Malcolm is not so in the middle

by · March 20, 2012


Here’s my latest for ABC’s The Drum website, published yesterday.

Australian politics has a strange ‘centre’ at the moment, and the dial seems increasingly to fall at the feet of Malcolm Turnbull.

His presence on shows like Q&A results in both calls for him to reassume the Liberal Party leadership, and the suggestion he is an ALP member in disguise. Analogies are drawn with Don Chipp and he is urged to create a new party of the centre. While some celebrate his staring down of Abbott on climate change, others seem seduced by his status as the likable one inside elite circles.

Yet far from a ‘good sort’ member of the 1 per cent, his celebrated small ‘l’ liberalism is little other than a continuation of the right-wing economic radicalism of the neoliberal era. Turnbull is committed to privatisation of the public sector, radical industrial relations policy, and solving serious social problems (such as climate change) by leaving them to market mechanisms. He has even gone so far as to call building the National Broadband Network ‘the telecommunications version of Cuba‘.

In the lead up to the last federal election, GetUp! chose the seat of Wentworth as one of only two seats in NSW to target leaflet on election day. The seat had Labor for Refugees member and marriage equality supporter Steven Lewis in the red corner, and carbon-price-loving and leather-jacket-clad Turnbull turning it on in the blue. While The Greens received their usual series of big ticks from GetUp!, the leaflet encouraged voters to be prudent as ‘Wentworth Is Different’, they claimed.

I voted in the late afternoon when there were more GetUp! activists than party volunteers at the booth. They were in chorus screaming that Lewis agreed with me on ending marriage discrimination, and that Turnbull was on my team wanting to tackle climate change.

“The candidates want social justice — they’re real liberals.”

“These two disagree with their parties — they say what they really think.”

As the @GetUpWentworth campaign tweeted:

@LewisWentworth supports gay marriage, will cross floor over refugees. @TurnbullMalcolm wants price on carbon. RT this important info!

What were not part of the verbal volleys as I queued, nor discussed in the GetUp! leaflet, were any more fundamental questions about the economy despite the dire global outlook at the time. The leaflet talked about specific policy initiatives — around health, environment, refugees, and jobs and infrastructure — but disconnected from the overall management of the economy and the neoliberal economic orthodoxy of the major parties.

For example GetUp!’s leaflet indicated where the parties stood on an increase in the compulsory rate of superannuation, but said nothing on the catastrophic losses of people’s retirement money in the Global Financial Crisis (as a result of it being gambled on the stock market). It scored the parties on increased funding for Indigenous, preventative and mental health, but said nothing on the growing share of health money going to private health care. Nor did it ask about the repeated failures to bring crucial allied health services (such as psychology, physiotherapy and dental) fully under the Medicare umbrella and change fundamentally the economics of healthcare in this country.

So there I stood, close to the many corners of Kings Cross that house Sydney’s homeless each night, angry about how little the GetUp! leaflet said about the Wentworth community’s haves and have-nots. It was a gloomy bit of icing on an election where Abbott’s record player was stuck on ‘turn back the boats’ and ‘great big new tax‘. An election where Gillard and Swan were trying to sell the story that ‘we’ escaped the GFC, at a time many Australians felt life was getting tougher and the ALP was caving in to the big end of town over the mining tax. An election where The Greens offered little in the way of an alternative outlook on economics, ignoring warnings from members and progressive economists that they had given too much ground to neoliberal ideology.

That said, the 2010 election can also be seen as part of a longer-term trend to dumb down economic discussion and delink questions of equity and economics in Australia. The rise of the use of the term ‘social justice’ has seen the falling away of questions around inequality, to the detriment of both those individual issues and public debate. The media and politicians discuss public policy as if it were simply a series of moral questions, unconnected to wider economic strategy or principles. And the public are allowed to discuss whether something will be funded (or not funded as the case seems more often lately), but any discussion of the wider economic agenda the Government chooses to enact is out of bounds.

Turnbull is not in the wrong party, as some claim, and nor is he politically progressive. Rather, he is an extreme economic rationalist who doesn’t believe in the greater redistribution of social wealth to ensure a more equal, more just, and fairer Australia. I say leave him where he is, in the party full of those who argue the market not the community should determine important social questions.

My favourite press release of Turnbull’s is where he defends the interests of the 1 per cent while condemning the ALP means testing of the private health insurance rebate. Turnbull decried that ‘Residents in the Eastern Suburbs will carry a disproportionate burden of the cuts’. He is no fool, and clearly knows this is because the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney (where he and I both live) is home to a ‘disproportionate burden’ of the wealthy, full stop. He lives amongst those who can most afford private health insurance, and those whose tax returns will indicate they earn above the rebate threshold. The electorate of Wentworth is home to the three wealthiest suburbs in the country (Darling Point, Edgecliff and Point Piper) with a mean taxable income of $186,202.

Turnbull himself slipped off the BRW Rich 200 list in 2011, but in 2010 his estimated net worth was $186 million. Although he slid down 15 places on the list between 2009 and 2010, from 182 to 197, he actually got richer in that time. It is just that other members of the elite club around him were getting richer quicker and leapfrogged him.

So Turnbull is not really in the middle, or a centrist, at all. He is a man who possesses enormous personal wealth, and is a politician who argues for an economic framework that will deliver the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.

And even then, while Turnbull is not as socially conservative as some others in the Liberal-National Coalition, he is far from a shining light of progressive ‘social causes’. It still disgusts me that as the local representative for Darlinghurst, the host of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, he fails to support the call for marriage equality in Australia. Though as Greg Jericho pointed out, ‘giving a “vibe” of being kinda sorta in favour of gay marriage seems to be enough for some’ when it is in fact so very, very little.

Progressive people, including many activists, too rarely see issues of wealth inequality and hierarchies of power as key to social and political debates. For some raising these issues has come to be seen as ‘outdated’ or ‘irrelevant’, part of a past when class mattered. This is perhaps of most concern as we have been living through a period of dramatically increasing inequality in Australia (see also this and this).

Economics is not something separate from politics, or something that is the exclusive domain of experts and technicians. While progressives have been speaking out on crucial social issues (from mandatory detention of refugees to tackling climate change), we have often done so in a way that fails to challenge the dominant economic framework that underpins these problems. We have let the rich and powerful pursue their economic agenda effectively unchallenged. In the process we have failed to put the greatest ethical questions of this decade front and centre — those being the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and power, and the failure of neoliberalism to deliver fair and sustainable outcomes locally or globally. As one Twitter user put it about Turnbull, we should not be ‘swept away by his nice suits & crocodile smile on the idiotbox & forget he’s part of the 1%’.