By Dan Rowden
Back in 1993 Malcolm Turnbull, a highly successful businessman and politically engaged lawyer, became chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, a position he held until 2000. During this tumultuous period for the Nation, Turnbull gained a significant public profile and considerable personal support from within the ranks of Republic sympathisers of every political stripe. It was a neat segue into a political career.
After an abortive attempt at a life in politics in 1981 during which he failed to win pre-selection for the Liberals in the Seat of Wentworth, he made a second attempt in the 2004 election and was successful, beating the sitting Liberal member Peter King for pre-selection. King subsequently stood as an independent for Wentworth and helped Turnbull to victory on the basis of his preferences.
Despite having famously described John Howard as the man who “broke this nation’s heart” following the defeated Republic Referendum, Turnbull was elevated to the position of Parliamentary Secretary for Water as part of a 2006 Howard Cabinet reshuffle. He was further promoted to Environment Minister in 2007, during the tenure of which he controversially approved the $1.7 billion Bell Bay Pulp Mill in Tasmania’s north.
After the defeat of the Coalition in the 2007 election, an invigorated and ambitious Turnbull challenged Brendon Nelson for the Liberal Leadership. Turnbull lost 45 to 42. In a politically generous but possibly naïve move, Nelson subsequently appointed Turnbull Shadow Treasurer. Perhaps Nelson was operating under the principle of, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Whatever the case, in September 2008 Turnbull was elected Party Leader 45 votes to 41.
From that day large amounts of fecal matter began finding its way into nearby rotary cooling devices.
On November 24 2009, the Liberals discussed the Labor Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Turnbull called on his party to support the scheme. Much political turmoil ensued and the Australian voters gained an important insight into a strong trend in the Conservative view on Climate Change. The following day, the Conservative’s intellectual giants, Wilson Tuckey and Dennis Jensen (who along with Sophie Mirabella, Wilson Tuckey, Don Randall and Alby Schultz had boycotted the Parliament on the day of the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008) forced a spill motion that failed 48 votes to 35.
I offer the following text from a subsequent press conference to demonstrate just how far above his Coalition counterparts Turnbull was in terms of vision and character.
Now I think we all recognise that most Australians expect their political leaders and their political parties to take effective action on climate change. This is about the future of our planet and the future of our children and their children. It is one of the great challenges of our time. Now I know there are many people, including many people who are supporters of my own party, who have doubts about the science and grave reservations about it. I understand that and I respect it. But as Margaret Thatcher said, right back nearly 20 years ago in 1990, this is about risk management. Or as Rupert Murdoch said, we have to give the planet the benefit of the doubt. Matt Franklin smiles, from The Australian. He is very pleased when I quote his boss.
But the fact is we have to take a prudent approach to this. Saying that we are not going to do anything about climate change is irresponsible, and no credible, responsible political party can have a ‘no action on climate change’ policy. It is as simple as that.
Now the Liberal party room meeting here, Coalition party room in fact, meeting here and, of course, the shadow cabinet asked Ian Macfarlane and I to negotiate a package with the Government, to take amendments approved by the party room to improve the Government’s emissions trading scheme. And we did that with the full, the overwhelming authority in fact, of the Coalition party room. And it was a set of amendments that were designed to make the scheme more environmentally effective and to save tens of thousands of jobs.
We achieved enormous concessions from the Government and indeed when they were announced many of you wrote it up as an enormous win for the Coalition. Many of you were surprised that the Government made such big concessions as they did, and those concessions, those improvements will save tens of thousands of jobs and, in addition, make the scheme more environmentally effective. Then the shadow cabinet endorsed that deal, the party room endorsed that deal.
Now this has now become a question not simply of the environmental responsibility of the Liberal Party but of its integrity. We agreed with the Government on this deal. We must retain our credibility of taking action on climate change. We cannot be seen as a party of climate sceptics, of do nothings on climate change. That is absolutely fatal. And we also must be seen as men and women of our word. We entered into a bargain. There was offer and there was acceptance….
Now I know, and I just repeat this, this is a difficult issue for many Liberals, many Australians. But I repeat most people who doubt the science also know that it makes sense to take out insurance, to manage the risk, to give the planet the benefit of the doubt. Now at the moment, as you know, some of my colleagues have found it necessary to resign from ministerial positions so they can cross the floor on the issue. That is their right and I respect it. But I believe we must maintain this course of action. It is the responsible thing to do. It is the honourable thing to do.
Australians expect their political leaders to act responsibly, to take action on climate change, to protect and safeguard the future of our planet, the future of our children. That is the challenge for us now and I am committed to it. We must be a party committed to action on climate change. Anything else is irresponsible.
But those operating from within an alternate political universe were not done trying to break through the dimensional vortex. Turnbull’s frontbench was revolting, but not as revolting as we subsequently learned them to be. Just five days later on December 1, 2009, another spill motion saw Turnbull defeated by 42 votes to 41 after a fascinating vote. Tony Abbott was the new leader of the Liberals, rather ironically achieved with the vote of a chap by the name of Peter Slipper.
After vacillating about his future, Turnbull was re-elected in the seat of Wentworth in 2010 with a significant swing in his favour, proving his personal popularity in the electorate had remained throughout all of the tumult. He was appointed Shadow Communications Minister. The erudite and outwardly socially concerned Turnbull continued to behave like a man with political energy and ambition, speaking his mind and solidifying his regard in the electorate. His personal gravitas remained untouched.
The only reason to be in politics is public service. There’s no other reason. Frankly, if that’s the best job you can get in terms of money, that’s too bad, you know. Because frankly, it’s not well paid, everyone knows that. So for most people it’s a big sacrifice.
It’s not a 24-hour news cycle, it’s a 60-second news cycle now, it’s instantaneous. It has never been easier to get away with telling lies. It has never been easier to get away with the glib one liner.
There is a tendency to try to dumb everything down and turn everything into a one-paragraph press release or even less, just a slogan.
Broadcasters or politicians or writers who think that they are respecting Struggle Street, the battlers, by dumbing things down into one-line sound bites are not respecting them, they are treating them with contempt. Because it is our job, above all in politics, to tackle the big issues, and to explain them and have the honesty to say to people, ‘there are no easy solutions here’. If the answer to global warming was obvious and simple, we’d have it licked by now.
When politicians offer you something for nothing, or something that sounds too good to be true, it’s always worth taking a careful second look.
Climate change is a global problem. The planet is warming because of the growing level of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. If this trend continues, truly catastrophic consequences are likely to ensue from rising sea levels, to reduced water availability, to more heat waves and fires.
But who knows, some years from now if there’s a global emissions trading scheme agreement, as many have hoped for, then I’m sure Australia would be part of it.
I do not believe we can effectively move Australia to a lower emission economy, which is what we need to do if we’re going to make a contribution to a global reduction in greenhouse gases, without putting a price on carbon. 2010
Then came 2013. The Turnbull we had known and many had come to “love” seemed to disappear. The erudite raconteur and outspoken visionary just seemed to vanish. Instead we saw a man who danced to the Coalition’s Choreography, never putting a foot wrong, never missing a beat. Apart from a brief appearance in June with Wayne Swan to help launch a series of essays about the Republic – Project Republic: Plans and Arguments For a New Australia – for which both had written Forwards, Turnbull has given the appearance of a man being stage-managed in much the same way as Tony Abbott. The difference was Turnbull looked and sounded extremely uncomfortable. One does not have to be a trained psychologist or an expert in body language to have seen a seemingly broken man delivering the Coalition’s Broadband Policy to the electorate. This was not a man convinced of the veracity and allure of his words. Since 2012 Turnbull seems to have aged suddenly. It’s not just that his hair went thoroughly grey; that can happen in a short period of time. It’s his overall demeanour, his carriage and the manner of his speech. Perhaps he is simply unwell and hasn’t declared it, but he looks like a broken mustang – bereft of life, energy and spirit – or a dog that’s been beaten into submission by its owner. I think there’s no doubt whatsoever that at the very least he’s been told by the power brokers in his party to shut the hell up on a number of fronts.
But this leads to some serious and intriguing questions. Why does he persist? What does he now stand to gain from a continued presence in this particular Party and Government? He has been hog-tied in respect to almost everything he went into politics to do. This particular Coalition Caucus isn’t going to provide him with any sublimation at all with respect to his pet issues: The Republic and Climate Change.
Is Turnbull simply biding his time, waiting for the political cycle to turn and the current Christian Conservative faction of the Liberal Party to step aside? I suspect he’ll be waiting an awfully long time for that. Is he just waiting for Tony Abbott to fail so he can step into the role himself? That would be naive, given the faction that is currently in control of the Liberal party. It’s not even close to a fait accompli that they would elect a classic small “l” Liberal as their leader, regardless of his popularity in the electorate. Witness Abbott himself as proof of that. Why does Turnbull persist in the face of forces and events that clearly frustrate and embarrass him? What has he been promised? Certainly not the leadership, but what? You would be forgiven for thinking it must be something. It’s not like he needs the money. His Government salary would be little more than an annoyance on his Tax Return. Maybe there’s the traditional envelope with incriminating photographs in Tony Abbott’s top drawer. But then, these are not British Tories, so perhaps not.
Is it that he just wants to serve the community? But serve it how? By helping to peddle policies that he not only knows to be garbage but in some cases directly contrary to what he believes in? How is that service to the community? Or, has the unthinkable happened? Has he been beaten into intellectual and moral submission by the forces that surround and support Tony Abbott? Has he sipped too much of the Party Tea? Have we lost Malcolm?
In July 2013, a mere 3 months ago, an Australian Financial Review/Nielsen Poll showed Malcolm Turnbull had increased his lead over Tony Abbott with 62 per cent of voters preferring him as leader compared with 32 per cent for Abbott. In the same month a ReachTel poll showed the Coalition leading Labor 58 to 42 per cent, on a two-party preferred basis, if Turnbull were leader. With Abbott as Leader, the figures were 51 to 49 per cent. The poll also showed Turnbull leading Kevin Rudd as preferred prime minister 65 to 35 per cent.
Turnbull’s popularity with the electorate remains strong, largely untouched by Utegate and other controversies, and possibly even by an ignorance of some of his less desirable political views. But that popularity amounts to nothing but empty numbers if he cannot and will not do anything about it. Could it possibly be the case that in the same manner that the current Coalition Cartel set out to destroy their political opposition without, they are willing to destroy their political opposition within?