John Menadue. Is Malcolm Turnbull sacrificing his principles?

Oct 19, 2015

The polls show most Australian voters have welcomed Malcolm Turnbull’s election as Prime Minister. I did.

It is very early days, but I am concerned by signs that he is bowing very much to the right wing of his own party and former Abbott supporters rather than spelling out clearly his own policies that we heard about for years. He told the Parliament today ‘Can I simply say the government’s policies are unchanged’

A strong leader imposes his views on the organization he leads and not the other way around. In the longer term, Malcolm Turnbull can’t please those who welcomed his election as a sign of change and improvement, and those who stuck stoically to Tony Abbott.

For years in opposition and then in government Malcolm Turnbull gave us a contemporary, appealing and relevant outline about what we should be doing in our national interest. Is it still there?

Despite early signs of a more humane approach to asylum seekers and refugees, he has re-appointed the hardline ex-policeman, Peter Dutton, as his Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. It was a ‘captain’s pick’ that he didn’t need to make. I was looking for signs of change in this area, or at least a signal that change was in prospect. It did not happen. Only last week, Peter Dutton told us that he would not be blackmailed by pregnant asylum seekers on Nauru. What courage! I don’t think that is what many in the Australian public, or even Malcolm Turnbull himself, hoped for in his Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

Adam Bandt asked Malcolm Turnbull in the parliament about releasing children in detention. What we got was a justification from Malcolm Turnbull on Coalition refugee policies that were ‘tough’ and even ‘harsh’.

Climate policy has been the defining issue of Malcolm Turnbull’s political career. He lost the leadership of the Liberal Party on just this issue. He once described the Coalition’s policy of Direct Action to reduce carbon emissions as ‘fiscal recklessness on a grand scale’. He also described Direct Action as a ‘fig leaf’ when you haven’t got a policy. Now Malcolm Turnbull describes Direct Action as a ‘resounding success’.

In 2010, Malcolm Turnbull told us that ‘to effectively combat climate change’, the nation ‘must move … to a situation where almost all or most of our energy needs to come from zero or near zero emissions sources’. Now he tells the parliament that ‘[Opposition leader, Bill Shorten] is highlighting one of the most reckless proposals the Labor Party has made. Fancy proposing without any idea of the cost of abatement, the cost of proposing that 50% of energy had to come from renewables! What if that reduction in emissions you needed could come more cost-effectively from carbon storage, by planting trees, by soil carbon, by using gas, by using clean coal, by energy efficiency.’ That is dramatic turn-round in policy by Malcolm Turnbull. Was it just political rhetoric or has he changed his mind on renewable energy?

Barnaby Joyce maintains that in the deal with the National Party, Malcolm Turnbull agreed that water policy would be transferred to his agricultural portfolio. That suggests that the interests of farmers will be placed ahead of the ecological health of the Murray-Darling Basin. That again raises serious doubts about Malcolm Turnbull’s environmental credentials. Even that resolute climate sceptic, Tony Abbott, never put Barnaby Joyce in charge of water in the Murray Darling Basin.

The Turnbull government has now approved the $16 b. Adani Carmichael Coal Project in Queensland. In doing this, Malcolm Turnbull told the parliament that ‘clean coal’ and ‘carbon capture’ were viable responses to fossil fuel pollution. But he told us in 2010 that ‘despite all the money put into carbon capture and storage there is still, as of today, no industrial scale coal fired power station using carbon capture and storage ‘. As far as I can understand carbon capture and storage is still a pipe dream, as it has been for decades.

The tide of informed opinion is turning very strongly against new investments in thermal coal projects like Carmichael. The governor of the Bank of England only recently warned about the risks of investing in fossil fuel and that such investments would likely become ‘stranded assets’. In 2010 Malcolm Turnbull told us that building a future that is not reliant on fossil fuels for energy is ‘absolutely essential if we are to leave a safe planet to our children and the generations that come after them.’ Yet he has now approved the Carmichael coal mine that will be one of the largest in the world and the largest in Australia. It will increase carbon pollution dramatically and put at risk the Great Barrier Reef. We are paying a heavy price for another Malcolm Turnbull somersault.

In his own electorate of Wentworth, Malcolm Turnbull had a strong reputation and record in support of marriage equality. But that is also changing. He has now endorsed the position held by Tony Abbott. As prime minister, he has told the parliament ‘the Coalition, our government, has decided that the resolution of this matter [marriage equality] will be determined by a vote of the people by a plebiscite to be held after the next election’. Tony Abbott must be pleased. No wonder Tony Abbott said, perhaps a little mischievously that the Turnbull Government had not changed any policies of his own government.

In Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull described data retention laws as ‘expensive, invasive and useless’. He is now over-seeing a huge expansion in the amount of information the government can access from the public. There is no sign yet that he is likely to rescue us from the ‘digital dungeon’ he warned us about.

Tony Abbott was determined to destroy the National Broadband Network. Malcolm Turnbull, it could be argued, helped to rescue it. But the political compromise between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull has given us a much inferior NBN. Almost all informed advice tells us that we are spending massive sums on a project which will result in this country having inadequate internet speeds. This will stifle the sort of innovative businesses which Malcolm Turnbull says the country needs. Yet he has shown no signs of building an NBN which, instead of relying upon slow and antiquated Telstra copper, connects most Australian premises to fibre. All we have had is waffle from the new minister about the government being technologically “agnostic”, whatever that means.

It is early days yet for the Turnbull government, but the events of the last month are cause for concern. Tony Abbott and the old guard are winning consistently on policies.

Gough Whitlam indelibly stamped his policies on the ALP long before he became Prime Minister. The reverse now looks to be in play with the Coalition stamping its policies and prejudices on Malcolm Turnbull after he became Prime Minister.

In the end we didn’t expect much from Tony Abbott, but with Malcolm Turnbull we have much higher expectations. He has set the bar much higher for himself and our country. We were encouraged by this. But he is showing a tendency to keep running under the bar he set.

He has given the Liberal party a lift in its political capital of about 3/4%. But has the Liberal party learned a lesson about the need for genuine change along the lines formerly advocated by Malcolm Turnbull or will the Liberal party head back to its old agenda?

Will Malcolm Turnbull be there when we need him and help realise the high expectations we have of him. I hope so. But political compromise in the grab for power has been obviously on show in the first few weeks.



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