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Turnbull's political philosophy

By Max Atkinson - posted Friday, 11 December 2015

Most people with views on politics, who are not motivated solely by self-interest, believe some political values are more important, and some interpretations of them are more plausible or compelling, than others. On controversial issues they defend their opinions by arguing from a sense of what these values require.

Politicians are no different. If asked about their political philosophy they speak of core concerns - of policies, practices, laws or institutions they wish to improve or defend or get rid of. If pressed they justify these opinions by appealing to the more abstract values they see themselves as sharing with the community - values such as freedom, justice, honesty, fairness, general welfare and human dignity. Coherence is all-important because, when politicians use these standards consistently, treating like cases alike, they maximize the degree to which all citizens are treated with equal respect and concern.

Skeptics say this is naïve. Such arguments, they say, must be rhetorical, because abstract standards are too 'spongy' to decide concrete cases - it all depends on who interprets them. This leads cynics to suggest that many, perhaps most people, interpret them to further their own or party or class interests, and there is some truth in this. There are also questions of genesis and authority - where do these commonplace values 'come from' and why are they important?


Despite these critics most politicians treat the above values as important and cite them as 'principles'. They cite them in parliamentary debates, in public addresses and in after-dinner speeches. They do so knowing their opponents will often appeal to the same principles but differ as to which are more important or because they disagree on what they mean in the disputed cases.

This is, in the main, how political parties are distinguished - Liberals see themselves as defending freedom and personal responsibility, while Labor sees itself as the agent of fairness and social justice. Despite this division, no one seriously argues that those on the left don't value freedom and dignity or those on the right have no concern for fairness. But in practice each highlights the moral cost of those policies which implement the other's aims.

In terms of his political philosophy the Prime Minister is something of an enigma, but he seems more aware of the artificial nature of this divide then most politicians and journalists. Unlike Abbott's 'Battlelines', there is no sense of a crusade to protect the nation from parties with a different sense of values. In Turnbull's words 'everything is on the table', suggesting it is time to review traditional fault lines. But there are already signs of a challenge to Labor as the party of social justice, as well as a willingness to confront Liberal archaisms.

Two matters in particular stand out. The first is his challenge to conservatism as a meaningful political principle in an economy which depends on innovation, imaginative thinking and a willingness to embrace change. The second is his concern (astonishing by any measure) to find a place in the party for principles of fairness and the social welfare policies they argue for. Both are long overdue. This is the kind of thinking needed to end a polarisation which feeds on itself and which has in recent years degraded politics, and led observers across the spectrum to warn against going down the American path.

So much seems clear from the Prime Minister's remarks on the difference between his approach and that of Tony Abbott, in a remarkable ABC interview with Leigh Sales on 21st September. These are the views, perhaps years in the making, of a gifted lawyer, whose life at the bar was a daily reminder that intelligent and civilized colleagues may differ strongly on issues of legal principle and still remain friends.

They are also the views of an ambitious man who lost the party leadership by one vote in December, 2009 after risking his political career when he split the Liberal party to support Kevin Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme. They are also the views of a true believer; there was no vagueness, no long silences, no dissembling, no equivocation.


After a brief homage to the primacy of freedom - to 'ensuring Australians are free to choose their own directions' he speaks of'some very key priorities …. One of them … is we have to ensure we remain a high-wage, first-world, generous social welfare net economy and that requires strong economic growth …. we need to be competitive, we need to be productive, we need to above all to be more innovative.'

Three weeks later he used the same language when announcing the appointment of the new Chief Scientist, Dr. Alan Finkel,

If we are to remain a high-wage, generous social welfare net economy in the years to come, if we are to remain prosperous, seizing the enormous opportunities that are available to Australians, now more than ever, we need to be more innovative, more technologically sophisticated, more scientifically alert….

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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