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Malcolm Turnbull and the myth of the fixed political centre

By Tim O'Hare - posted Tuesday, 3 March 2015


If news reports are to be believed - and there seems less reason, day by day, to doubt them - the Liberal caucus is unravelling far sooner than any serious political commentator would or could have predicted in September, 2013, when voters decisively chose to put an end to the divisiveness of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years. Far easier to foresee was that, given the slightest opportunity, the beaming face of Malcolm "Middle Ground" Turnbull would pop up from the hole in the woodwork where he has been licking his wounds and stroking that prodigious ego since losing the Liberal leadership in 2007.

As Annabel Crabb noted, Turnbull didn't enter politics to become the longest-serving Communications Minister. Further, his camera-friendly persona has led some backbenchers to think that he might win over the marginal electorates. The ABC seems to like him, at least for the moment. The fact that his criticisms of the national broadcaster, of which he is nominally in charge, have been rare, muted and inconsequential is perhaps one of the factors that sees him invited so very often to hold forth on Q&A and other shows. Indeed, it was only the other week on Q&A where he articulated what has to be seen as his wink-wink, nudge-nudge pitch for the top job.

"Australian political contests are won, or lost, at the sensible centre," he said. The audience, stacked as usual, picked up the real message and loved it: Abbott is an extremist and I'm not.

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Just what the "sensible centre" might be was never explained.

Commonly, it is associated with what might be viewed as the norms of Australian life: kids, mortgage, a job and, in today's economy, a measure of anxiety about keeping it. Turnbull -- superbly well-heeled resident of a plush home with Harbour views, former merchant banker, Queens Counsel and Rhodes Scholar, the man with the highest net worth in the Parliament -- does not fit that template. Were he to seize the leadership and The Lodge, how long would the ABC's fawning continue? It's Point Piper-to-a-brick that he would very soon be re-cast as the silvertail with the ego which would be a liability if he did actually try and take the hard decisions needed to repair the budget.

Coalition pollster Mark Textor said before Abbott's leadership woes that the political centre was for the incumbent to define, just as John Howard did by inducing a whole generation of first-time Liberal voters with handouts, strong borders and a positive view of our nation's history.

There is great truth in Textor's appraisal. Unfortunately for Abbott, his own quest to stake out the middle ground has been blighted by an obstructionist Senate and, ironically, his own initial successes. He stopped the boats, as he promised, and he repealed the Carbon Tax, as pledged. Now that they are yesteryear's issues, what does he represent?

The repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, was an election promise, but a few Get-Up petitions and a bit of disquiet by the chattering class who never voted for the Coalition in the first place, and Abbott backed off. Rather than take the fight against Judges and Bureaucrats determining what we say (a cause dear to the Liberal Party base) and at least putting the bill to parliament, Abbott folded. He now wanders in existential stupor unable to capture the passion of 2010-2013, where the Liberal Party had something to fight for. If Tony Abbott were a shop window, there would be few attractive goods on offer and a small note in the corner announcing that the management disavows all guarantees.

Now consider Malcolm Turnbull, who also has fought for things over the years- a Republic and an Emissions Trading Scheme- neither of which are controversial amongst the political class or inspire passion in marginal electorates such as Latrobe, Lindsay and Petrie.

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Take away all the personalities and individual gaffes and the greatest threats to the longevity of this government are spending and revenue -- too much of the former, too little of the latter.

Turnbull's record on fiscal matters is, to say the least, extremely meagre. His most notable achievement is having opposed the profligacy of the Rudd/Swan stimulus package in 2008. Moreover, he has been notably absent in attempting to sell Joe Hockey's first budget. For a man of his undoubted talents, a smooth advocate during his days at the bar, to have restrained his talents in his party's cause should give pause to those Liberals who see him as their salvation. Loyalty, anyone?

Blessed by brains and fortune, Turnbull has been spared the obligation to roll up his sleeves and do some heavy lifting. His status as presumptive Prime Minister, at least as far as the media is concerned, has gained mightily from the happy circumstance of non-sensitive political portfolios. As the Environment Minister in the final term of the Howard government, he coasted through photo ops with wombats and the like while issuing motherhood statements about the health of the planet. As Shadow Communications Minister from 2010-2013 he was gifted with being paired against Stephen Conroy, who even a lump of supposedly-evil Coal could outwit.

As the intrigue eddies and swirls and Turnbull's name is on every lip, including those curled with disdain, the real issues remain. How can Abbott progress if everything he does is touted as poison by the media establishment? How can the Coalition produce a second budget which does not attempt to make a virtue of the first's addled inconsistency -- a document that sought to make the poor pay more for driving their cars while doing next to nothing to crimp middle-class welfare.

Even more than Tony Abbott's prospects for survival, they are the key questions. To neither is Malcolm Turnbull the answer.

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About the Author

Tim O'Hare is a Brisbane-based, History graduate from the University of Queensland. He is a freelance commentator on political and cultural issues with specific reference to economics, education and free speech. Along with his commentary on social media, online publications and blogging he also finds creative expression in stand up comedy in a variety of bars in and around the Brisbane CBD.

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