No, but seriously, what the hell is going on in Australian politics this week?

I have to say, this is not how I had planned to return to my politics blog.

But good God, Peter Dutton as Prime Minister?  I mean, I don’t even know where to start with this.  I’m torn between my personal revulsion and queasiness at the idea of someone who is this destructive and lacking in empathy as PM, and a certain awestruck astonishment at the sight of the Liberal Party apparently self-destructing before our eyes.  I mean, we thought the ALP was self-destructive and stupid back in 2013, but this is looking less and less like a spill and more like an actual split in the party.

I’m not going to attempt a lot of analysis here.  I have been at home with a nasty cold all week, my eyes glued to the ABC News channel and to Twitter, and I’m not sure how much analysis I am capable of.  But I feel like the situation is getting so convoluted that it’s worth trying to take a step back and write out the timeline.  Also, I’m feeling bad for all my overseas friends whose timelines have suddenly been taken over by Australians expressing visceral horror about potatoes, or incomprehensible glee about Section 44.

So this is going to be my attempt to disentangle the week’s events so far.  I’m going to make it as complete as I can, but there is just SO MUCH going on that I am bound to miss something.  And I’m fully aware that if this takes me two hours to write, I might miss a change of government, but hopefully this will not be too far out of date by the time I manage to post it.

Also, there will be links to sarcastic commentary because this is frankly a horror story, and I, for one, need a little bit of humour to cope.  And, after all, this whole situation would be genuinely hilarious, if it wasn’t the actual government of our country which affects actual people, and the punchline wasn’t the potential installation of a racist, conscienceless, cruelty-embracing, right-wing politician as our next Prime Minister.


Now, this has all been brewing for a while, but I think I’ll start with Monday.  Because God knows, there is enough that has happened since then to keep us all on the edges of our seats.  But first, a little background.

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Thought Experiment

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.

New Prime Minister

So, we have a new prime minister. Again. I’m still neck deep in the year of insanity at work, but a new Prime Minister is something that’s going to bring any political blogger, no matter how sporadic, out of the woodwork.

I’m not going to miss Tony Abbott. His policies were a mixture of the cruel, the stupid and the dangerous, and we are definitely better off without him.  The question is whether Malcolm Turnbull is actually going to be an improvement.

On first glance, it doesn’t look too promising. Certainly, Turnbull is more personable than Abbott, and he comes across as more intelligent. He is certainly more electable, which is, of course, the whole point. His personal views on climate change and marriage equality are quite pleasing to the likes of me – he does seem to understand and accept the science behind climate change, and he feels that gay people should be allowed to marry. However, Turnbull is also clearly a very canny political beast.  He has been biding his time for a good while now, and it must be remembered that to become PM, he must have been able to attract votes from across the party. Turnbull may be personally liberal and pro-science, but he is even more pro-being Prime Minister, and he is far from stupid.

Turnbull was smart enough to play a waiting game through Abbott’s government, smart enough to call a spill at the right moment – and as we saw in tonight’s press conference, he is smart enough, to avoid questions about marriage equality and follow the party line on climate change and refugees if that will keep him in power.  He has said that he will lead a more consultative government, which sounds a lot to me like code for “no captain’s calls” and possibly also code for “you over there on the right, I’m on your side, too”.  And this means, really, that Turnbull cannot make decisions based on his personal opinions if these are strongly opposed by his party.  (Frankly, I can’t fault that – it’s how you are supposed to run a government in a party system, so I have to give him credit for this, even though I would personally be happier if he enacted the policies that I liked, and to hell with the party room.  But it would be hypocritical to complain about that after taking digs at Abbott for doing just that in areas that I didn’t like…)  The best we can hope for here is that we do now have a senior voice in the Liberal party that is in favour of these things, and that Turnbull might be able to use his platform to persuade others… though probably not if it will get him voted out of office.  I may be being unfair here, but I don’t think it would be wise to underestimate Turnbull’s cynicism.

One definite positive is that Turnbull doesn’t seem to share Abbott’s old-fashioned views on women, so I suspect we can expect a few more women on the front bench.  He is not just pro-choice, but sufficiently so to be willing to offend the Australian Christian Lobby by telling them so, and he does get some respect from me for that.  However, I am not actually a single-issue voter on this subject.  Actually, Tony Abbott basically trained me out of any tendencies towards single-issue voting, by demonstrating with stunning thoroughness just how many political issues there are out there that are deal breakers for me, some of which I had never even realised might be in question (making people wait for Newstart and a compulsory fee to see the doctor being two of these).  So, while it is pleasing to know that Turnbull sees himself as socially progressive and fiscally conservative, I have now had my eyes opened as to just how socially regressive fiscal conservatism can be in its effects, and am wary.  (Which is not to say that fiscally conservative but socially progressive is not still preferable to fiscally conservative and also socially conservative, of course).

Another positive is the vague feeling I have that Turnbull is less likely to embarrass Australia on the international stage, though I don’t have any really concrete evidence for this. Just a feeling that he is a bit more media savvy – and smart enough to let Julie Bishop, who is really rather brilliant with the media (she seduces me every time and I don’t want to like her), work her magic if he is not.

It’s after midnight, so I’m not going to look at Turnbull’s policies tonight, but I’d like to mention something that did give me a bit of hope, and that is Turnbull’s intention not to call an election yet, and to serve out the term until late next year. I think that is the best news the left of politics could have. Frankly, right now, the nation is riding a wave of ‘no more Tony Abbott’ euphoria, which would probably be sufficient to ensure a Liberal victory in an early election – especially as, let us confess, Shorten’s greatest achievement to date has been Not Being Tony. Unfortunately for him, Malcolm is also Not Tony, and he has both policies and charisma, both of which Shorten is a bit short on (so to speak).

Waiting until the end of the government’s term is good for the right as well as the left.  For one thing, it will give Turnbull a chance to show his true colours, and what he is capable of doing, both good and bad. This is information we need when going into an election!  But I would also suggest, tentatively and with perhaps a little too much optimism, that this is an opportunity for the Labor party.  Standing for Not Tony is no longer going to be enough for Labor, and, frankly, nor should it be.  A victory on that basis was never going to get Labor past a single term in any case.

With Turnbull at the head of the liberal party, the ALP now has the opportunity, and I think the obligation, to do some serious soul searching. This is the time for new policies. This is the time for setting out what the ALP stands for. This is even the time, dare I say it, for a change in leadership, if that’s something they want to do. After all, this is probably the one window of time during which the Liberal party can’t attack the ALP for changing leaders and being unstable. In another six months, it could be a different story. They should seriously consider using this window.

As for Turnbull’s government and what it will be like, well, that’s not my area of expertise – none of this is, let’s face it – but I have a few thoughts. For one thing, I suspect it will be very, very polished in its approach to the media (unless, of course, Abbott goes the white-anting route, but I’m actually rather hoping he will not. We’ve had enough stupid political infighting for one decade). For another, I don’t think there will be many changes in policy. Turnbull has said a lot about the Abbott government’s failure to communicate and sell their policies (I think he is wrong about that – I think the general public understands the policies just fine, and genuinely doesn’t like them), so I think we can expect a lot more talk about what these policies are and why we should accept them – but he has also said now and in the past that he supports those policies. He’s going to follow the Abbott course on refugees, economics, workplace relations and climate, at least until the next election.

Marriage equality looks like an easy win on the surface, an easy source of votes, but Turnbull is not going to do that, either, because those votes are on the left, which already likes him enough to hold their noses and vote for him even if he does not move on this.  Championing marriage equality would, however, alienate the right, who are already pretty dubious about him.  Turnbull may feel positive about the idea, but he isn’t going to risk his career for it, not after waiting this long to get where he is.  What I think we can realistically hope for is a referendum that will be written in a  way that is more likely to succeed than the one we would have got from Abbott.  We may get personal statements in favour of marriage equality from Turnbull too, and perhaps a voice in the party room, but we won’t get more than that.

Overall? I think we’re looking at the Howard government Mark 2. I think that is Turnbull’s natural style, and I think it’s also a political era that the Liberals would like to return to anyway. It speaks of stability and security and the 1950s, which is what the Coalition is all about.

Now, if Turnbull gets re-elected in 2016? Well, that might be a different story. I suspect that this would be the point at which Turnbull might risk pushing more of his own views on climate change and marriage equality. But don’t look for economic policies rooted in social justice from Turnbull.  That’s not what he stands for, and to do him justice, he has never claimed otherwise.

I’m going to finish with a quote from an opinion column by Tom Switzer from back in February, the first time we all thought this was going to happen, because I think he’s pretty much written my entire article in one paragraph:

If Turnbull replaces Abbott, he’ll need to remember he will be leading a party that is the custodian of the centre-right tradition in Australian politics. Winning the centre is the business of politics, but doing so at the expense of your own political base is suicidal – as Turnbull found out last time in 2008-09. To be a successful centre-right leader, you need to have the courage of your (conservative) convictions.

In other words, it could be worse.  It could be Abbott.  But let’s not get too excited just yet – Turnbull may be on ‘our’ side on some matters, but he’s not going to act on that.  Not in this term.