamentary debates, in public addresses and in after-dinner speeches. They do so knowing their opponents will often appeal to the same principles but differ as to which are more important or because they disagree on what they mean in the disputed cases.

This is, in the main, how political parties are distinguished – Liberals see themselves as defending freedom and personal responsibility, while Labor sees itself as the agent of fairness and social justice.

Despite this division, no one seriously argues that those on the left don’t value freedom and dignity or those on the right have no concern for fairness. But in practice each highlights the moral cost of those policies which implement the other’s aims.

In terms of his political philosophy the Prime Minister is something of an enigma, but he seems more aware of the artificial nature of this divide then most politicians and journalists. Unlike Abbott’s ‘Battlelines’, there is no sense of a crusade to protect the nation from parties with a different sense of values. In Turnbull’s words ‘everything is on the table’, suggesting it is time to review traditional fault lines. But there are already signs of a challenge to Labor as the party of social justice, as well as a willingness to confront Liberal archaisms.

Two matters in particular stand out.

The first is his challenge to conservatism as a meaningful political principle in an economy which depends on innovation, imaginative thinking and a willingness to embrace change. The second is his concern (astonishing by any measure) to find a place in the party for principles of fairness and the social welfare policies they argue for. Both are long overdue. This is the kind of thinking needed to end a polarisation which feeds on itself and which has in recent years degraded politics, and led observers across the spectrum to warn against going down the American path.

So much seems clear from the Prime Minister’s remarks on the difference between his approach and that of Tony Abbott, in a remarkable ABC interview with Leigh Sales on 21st September. These are the views, perhaps years in the making, of a gifted lawyer, whose life at the bar was a daily reminder that intelligent and civilized colleagues may differ strongly on issues of legal principle and still remain friends.

They are also the views of an ambitious man who lost the party leadership by one vote in December, 2009 after risking his political career when he split the Liberal party to support Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme. They are also the views of a true believer; there was no vagueness, no long silences, no dissembling, no equivocation.

After a brief homage to the primacy of freedom – to ‘ensuring Australians are free to choose their own directions’ he speaks of ‘some very key priorities …. One of them … is we have to ensure we remain a high-wage, first-world, generous social welfare net economy and that requires strong economic growth …. we need to be competitive, we need to be productive, we need to above all to be more innovative.’

Three weeks later he used the same language when announcing the appointment of the new Chief Scientist, Dr. Alan Finkel,

‘If we are to remain a high-wage, generous social welfare net economy in the years to come, if we are to remain prosperous, seizing the enormous opportunities that are available to Australians, now more than ever, we need to be more innovative, more technologically sophisticated, more scientifically alert….’

We should not forget that this concern for a high-wage, social welfare economy as a key priority (not just a consequential benefit to help fund a social ‘safety net’) is anathema to traditional Liberal thinking, but Turnbull has a confession, suggesting an epithany of sorts.

…. the truth is I have been extraordinarily lucky. I have had to struggle … I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth …. But, you know, the reality is that even if you’re born with brains … with a higher-than-average intelligence, that is as – in a sense, as undeserved as somebody who inherits a billion dollars.’

He relates an anecdote from his time as partner with US merchant banker Goldman Sachs, where ‘everyone was earning very big money, the chairman, the chief executive … said, you know, “We’re doing well. We’re making lots of money ’cause we work hard and we deserve it.” And I said to him afterwards, just quietly, I said, “You know, there are taxi drivers in this city that work much longer hours than anyone does here and they don’t earn very much at all.” So, the truth is, we don’t really deserve our good fortune.’

The importance of this is blurred by the fact that Turnbull, like many highly successful businessmen, has a strong personal commitment to charity and philanthropy. But this supports his sense that social justice is a key political value – it does not substitute for it, as it does for those Liberals who cite conservative principles to ignore reforms required by humanity and fairness.

He is in good company, both in the old world and the new.

Lloyd George, the Welsh lad who, from a family of modest means, became Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of a wartime coalition, was one of the truly great British Prime Ministers, and a mentor to Winston Churchill.

He helped found the ‘new’ Liberal Party to better counter the self-serving conservatism of Tories, who he called ‘the Dukes’, and proceeded to lay the foundations of the modern welfare state. He saw intuitively what conservative liberals are loath to – that if freedom is a prime value its benefits must be open to all, not just those with wealth, talent, social status or political influence.

Likewise Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, now a household name in US politics. In a polarised political world she defends the same inclusive logic: if the freedom to choose one’s path in life is important, then a government which respects citizens has a duty to minimise the role of unchosen factors, such as poverty, disability, unemployment and bad health, which deprive so many of the opportunity to share it.

Warren, who has a gift for putting philosophical ideas in simple and forceful language, challenges the same right-wing arguments of moral desert. In responding to a charge that asking the rich to pay more taxes was inciting ‘class warfare,’ ‘There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. … You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.’

One feels Turnbull, if pressed, would agree and that this must, sooner or later, raise a more fundamental question: if the ability to accumulate wealth depends on everyone else doing what they can, on what grounds can we justify ignoring those who, through no fault of their own, can do little or nothing? On what basis can we say they are less worthy, or their needs are less relevant? Robert Manne, in a thoughtful essay in the April 2012 Monthly, comments, ‘According to my trope of Turnbull as the last true Deakinite Liberal, in them only one great theme is conspicuously missing – social policy. Turnbull strongly supports the Productivity Commission-endorsed disability insurance scheme. Yet, perhaps because he is an economic liberal and not a social democrat, he has not put his mind to other potentially very costly but also vital extensions of the Australian welfare state: the scandalous neglect of the mentally ill and their families, for example, or the dental health of those very many Australians of limited financial means.’

But Turnbull will write his own script, and is more likely to address such needs than doctrinaire colleagues who see these issues through an ideological lens. And if it is true – as suggested above – that a political theory is an attempt to give coherence to an interpretation of shared values, it is also relevant that his actions suggest an intuitive sense that this must be an ongoing exercise, calling for reflection, imagination, empirical evidence and public debate; an ideology, by contrast, is an interpretation of ideals set in concrete, defined by past opinions which still hold sway.

This is the conservatism Turnbull challenges when he calls for imaginative thinking and judging issues on their merits. It means going back to first principles to reassess yesterday’s opinions, including those held by Abbott and Howard and Hockey and Abetz on issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, republicanism, the economy, a fair tax system, foreign policy, national health, education, violence against women and many others.

Turnbull is not a saint. He is, in fact, an easy target for obvious reasons, not excluding his current celebrity. Annabell Crabb’s 2009 Quarterly Essay is full of insights into his personality and character, not all endearing. One might say the same of Churchill, Lloyd George, Whitlam, Keating and other leaders who have done great things. What counts, however, are his ideas and his sense of values, and what they might mean for the quality of political debate – and ultimately the quality of life – in Australia and perhaps beyond.

This is very early days, and we are reminded daily that Turnbull has a fractious and still unreliable power base, that he has had to accept Abbott legacy policies he would rather not and that exceptional ability, confidence and vision are no substitute for party numbers.

But good journalists – at least those not easily seduced by a fashion for scepticism, who think values mean something – will also focus on his ideas, and contribute to the debates they give rise to.

*Max Atkinson is a former teacher at the University of Tasmania Law School with interests in legal theory and and international law. His collected writing is group under the Cetegory, Max Atkinson, HERE

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