Let’s, just for a moment, consider the possibility that Malcolm Turnbull has been entirely sincere in the various small-L-liberal things he has said over the years. That he sincerely supports marriage equality, that he wants a republic, that he wants action on climate change, that even one child in detention is too many, all that stuff. We’ll leave his economics out of the picture for now, because that’s not what this is about.
If he does believe all these things – and I’m quite willing to believe he does – and he is now Prime Minister, what, precisely, can he do about them? Without, that is, ceasing to be Prime Minister. Which is the catch, really, isn’t it? I mean, theoretically, he has the power to make huge changes, but in practice, I don’t think he can actually do that and continue to lead a Coalition government. Even setting aside our current fashion for changing our Prime Minister at the drop of an opinion poll, there is only so much the party room can tolerate. One cannot lean too far outside the boundaries of what is acceptable to the Party.
And this, I think, is one of the big failures of the political party system, at least in the larger parties – the incredible pressure it imposes to compromise, to conform. No matter how idealistically you start out, at some point, if you want to be pre-selected, you are going to have to get the votes of your fellow party members, and this will mean compromise. Then you have to get the votes of the public, which may mean more compromise (though not necessarily in the same direction). How many of your ideals do you have to trade away in order to get to a point where you can act to them? Is there, in fact, such a point? Or are you more tightly controlled the higher you get in the party?
Have we set things up so that by the time you reach the top job, nothing is left that is not open for negotiation?
Well, perhaps not quite. Certainly, your Party will have certain core values that are non-negotiable. Maybe. But again, those values change over time – consider Malcolm Fraser’s policies on refugees versus Howard’s. Howard was, of course, Fraser’s Treasurer, so both sets of policies were Liberal dogma during Howard’s political lifetime. But something evidently changed in the interim. Still, if one had entered the Liberal Party in the Fraser era because one sympathised with the Party’s ideology, one might have felt rather compromised by the time Tampa rolled around…
Then again, this example is also one of change occurring within a Party. Someone clearly drives this change. Is it the Party Leadership? The Party Membership? The Chief of Staff? The polls? A bit of all four? Does this mean that Turnbull does, in fact, have the power to change the party from within, if he chooses to use it?
And which policies can be changed, anyway? Which values are ‘core’ to a party, and which are subject to negotiation? How fast do these core values themselves change?
And would you, if you were a Prime Minister in our current climate be willing to take that risk?
I suppose it would depend on why you sought power, and what you thought you could do with it. I mean, if you think you really can push through some vital and fantastic legislation that the country needs, so long as you stay around long enough to do it, that might be a reason to compromise on the stuff you felt was less central.
Then again, the fact that you think certain stuff is less central also tells us a bit about how sincere you are about it and how much you really care…
I’m hoping that Turnbull will work to change the conversation in the party room around marriage equality, around refugees, around climate change. If he does, that’s definitely a useful thing. But I think he has already signalled where his priorities lie, and for him, promoting fiscal conservatism clearly trumps promoting social liberalism. (I note that nobody anywhere has claimed that Turnbull is anything less than sincere in his economic opinions.)
Assuming he really is sincere on the social liberalism side of things, perhaps he feels that getting conservative budget measures through is the only way he can ‘buy’ tolerance for considering these other issues. This does not seem unlikely. But I’m pretty sure that’s a price that he is very, very happy to pay. I’m sure he’d like to be the PM who presided over Australia becoming a Republic that allowed Marriage Equality. It would be a lovely legacy to leave. But he wants to be the PM that brought Australia into a new economic Golden Age (for a value of Economic Golden Age that I personally find terrifying) more.
If he makes compromises, it won’t be on the side of economics.