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The death of Malcolm’s idealism, if any such thing ever truly existed

In 2012, Malcolm Turnbull delivered the George Winterton Lecture at the University of Western Australia, in which, coincidentally enough, he discussed the importance of truth, particularly in the climate change debate, and how the demise of journalism and the deplorable behaviour in question time are instrumental in damaging both the public’s trust and their ability to make informed decisions. The following is an extract from that speech.

Republican virtues: Truth, leadership and responsibility.

“Politicians and shock jocks, scientists and coal barons, all of them can argue for as long as they like, but they cannot change physical reality.

The reason our planet is not a frozen chunk of ice is heat trapped by greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Increasing the amount of those gases will necessarily over time cause the earth to warm.

I won’t linger on climate change – the hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan nature of the debate is too well known to rehearse. But there was irony aplenty in Tampa last week when the first day of the Republican Convention was cancelled because of a cyclone, even as the extent of Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest area since satellite measurements began and the worst American drought in more than 50 years sent corn and wheat prices soaring.

How often do we hear Australian politicians discuss these challenges in a genuinely open, honest, spin-free and non-adversarial way? Where the intention is to clearly explain the problem, accept responsibility for past misteps if appropriate (rather than apportion as much blame as possible to the other side), allow a non-ideological discussion of possible remedies, and see if there is any common ground for bipartisan work?

Seldom, and even more rarely if a camera is rolling.

Most Australians believe we need an honest, informed policy debate. Yet I don’t see many people who believe we have that. Instead, we all hear again and again that Australians are ashamed of the parliament, that they see it as nothing more than a forum for abuse, catcalling and spin.

There are reasons for this view. Question Time, Parliament’s most visible ritual, is one. If you love your country, have an interest in politics or policy, and care deeply about our nation’s future, there is nothing more certain to arouse your fury and invite your contempt than listening to an entire House of Representatives Question Time.

Normally this is doubly the case if the party you favour is in opposition; Governments tend to wield the advantages they have in Question Time with the subtlety that Trotsky’s assasin wielded his ice pick. There is a reason it is called Question Time and not Answer Time.

The journalists of Australia, the media, play as important a role in our democracy as any elected representative. But their numbers are dwindling fast and the media’s capacity to report on, let alone hold to account, governments and oppositions is diminishing.

As they endeavour to make do with fewer resources, newspapers and other media as well resort to more and more commentary and opinion. An opinionated columnist costs less than a team of news reporters. It is so much easier to put one slanted opinion up against another than to investigate and objectively report on the facts of the matter.

Increasingly too the journalists who cover politics are drawn into the game – often praising politicians for their skilful use of spin, their cunning ability to avoid a difficult question or their brutal ability to misrepresent and destroy their opponent’s arguments. Commenting on the play takes a lot less time than painstakingly pointing out where the spin has misrepresented an issue.

In my view, all of this requires politicians to be especially careful to remember our responsibility to explain the big issues of our time. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent’s policy does not respect “Struggle Street”, it treats its residents with contempt.

Call me idealistic if you like, but we have a greater need than ever for informed and honest debate and, yet, with the decline of journalism less means to deliver it and hold to account those who seek to frustrate it.

So what can be done? Well for a start all of us can consciously do a better job at explaining issues. Shouldn’t one key benchmark for politicians be: have we made an issue clearer and the complex comprehensible? We all want “cut through” messages- how about cutting through with clarity, rather than with spin?

And while newspapers are shrinking think tanks seem to be expanding – wouldn’t it be great if some of those public intellects actually held politicians like me to account, pointing out where we had exaggerated or misled. Public fact checking would raise the quality of debate.

In this environment our public broadcasters have an even heavier responsibility to be objective, balanced and comprehensive in their news coverage – it may not be long before the largest employer of journalists in Australia is our ABC.

The ABC enjoys a very high level of trust in the Australian community – much higher than in politicians or bishops I saw recently -and as the rest of the news media decline, they will have to work harder and harder to retain it.

But let us return to Question Time.

In our Parliament every sitting day has a question time in which most of the questions are asked of the Prime Minister. For the last two years the questions from the Opposition have been almost entirely focussed on people smuggling and the carbon tax.

Are they really the only important issues facing Australia? A regular viewer of Question Time would be excused for thinking they were.

In Britain’s House of Commons the Prime Minister takes questions for half an hour every Wednesday but on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday question time deals, by turn, with one of the other departments.

If we were to do that, or some variant thereof Question Time might actually serve to hold the whole of the Government to account and enlighten the public as to what is going on in all those other departments that are not concerned with carbon tax and people smuggling.

Now I don’t have any silver bullet to make us politicians more accurate or more likely to keep our promises.

But we can make it easier to earn and keep the people’s trust. We should be much more careful about raising false expectations – whether on what we can do or what our opponents will do.

And we can waste less time on tedious “gotcha” moments when an opponent’s phrase is taken out of context and used utterly to misrepresent his position.

In case you think my call for a change of attitude and practice to truth in politics is just idealism – let me make a practical political point. It seems to me that we don’t simply have a financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust. We can argue for hours which side and which politicians, which journalists indeed, have contributed most to it. But it affects all of us and all of our institutions. The politicians and parties that can demonstrate they can be trusted, that they will not insult the people with weasel words and spin, that they will not promise more than they can deliver, that they will not dishonestly misrepresent either their own or their opponents’ policies – those politicians and parties will, I submit to you, deserve and receive electoral success.”

Would that it were so Malcolm but, as you have so pointedly demonstrated, the temptations of the dark side are even too great for the man who “looks billionaires in the eye” to resist.

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19 comments

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  1. Rossleigh

    Surely, by now, everyone must realise that “Malcolm’s idealism” is like Santa Claus. It was nice to believe in when we were younger, but with the experience of age we realise it was just some man dressed up in a suit who was doing it for the money.
    Actually, in Malcolm’s case he paid $1.75 million to stay PM so I guess it’s more like that guy who does it because he likes to be the centre of attention!

  2. helvityni

    How can something die that has never existed…

    I stopped believing in God when at age of five I found that the teacher at the Sunday school was the meanest person in the village.

    I stopped believing in Santa when I realised that he was wearing my Dad’s boots ( who was supposed be at the stalls, feeding the horses)

    I did not know Malcolm well, but HOPED he would be an improvement on Abbott. Well he wasn’t…

    Now I detest him even more than I do Tones.

  3. Henry Rodrigues

    Thanks Kaye. Another piece of pure waffle illustrating that this dunderhead really doesn’t believe in anything, but likes to ventilate because it makes him sound and feel he is ‘above the rest’. This unmitigated disaster, dodgy businessman, suckup artist and ultimately failed prime minister will be remembered more for his cowardice and hypocrisy than for all his histrionics shouting and bellowing inanities in parliament. If he has or ever had, any balls, he’d call an election, sooner rather than later.

  4. helvityni

    …I think it ought to read ‘stables ‘not ‘stalls’ (stall is actually Dutch for stable) 🙂

  5. roma guerin

    Thanks for digging up that speech Kaye. It is a bit of a shock to read that our present PM was once a sensible human being who actually understood other human beings. How are the mighty fallen.

  6. Darrell

    Quite obviously Malcolm never truly believed this, just a rehearsed line to get his shiny arse on the big seat.
    And whilst I’m at it, “Now I don’t have any silver bullet to make us politicians more accurate or more likely to keep our promises.” what a novel idea. Maybe we should shoot a few politicians and that may bring them into line (metaphorically speaking of course, I’m a pacifist, but you get the idea.)

  7. billshaw2013

    I was a small Turnbull fan in his very early days and thought he would become a respected politician. My judgement was quite poor in this as he has not delivered what he knows is right as per his George Winterton lecture. Someone who doesn’t know better the morals and ethics of politics (hello Tony Abbott) can nearly be excused. One who betrays his own morals is to be condemned.
    As a side issue…helvityni. I thought a set of stalls made a stable?

  8. helvityni

    Maybe so billshaw, but the word I wanted to use was ‘stable’ , just realised that the Finnish word for ‘stable’ is ‘talli’…

    And as usual many words lead to Latin… Too hot and bothered to check.

  9. Jaquix

    Turnbull has squandered any trust voters had in him, and he lies and obfuscates on a daily basis. This week he also trashed Question Time by not answering legitimate, pertinent questions put to him. When he ranted and raved about a certain person being a hypocrite, a fake, and a social climber who puts his knees under the tables of billionaires, he was as Bill Shorten said “looking in the mirror”. Could be regretting giving away nearly 2 million dollars to save his job, only to find himself on very shaky ground indeed.

  10. guest

    The Murdoch press is getting quite excited, what with Trump playing the part of a dangerous lunatic and Turnbull having a poor little rich boy tantrum.

    Paul Kelly’s headline today: “At last, Malcolm finds his missing mojo.”

    Now a “mojo” is apparently a magic bag used in voodoo to cast spells. It also has a slang meaning for libido. What have we been watching? Was this the “real” Turnbull? Hardly very elegant, edifying or endearing.

    When Turnbull claimed Shorten was a “parasite” for wanting to live in a Harbourside mansion paid for by the public, I thought of Howard who lived in one and rewarded the public with pork-barreling. And then there was all that money spent on renovation…

    As for “social climbing sycophant”, I thought of someone hanging out with Packer in early days.

    Then Dennis Shanahan’s heading says: “Turnbull was a failure at the top, until this week.” Which forgets about Bernardi’s resignation. All Turnbull has to do now is “keep pressure on the opposition, backed by policy.” Oh, is that all? Still no policy, but a hissy fit makes all the difference. Suddenly, the failure is forgiven. Can we expect more of the “mojo”?

    Trouble is, as Kaye’s post tells us, Malcolm can walk both sides of the street and chew gum at the same time. He can argue the case on both sides of any argument. He is an expert on so many matters, such as climate change , energy generation and tin can communication.

    So, in SA the big problem is the Labor government. It should take more control of the generation of electricity and not allow the system be controlled by a regulator. It should have coal-fired power generators, which would be able to deliver power even when 22 power line towers are blown down in high winds. (I am not sure he actually said that, but it fits the symbolic introduction of a lump of coal into Parliament.)

    What Turnbull seems to ignore is that so many public utilities have been sold off (leased?). Profit is guaranteed. Prices have soared. Where once the state made income from utilities, now the the money goes overseas.

    Who has sold off public utilities? Was it the Liberals? Turnbull would know, but he would not say. Too busy desperately ranting his newly acquired ($1.75m) ideology.

  11. Viki

    If you have a mind to, perhaps this morning’s SMH offers more evidence of these morally bankrupt, rotten to the core shits.

    Story headed Vitriol, far- right style. Features the Q Society, fundraising vehicle linked to Bernadi & Christensen, featuring Pickering, former Lib Ross Cameron and kirralie smith of the Australian Liberty alliance.

    Pickering . . . “Can’t stand Muslims” but ” they are not all bad, they do chuck pillow biters off buildings”.
    “If they (Muslims) are in the same street as me I start shaking”.

    Auctions off cartoon depicting rape of woman in niqab by her son-in-law. Fetched $600.

    Another fund raiser in Melbourne last night, expected guests . . . Bernadi & Christensen.

    Fairfax Media has contacted Christensen, Joyce and the office of prime monster for comment.

    Yep, lunatics are taking over the asylum.
    And once again Kaye Lee keeps us informed, thank you.

    Considering letter to SMH, using some of this info you have uncovered.

    Pressed wrong button, from Vikingduk, sorry

  12. Kaye Lee

    President Trump only chose media outlets owned by conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch to ask questions during Friday’s joint press conference with Japanese President Shinzo Abe.

    Trump called on reporters from the New York Post and Fox Business Network, two outlets that are owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. No other American reporters were called on during the press conference.

    http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/318971-rupert-murdoch-owned-outlets-get-only-us-questions-at-trump-japan

  13. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks, Kaye. This archival stuff you’ve been digging up from Malcolm’s past is pure gold! This PM is the very model of a hypocrite. If he ever did believe this stuff, he has sold his soul in the meantime.
    Re. Trump’s press conference. He’ll have to hope he never does anything to annoy Rupert, because now he’s pissed off every other news outlet in the country.

  14. havanaliedown

    All you need to know about Turnbull, is that he is a hopeless retail politician – as evidenced by his stint as Opposition Leader. Fittingly he lost his leadership when openly challenged on a point of policy (his intention to cross the floor to vote in support of Rudd’s ETS… you remember – the “greatest moral challenge of our time”, which was eventually pushed to the back burner when Gillard, Swan and Tanner finally convinced Rudd it was electoral suicide). That Turnbull “believed” the biggest stack of horseshit ever perpetrated in the modern age points to his complete cluelessness. Perhaps he has finally realised that it is a ponzi scheme the size of which has never been seen before, based on a mere “theory”. And where do these silly green schemes leave us? South Australia.

    I digress. Turnbull is a hopeless and lazy campaigner (see how the Great Explainer !LOL! tanked last July), terrified of “normal” Australians, and distinctly uncomfortable anywhere West of Double Bay.

    When given a “gift” in Rudd – he was proven hopeless, and a “gift” in Shorten – consistently hopeless again. See a bit of a theme emerging? Anyone from any side of the political fence who “expected” great things (or anything) from Turnbull since 2008/2009 deserves what they get.

    I don’t think another election campaign will be wasted in Turnbull’s fumbling, incompetent hands.

  15. Florence nee Fedup

    What we heard was a barristers speech in court defending the accused. The barrister doesn’t have to believe what he is saying Is putting forwarded the clients needs. A barrister is only interested in doing what is needed to win.

  16. Florence nee Fedup

    SA does have a backup/ Gas fired generator, latest technology with two turbines. Wasn’t fired up. There were 3 fossil fuel generators available on that day. Couldn’t explain to senate hearing why they weren’t used. Isn’t there also solar in SA.

    Appears that high temperatures interfere with performances of gas fired turbines. Don’t know how but is what they said.

    It was the huge number solar roof that had record input to grid yesterday that saved NSW.

    It AEMO that needs investigating. AEMO that replaced what Labor put in place.

    It is time for government to work with all to solve whatever is wrong. Won’t be renewals in SA or anywhere else. won’t be more coal-fired generators.

    Morrison, coal has destroyed lives of hundred thousands and their towns over three centuries. It ain’t safe. Using the tobacco industry arguments. Truth will out.

  17. cartoonmick

    Thanks Kaye, a great item and in particular, the last Para.

    I met Malcolm. T. at a Glebe book launch in 2011, and we gave each other some advice. I suggested to him that he ease Tony. A. out of the chair and take charge. We’re half way there.

    We can no longer trust our pollies (who have all the authority) to do the right thing by us. They just don’t have the commonsense, wisdom and decency to perform, even if they wanted to. No, they’re too busy covering their collective bums to make sure they keep their job at the next ballot box.

    I think this cartoon really brings home the main problem we now have . . . .

    Editorial / Political

    Cheers
    Mick

  18. Terry2

    It has been suggested to me that Malcolm’s spray was aimed at Tony Abbott who some believe is imminently to launch a coupe.Evidently the intemperate attack was to shore up the back-bench: quite obviously got Barnaby excited !

    The News Ltd press are crowing that Malcolm has got his “mojo” back, whatever that means but, in reality he was just engaged in a rather nasty personal attack on Shorten – not on Labor or their policies but on Bill. The Australian have assisted today by featuring a photo from the archives of Shorten with Richard Pratt who died in 2009.

  19. Kaye Lee

    How come we heard no more about Stuart Robert and his trip to China with Paul Marks?

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