Thursday 1 February 2018
On 14 September 2017, Malcolm Turnbull delivered a closing statement during Question Time in Parliament, asserting his parties commitment to Australia and Australian values; specifically through welfare reform in the form of the cashless welfare card.
What sticks in my mind is that in the brief minute or so that it took to deliver this rambling diatribe, he used the magical word ‘love’ no less than eight times. And there is something very powerful and telling in that.
“Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world. On Australia Day, which we defend, which we defend, we begin those celebrations with an acknowledgment of country, a welcome to country….Australians love this country. They love Australia Day. They love the values it embodies. And at the heart of those values, Mr Speaker, democracy, freedom, the rule of law, mutual respect, mutual respect and mutual obligation.
Now we on our side, Mr Speaker, we believe that welfare money should not be spent on drugs and booze….but those opposite have no problem with it being spent on drugs and booze. They will not support us. How shameful. If they loved those people on welfare, if they love them, if you love them, what would you do? Would you tell them to get off the drugs, get off the booze? Well, I’d hope so. We’d hope so. But no, the Labor Party won’t do that….I tell you, Mr Speaker, when we do, we do so with love. We do so with love and compassion and the Australian values of helping our mate, looking after each other, standing up for Australia, standing up for Australians.”
I wonder how many people have picked up on the Prime Minister’s almost liturgical use of the word ‘love’ during his term in office?
All you need, as the Beatles say, is love. And I would contend that with respect to the incumbent LNP government, love will be the very thing that causes them to lose their grip on power. Because love is the key commodity that the present federal line-up does not have, and Turnbull at some level understands the significance of this full well.
In the days prior to that September 2017 speech in Parliament, Turnbull was spruiking the Coalition’s cashless welfare debit card, describing it rather hopefully to the assembled media in Kalgoorlie as “an exercise in practical love.”
Mining baron Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s philanthropic donation of 400 million in May 2017 earned a similar wrap from the Turnbull love machine, with Malcolm dropping the ‘l’ word no less than three times for good measure, when he gushed: “This is an act of love. It is an act of generosity and above all, it is an act of leadership that will inspire other Australians, now and in the years to come, to show their love by helping those who we can support and we can advance through that commitment of love for mankind.”
Sounding rather like a magician proving there was no hidden card up his sleeve, he then told Mr Forrest: “This is not extracted from you by force of law; this is a matter of conviction, of your love and your commitment.” Perhaps this observation was intended more for our benefit than Twiggy’s.
Turnbull’s love reared its ugly head again last month, shortly after he deliberately stirred racial tension and division by magnifying the so-called ‘African gang’ problem in Victoria, despite the fact that Sudanese offenders accounted for only 1% of the state’s total reported crime. Facing off with acting Premier James Merlino at a media conference, the PM deflected attention with the claim that there was “love bursting all over the place.”
So where did this all start? Back in January 2016, Malcolm Turnbull’s liberal (pardon the pun) use of the word led Sydney Morning Herald’s reporter Tony Wright to remark: “It’s not every day a political leader publicly uses the word love, and it’s even rarer that love and technology are joined in the same sentence. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tossed love around like fairy dust on Friday.” Back then, the target of his effusiveness was a new website providing a database of services for the homeless. Turnbull enthusiastically referred to it as a triumph of “deep love combined with technology focussed on the customer.” Not since William S Burroughs’ novel ‘Naked Lunch’ featured a steam-powered dildo called Steely Dan have love and technology been so successfully mated. Turnbull’s penchant for the word ‘love’ is equally strange, yet perfectly explainable.
If we are to take Malcolm at his word, that seems to be a whole lotta love; to borrow the words of another iconic band. And therein lies the problem. There simply isn’t a whole lot of love for the people emanating from this government and Turnbull must realise this. In over half a century of life in Australia, never have I seen a public so distrusting of politicians and disenchanted with its leaders; so worn down by their exhortations of terror and division. So tired of not being listened to. So close to revolution. That may seem melodramatic to some, however the turn-outs of people protesting the treatment of refugees, the desire for marriage equality and more recently the solidarity of Aussies wanting to change the date of Australia Day speaks of the growing disenchantment with the LNP’s style of ‘business as usual.’
Perhaps his most telling use of the word ‘love’ came in a declaration on the day of parliament’s legalization of same-sex marriage when he exhorted: “What a day for love, for equality, for respect.” Malcolm would undoubtedly like to be remembered as the Prime Minister who paved the way for marriage equality to become a reality in this country. His own personal commitment to this social milestone is unquestionable. Had he held to his own values rather than succumbing to the manipulations of the string-pullers in his cabinet, he might have some stronger claim to this accolade. As it stands, same sex marriage passed into law despite his party and his ministry team, rather than because of them; despite the divisiveness and disharmony stirred by an unnecessary plebiscite. It became a victory for the people, not the government.
People are not feeling the love from Turnbull’s government and I believe a fair proportion of the blame lies squarely at the feet of the conservative faction who have pulled the strings and enacted a divisive agenda. Australians are seeing a government given to in-fighting; a government which has stopped listening to the people. A party being devoured from the right. Malcolm is forced to step into the breach and assure us that there is love there. But his words have an increasingly hollow ring.
This ‘love deficit’ is a characteristic of the conservatives and their bleak world view. They are largely driven by the reflexes of threat and disgust. It is seen in their hostility towards foreigners and racial and ethnic minorities who are viewed as a dark, destabilizing influence on Australian culture and good order. There is a tendency for them to be pro-gun and defence oriented to counter the perceived threats of incursion and criminality which they repeatedly warn us about.
It is a faction bent on turning us into a police state. This week Dutton appeared on ABC News to warn tourists visiting Australia to attend the upcoming Commonwealth games that there are strict penalties in place for visa over-stayers. He stated that 95.5% of tourists are law-abiding, with 0.5% at risk of potential overstay. Firstly, what would possess anybody to issue such a sour warning, given their own acceptance of the fact that the vast majority present no such problem? And secondly, none of the foreign tourists that Dutton was directing the warning at would likely be watching an Australian news station anyway.
The conservative ethic is not only to order us to keep off the grass, but to remind us that a fine and a prison sentence will apply if we disobey.
They oppose welfare support for the poor due to its perceived encouragement of dependency and the potential for abuses of the welfare system. It was the federal government and Centrelink who created a virtual climate of fear in the Australian community with their aggressive pursuit of the ‘robo-debt’ program. And let’s not forget the recent blaze of headlines announcing that hard-working Aussies are forking out $83 a week to finance our national welfare bill. Just this week came the news that Tony Abbott had floated a radical plan of cutting welfare support to under-30’s ahead of the 2014 budget. The fact that these are the very same people that Turnbull showered with so-called ‘acts of love’ makes this a bitter pill to swallow.
I don’t believe that we are wired to live perpetually with such joylessness and dour severity. We respond to sincerity and love. The psychological make-up of conservatives expressed as a lack of empathy, compassion and flexibility forces Turnbull into a position of synthesizing love, so to speak; to re-dress the imbalance and to convince the public of a sense of care and human warmth that his party consistently fails to deliver.
As an aside, it’s notable that the phenomenon of ‘synthesizing love’ is not just limited to Turnbull either. Last week came the news from the USA that hardline conservatives blocked a proposal for a pathway to citizenship for the ‘Dreamers’ – the 700,000 undocumented immigrants now facing potential deportation. According to polls public sentiment is leaning in favour of the Dreamers being given the opportunity of citizenship. In response, Trump reflexively demanded that lawmakers craft a bill of protection to protect them; tellingly referring to it as a “bill of love.”
As well as this sense of ‘love deficit’ conservatives seem to be possessed of a distorted sense of self-perception and the lack of any real ability for self-assessment and perspective-taking. And therein lies their ultimate downfall.
Talk is again turning to a leadership spill with three conservatives – Abbott, Morrison and Dutton – suggested as contenders. Without Turnbull’s Doctor Frankenstein to breathe love and light into the body, we will be left with a ruling party run by the Monster. And that never ended well in the movies.