Won’t get fooled again

Last week, we published an article demonstrating that Prime Minister Turnbull really hasn’t changed all that much. While he has fiddled around the edges and has shown some ability in attempting to explain policy better, Australia is still treating refugees who attempt to come here abysmally; there is still an expenditure ‘problem’ rather than looking at expenditure and revenue (tax); there is no change from the expensive and unproven ‘direct action’ environmental package, same sex marriage or becoming a republic.

The Nationals have an important role to play in the current coalition government: they are the people that give Abbott or Turnbull the numbers to govern. The Liberal Party controls 75 seats in the House of Representatives — they need 76 for a majority. Apparently, each time the Liberal Party leadership changes the coalition agreement is re-negotiated. This time, the agreement (which hasn’t been made public) apparently documented a number of issues from the Abbott government that were to remain as Coalition policy.

Turnbull has history as one of the more progressive members of the Liberal Party. He was Opposition Leader when Prime Minister Rudd was working on an emissions trading system and supported the concept. The ultra-conservative faction of the Liberal Party was aghast, organised the numbers and replaced (by one vote) Turnbull with Abbott. With the signing of a new coalition agreement, plus a list of policies that won’t change, and possibly a separate letter regarding policy before they would re-sign the coalition agreement, it’s easy to suggest the Nationals, in their eyes at least, believe they ‘Won’t get fooled again’.

Turnbull has bigger problems than keeping the Nationals happy. While they ‘talk tough’, it is easy to argue that in the past the Nationals will compromise their principles for the smell of ministerial leather.

Turnbull’s first problem is Tony Abbott. At the time of writing, Abbott was indicating that he would stay on as a Member of Parliament. Abbott, while promising to get out of the way, has recently ‘subjected’ himself to interviews from some of his favourite media ‘players’ — Ray Hadley, Neil Mitchell and The Daily Telegraph. While some form of justifying his actions and protecting his heritage is natural, Mark Kenny, writing in Fairfax publications begs to differ:
His assertion that he could have done a David Cameron, and be re-elected despite a period of being down in the polls, is fanciful and speaks to the depths of his office's self-delusion.
The Political Sword has previously touched on the war between the conservative and moderate sections of the party, as played out inside the Coalition, News Corporation and in the wider community.
The political blame games have begun in earnest. Probably the first off the block was Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin. A few days after the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the Prime Ministership, former Prime Minister Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin gave a speech at a ‘Women of the Future’ event in Sydney.

Peter Costello, hardly a friend of Abbott’s appeared on Four Corners and claimed it was almost certainly the right decision to elevate Malcolm Turnbull.

Andrew Bolt made an appeal that Abbott really was a ‘decent bloke’ and that a number of his positives – such as his community service through Lifesaving – was ridiculed and thrown back at him. Ray Hadley raged against the 53 ‘dunderheads’ that voted against Abbott.

It seems that some within the organisation [News Corp] have decided that Abbott lost and have (perhaps reluctantly) thrown their support behind Turnbull as Prime Minister. Others haven’t.
While their ‘standard bearer’ is sitting there on the backbench, there will be mutterings regarding his ‘wasted’ skills in a similar way to those made by Rudd supporters after Gillard became prime minister. While Gillard initially made Rudd Foreign Minister, we know how well that worked. Rudd resigned as Foreign Minister (from overseas) and sat on the backbench for some time before his successful challenge. In addition, when conservative radio announcer Alan Jones lectured Turnbull he ‘had no hope of ever being the leader, you have got to get that into your head’, there is obviously some element of revenge that is yet to be extracted, as it seems that Jones is always right — just ask him. When you consider that Abbott era Minister Abetz has threatened to cross the floor if ‘necessary’, and both Abetz and Bernardi have openly discussed the formation of a ‘new’ conservative party in Australia, it’s probably fair to suggest (with a hat tip to Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch), that Abbott isn’t dead, he’s just resting. While it’s probably labouring the comparison a tad too much (sorry), Abbott sitting on the backbench ‘pining for the fjords’ of leadership claims he ‘refuses to snipe’ but will be in an ideal position to emulate Rudd and attempt to gather followers and take back the leadership/prime ministership.

Turnbull also has to manage expectations. The elevation of a new leader brings an opportunity for all to attempt to promote solutions for their own specific needs and wants. As an example, this article suggested at the start that Turnbull hasn’t made any immediate changes to refugee policy, environmental policy, same sex marriage or promotion of a debate around the republic.

The Western Australian and Queensland governments are confidently predicting funding for public transport. The overturning of the emasculation of the original National Broadband Network (NBN) is being promoted by others, while muzzling the overreactions of government organisations such as Border Force are being questioned as well. Again without much surprise, the New South Wales Teachers Federation is asking Turnbull to deliver on the (ALP’s) Gonski reforms to education.

For the record, TPS isn’t the only media outlet asking for change in Australia’s refugee policy. A group of coalition and independent politicians are asking Turnbull to heal the ‘weeping sore’ of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. Gillian Triggs, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner is also asking for change In response to recent rape allegations made by refugees on Manus Island, Turnbull claims he is ‘concerned’ but the policies are working.
"The one thing we know is these policies, tough though they are, harsh though they are in many respects, actually do work, they save lives," he said.

"This is not a theoretical exercise anymore."

He criticised former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd for dismantling the Howard era offshore processing regime, arguing the decision cost billions of dollars and an unknown number of lives.

Mr Turnbull said he personally argued against the Rudd government changes.
Turnbull, to his credit has sat down with representatives from business, community groups and organised labour on 1 October to discuss an economic way forward. While Turnbull was talking about reform and the reporting on the ‘mini-summit’ seemed positive:
The Turnbull government has reached in-principle agreement with unions, employers and welfare organisations to reduce a raft of concessional taxation arrangements that benefit the rich, as all sides hailed the prospect of a new era of consensus and co-operation in Canberra.
In his first major interview since taking over as head of the Business Coalition for Tax Reform, Frank Drenth, whose lobby group includes the nation's biggest business groups including the Australian Bankers' Association, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia, Financial Services Council, Minerals Council of Australia and Property Council of Australia, said business was open to having a debate about the areas that were seen by the previous Liberal leadership as taboo.
Greg Jericho, writing for The Guardian questioned the reality of the debate over economic reform, suggesting that ‘reform’ just means ‘policy that I agree with’. So ‘having the debate’ over subjects that were ‘taboo’ according to the previous leadership is probably useless unless some action takes place. Jericho’s suggestion is:
You want to change Australia’s tax system, our IR system, our competition laws? Great, but tell us why and how that will improve our economy, and tell us who will be affected and how. If you need to say it will improve productivity, tell us how and explain what you mean by that word — because profit does not equal productivity.
Turnbull in his first month has created an atmosphere where business, government and the unions will talk to each other to make all our lives more equitable — which is better than Abbott could achieve in two years. That’s a brilliant outcome isn’t it? Well — no so fast.

On the same day as the economic ‘mini-summit’, where seemingly everything was on the table, Abbott made the decision to have a chat with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell. The chat was on air. So despite Turnbull trying to change the discussion, the day’s memorable headline was that Abbott hadn’t ‘forgiven’ Turnbull. By comparison, Gillard seems to have ‘moved on’ by limiting her comment on past political events and pursuing her interests on the larger stage that being a former leader of a country gives you. Sitting on a stage in New York City as an equal with Michelle Obama, Charlize Theron and others discussing how to improve educational outcomes for girls worldwide is a class act.

Turnbull obviously made a number of commitments to fellow conservative politicians to gain power. There also seems to be some disgruntled Liberal and National Party members along with some members of the media. Human nature would suggest that people seek a rallying point for their discontent. In politics now — as was the case in 2012 and 2013 — they have a former prime minister sitting on the backbench, to some extent twiddling his thumbs. It would seem to those that are not members of the inner circle (such as me) that it would be easier to seek to influence others to support the failed ‘hero’ rather than form a new political party. A challenge to Turnbull is almost inevitable unless he retains the Abbott policies — Abbott, Abetz and Bernardi have almost said so. If Turnbull does retain all the Abbott policies, there are a significant number of generalist and special interest groups that will vote for anyone but Turnbull.

Turnbull is a ‘failed’ opposition leader, now prime minister. A raft of groups from ultra-conservative to progressive have placed trust in Turnbull to further their particular interests. While some see Turnbull as the saviour, it is probably better to remember Turnbull was rolled the first time when he agreed with an environmental policy that subsequently demonstrated efficiency and proof of concept. We know now that he is surrounded by those who won’t allow him to change the world and get away with it. That should ensure we ‘won’t get fooled again’.

What do you think?
Turnbull may have won the Liberal Party leadership and the prime ministership but as 2353 points out his troubles aren’t over. Conflicting expectations have been created for both the conservatives and progressives. Whether Turnbull can meet those expectations is debatable. But, if we are aware of them then 2353’s words may be true and we ‘won’t get fooled again’.

Next week we go back a little in political time when Ken takes a closer look at the radicalisation awareness brochure released in September, in his ‘Are you sure you’re not a radical?’

Same old same old

[Can you pick the difference?]

On 14 September, Malcom Turnbull was elected leader of the Liberal party and, as a consequence, became the 29th prime minister of Australia. There was an almost immediate change in the timbre of political discussion. But has anything else changed?

For example, Peter Dutton retained his position as Minister for Immigration and on 24 September, in response to another small wooden boat carrying 18 asylum seekers being stopped (or disappearing into the ‘operational’ black hole), said that the government’s policies had not changed.

The day before Turnbull had suggested that policies relating to the Nauru and Manus Island detention (or processing) centres could be reconsidered by cabinet but in a later interview on the same day reiterated the existing policy regarding people arriving by boat:
“We cannot take a backward step on this issue,” he said.
“There will be no resettlement of the people on Manus and Nauru in Australia.
”They will never come to Australia.”
Scott Morrison replaced Joe Hockey as treasurer in the Turnbull ministry and in his first press conference as treasurer on 23 September basically promised that the government would continue cutting costs (aka reduce government services). He insisted:
“We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
He vowed to pursue the Coalition’s savings measures from the last budget, in particular, the changes to Family Tax Benefit system the Senate has rejected.
It was noted by the reporter that he used the phrase ‘work, save and invest’ numerous times throughout the press conference (another three word slogan — perhaps he just can’t avoid old habits — although Labor has since discovered that it was used in John Hewson’s Fightback in 1993.). I think that reflects the business focus of the government. I’m not sure how one could apply that phrase to a cleaner on minimum wages: work — yes; save — a bit hard on the minimum wage, or less in some cases; invest — invest what, the five cents they have left or the debt run up on the credit card just to meet living expenses! I think it is clearly a phrase aimed at the traditional Liberal heartland of small business and was perhaps deliberately spoken for that reason — unless, of course, they think the workers, savers and investors are three different groups of people, which is possible.

That night on the 7.30 Report, Leigh Sales challenged Morrison on his spending versus revenue statement and his answers were less than convincing but reinforced the view prevalent under Abbott that cutting government spending, rather than raising taxes, was the preferred option:
… to ensure that we spend taxpayers’ money the best way we can and we raise as little as we need of it and we spend as little as we have to of it to ensure we get the right balance.
Despite Sales pointing out that revenue was not even meeting the government’s own forecasts, Morrison insisted he was not in the camp that thought spending issues could be solved just by raising taxes. Sales pointed out that, currently, while expenditure may be 26% of GDP, revenue had fallen to 23.5%. Morrison avoided a direct answer and pointed out that revenue was projected to rise to 25% of GDP: ‘If you trust the projections’ Sales retorted.

I find it mystifying that in relation to raising taxes to increase revenue, he said:
… I have to focus on the things that I can control and what I can have an influence over is how much the Government spends of taxpayers’ money.
Is he suggesting that he has no control over taxes? I suggest that he has a few more briefings from his treasury officials before attempting another interview — he is the treasurer, after all, not the finance minister.

On 27 September, it was revealed that Health Minister Sussan Ley had commissioned a review of the 5,700 medical services subsidised by Medicare. There are some valid reasons for such a review but other commentators have pointed out that a Liberal government review of anything is usually code for a cost cutting exercise. I agree and, given the approach laid out by Scott Morrison, it is certainly not going to lead to an increase in funding.

There was one flickering light at the end of this tunnel when Finance Minister Mathias Cormann announced on 28 September that superannuation would be considered in the government’s white paper on taxation. That was a change on Abbott’s statements that his government would not change superannuation concessions. It raises the possibility that the Turnbull government may be prepared to consider raising revenue in that way — despite what Scott Morrison had been stating only five days earlier. It is interesting also for the fact that Labor has already indicated that it will consider changes to high-end superannuation, so is this no more than a positioning for the next election? — if there is little to choose between the parties in terms of policy then it may come down to a contest between leaders and, at the moment, Turnbull would win that fight.

Another aspect of the announcement was that Cormann made it on Sky News before Morrison also became involved. That was a change. Under Abbott, he would likely have made such an announcement himself. Morrison had also suggested on the 7.30 Report that the prime minister would only be involved in budget discussions on strategic issues. There were reports that Abbott had involved himself in all aspects of the Liberal’s first budget in 2014. So it appears Turnbull may be returning to a more traditional form of government with greater responsibility left with ministers (at least for now). In that regard, it was also interesting to note that the new education minister, Simon Birmingham, made the announcement that legislation for the deregulation of the higher education sector would not be brought back to parliament before the next election.

Turnbull himself has, so far, had little substantive to say. He has made two major announcements: one on the $100 million package for domestic violence and the other a $1.3 billion spend on vehicles for the Australian army. Neither of those announcements, however, can be credited to the Turnbull government. The army vehicles have years of history, including the production of prototypes and testing by the army, and the announcement was just the completion of a long process. And the domestic violence announcement came so soon after Turnbull became prime minister that it is highly likely the package had been in development by the public service for some time. It is interesting to speculate what impact those announcements may have had if Abbott had announced them.

Turnbull did undertake a number of interviews and make appearances soon after he became prime minister: on the 7.30 Report, on Sunrise, on The Today Show, with Michael Brissenden on ABC radio, and with David Speers on Sky News. He said little of substance in any of these interviews — accepting that he had not yet been two weeks in office.

He made clear that he would be retaining the existing policies as regard same sex marriage — a plebiscite, although he has hinted it may be held earlier than was envisaged under the Abbott approach — climate change and, as discussed earlier, ‘boat people’ (and he did not mention the republic). When asked whether that was consistent with his earlier comments and, sometimes, criticism of those policies, he had two answers. Firstly, that he had in fact supported the government policies as a member of cabinet and secondly:
Well, there will be changes to policy if they don’t work as well as we think, or we think others can work better. Again, none of this is written in stone, but my, what I’m saying is I don’t have any plan to change those policies because everything we see at the moment suggests they’re working very well.
So he does not rule out policy change but is being very careful how he words his approach to it. He has also emphasised the need for such changes to come from ministers and be agreed by cabinet: he is trying to avoid the criticism of his first term of Liberal party leadership when it was said that he tried to run the show himself as evidenced by his agreement to an ETS with Rudd even though it was opposed by many in his party. The other side of that coin is that to achieve policy change he will need to carry the Right of the party with him. He has tried to retain its support with people like Dutton and Morrison in his cabinet but it leaves open the possibility that a minister may, as Turnbull did himself, express public views that are not consistent with government policy. It is still a potentially unstable situation.

He did, however, make some comments that may show where his real interests lie:
We have to lift our productivity. We have to be more innovative, more competitive, we have to be more productive.

What you will see is the Government proceeding to deliver on an economic reform agenda that will promote productivity, will promote innovation, and will continue to promote business confidence and investment.

Well, the industrial relations reform, which is — labour market reform, is a — has been a very vexed one. … I think the important thing is to seek to explore ways in which we can achieve more flexibility, higher levels of employment, higher levels of business activity … the challenge for us is not to wage war with unions or the workers they — that they seek to represent, but really to explain what the challenges are and then lay out some reform options.
Three key points to note from those statements are:
  • the repeated need to improve ‘productivity’
  • the way he equated ‘industrial relations reform’ with ‘labour market reform’
  • the way the government will ‘lay out some reform options’ after explaining the challenges.
Turnbull’s approach was challenged by Terri Butler and Andrew Giles in an article in The Guardian on 28 September. They argued that labour productivity has actually increased in recent years and that it is multi-factor productivity that has slowed: multi-factor productivity takes account of the contribution of technology, advances in knowledge and improvements in management and production techniques in increasing output. Turnbull has not made clear whether he takes that wider view or is adopting the business blueprint that increased productivity means decreasing the cost of labour (attacking penalty rates and conditions).

Butler and Giles also suggest that Turnbull’s explanation that options will be laid out after explaining the challenges ignores that a genuine consultative process includes agreement on what are the challenges. Turnbull claimed to have such agreement in the economic leaders’ meeting he held on 1 October but there is no indication of agreement on the measures required. That will remain a decision for the government and on early Turnbull utterances it is not likely to do the workers any favours.

In essence, Turnbull is currently mouthing platitudes towards workers but there still appears an underlying neo-liberal approach giving prominence to the market and possibly further deregulation of the ‘labour market’.

We also have Turnbull’s political judgment. It was questioned after the Godwin Grech affair. Has he learned lessons from that? The appointments of Sinodinos and Brough to his cabinet may suggest not: they both have issues of integrity hanging over them, let alone possible legal issues.

In his first incarnation as Liberal leader, it was said that he was inclined to waffle. That has been evident in some of his early interviews as prime minister but, in his defence, he has not yet had anything substantial to speak about. He has promised to ‘explain’ government positions to the electorate but whether he can strike the balance between Abbott’s three word slogans and his own proclivity to waffle, remains to be seen.

So we have, at least for now, the same old policies, and at least some aspects of the same old Turnbull. Whether he is able to change his nature and change some of the policies appears to depend on whether or not he is able to gain support from the Right of his party in both the cabinet and party room. As 2353 suggested last week, we could be in for an interesting ride.

What do you think?
Can a leopard change its spots? Can a Turnbull change its nature? Many questions about the ‘new’ Turnbull will only be answered by the passage of time but they are questions of which we must be aware and that we must keep in mind if we are to judge his future performance.

Next week we continue the Turnbull theme when 2353 suggests we ‘Won’t get fooled again’.

Pass the Popcorn

It is now a month into the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull. Based on previous history, Turnbull is considered to be a ‘left wing’ Liberal, judging on his pronouncements over the years — being in favour of emissions reduction, same sex marriage, Fibre to the Home (FTTH) internet connections and other issues usually attributed to ‘the greenies’ and ‘latte drinkers’ from the ALP. When Turnbull outmanoeuvred Abbott, there was a delay in the necessary trip to the Governor-General to be sworn in as prime minister as the Nationals (the junior partner to the Coalition) wanted some additional conditions added to the agreement between the Liberals and the Nationals in order to retain the Coalition. Most of these conditions were to ensure the conservative policies espoused by the Abbott government were retained.

So far the major difference between Abbott and Turnbull seems to be actions like the release of a policy to inject $100million into programs to eliminate domestic violence and assist the victims. Announced by the newly minted Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, and flanked by Turnbull and Rosie Batty (current Australian of the Year and domestic violence elimination advocate), Turnbull’s contribution was to correctly state that being disrespectful to women was ‘un-Australian’. It is doubtful the previous holder of both the prime ministerial and minister for women roles would have made the same statement. However to give the previous incumbent some credit, pulling a policy like this together probably started under his tenure.

The political blame games have begun in earnest. Probably the first off the block was Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin. A few days after the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership, she gave a speech at a ‘Women of the Future’ event in Sydney. In the speech, she argued that she was not responsible for the demise of Abbott, she did not control access or policy in the prime minister’s office and she refused to be defined by ‘insider gossip’. Credlin also claimed:
… she had been unfairly targeted by the media because of her gender and that there were different standards applied to women in powerful jobs. “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong,” she said. “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be a micromanager, I’d be across my brief, or across the detail.

“If I wasn’t strong, determined, controlling and got them into government from opposition, then I would be weak and not up to it and should have to go and could be replaced. So, it’s very binary when it comes to women.”
Katherine Murphy, writing in The Guardian disagrees, as does Barrie Cassidy from the ABC and Michelle Grattan who writes for The Conversation. Murphy, Gratten and Cassidy paint a picture of a controlling person who isolated her ‘boss’ from reality to such an extent that he didn’t see the writing on the wall. The obvious response to Murphy, Grattan and Cassidy is ‘well they would say that, wouldn’t they’ as each has written critical articles on Abbott and his government in the past. When Janet Albrechtsen writes a similar opinion piece in The Australian (paywalled), maybe there is some truth to the claims. (It is interesting that this type of writing is only done after the demise of the victim such as Rudd or Abbott — but that is a discussion for another day.)

Peter Costello, hardly a friend of Abbott’s, appeared on Four Corners and claimed it was almost certainly the right decision to elevate Malcolm Turnbull. Part of the justification was:
I think probably in the end it was the polls. That a majority of his colleagues felt that they were not going to win the next election and in those circumstances they decided to effect a change.
Clearly the conservative political media identities weren’t happy and they were prepared to let everyone know about it. On Channel 10’s The Project, Andrew Bolt made an appeal that Abbott really was a ‘decent bloke’ and that a number of his positives — such as his community service through Lifesaving — was ridiculed and thrown back at him. Ray Hadley raged against the 53 ‘dunderheads’ that voted against Abbott. Alan Jones wasn’t in a good mood either:
Judas, Judas, people not happy, the way it’s done, I mean the way it was done was beyond belief. The way it was done, unbelievable.
According to The Saturday Paper, the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull has fuelled a war within News Corp Australia. It seems that some within the organisation have decided that Abbott lost and have (perhaps reluctantly) thrown their support behind Turnbull as prime minister. Others haven’t. It must have been galling for some News staff that Turnbull started and finished the day after the demise of Abbott on ABC programs. On his radio program, Bolt declared that:
“We’ve actually won. Me and Alan,” he boasted. “We’ve house-trained Turnbull … we knocked him into shape, Alan and I.”

Then at tortuous length, he went on to enumerate all the ways in which Turnbull now was presenting as a convincing analogue of Tony Abbott, all because of the brilliance and courage of himself and Jones.

“Alan and I will bask in our success,” he concluded. “Behold our neo-Turnbull. Let the Left weep.”
Our good mate Cory Bernardi has a long history of opposing Malcolm Turnbull. It probably started when then opposition leader Turnbull sacked Bernardi from his front bench in 2009. In 2010 Bernardi was at the [US] Heartland Institute’s convention claiming that ‘Malcolm misled us’; in 2013, he was ‘advising’ Turnbull to accept the conservative position on same sex marriage; and as recently as early September complaining that, while his new NBN connection was fantastic, the organisation of NBNCo (part of Turnbull’s then communications minister responsibilities) was less than acceptable. He (along with Andrew Bolt) is openly talking about setting up a new party — one would assume for ‘true’ conservatives.

Apart from the problems involved in running the country, Turnbull seems to have a fundamental problem in policy and governance within his party. The Nationals have an agreement that some of the more contentious Abbott era policies will remain in place. The Bolts and Jones’ of the media seem to think that while they haven’t anointed the current prime minister, they have his measure. Meanwhile the Australian public seem to think that Turnbull will cure all the ills of the Abbott era. Effectively Turnbull can’t win. Turnbull needs the Nationals as he cannot govern in his own right — he needs 76 House of Representatives members to do so. He has 75 MP’s that identify themselves as Liberals. If he doesn’t keep the Abbott era policies he stands to lose the Nationals and the conservative media as well as the ‘right wing’ of the Liberal Party who may decide that the Bernardi party isn’t a bad place to be (with a further reduction in the number of Senators that Turnbull can rely on). If he doesn’t change policy from the Abbott era, while the Nationals and right wing will stick with him, he stands the risk of being seen as trying to sell the same agenda from a better postcode, in a nicer suit.

Either way, Turnbull’s initial bounce in the polls is not a precursor of success. While the ‘preferred PM’ statistic has changed significantly, the ‘two party preferred’ has only moved a few points, and recent history in Queensland and Victoria would suggest that 51-49 in your favour is not an election winning lead. While it all seems calm and serene on the surface, it is probably a reasonable assumption that just under the water, the business of working a way through the policy problem is being worked on night and day.

So Turnbull has to negotiate a Senate that he doesn’t control; a former chief of staff who is out for revenge — claiming the gender card as there is no other basis for the argument; potentially an ex-prime minister who will sit and stew on the backbench becoming a lightning rod for discontent in a similar way to Rudd and Keating; sections of the media that believe and publicly proclaim they have the sole prerogative to pick the prime minister of this country; members of his own party who are talking about leaving; a large section of the public who are expecting change for the better; along with an Opposition that is, according to the opinion polls, knocking on the door of majority popularity. All of these groups will have no problem in finding any number of statements Turnbull made in the past that directly contradict his political party’s current policy settings. While wise people change their mind when presented with additional information, Turnbull is already looking vulnerable on the continuation of the Abbott ‘Direct Action’ climate change policy.

The next few months are probably going to have more twists than the latest action movie. A comfy seat, dimmed lighting and popcorn seems to be appropriate.

What do you think?
Another former Liberal prime minister once said ‘life wasn’t meant to be easy’ and that may be true for the new prime minister. Can he ride the waves and survive the swirling currents around him or will he wipe out?

Next week Ken continues our look at new PM Turnbull in ‘Same old, same old’. And also watch out for pieces on this theme by Ad Astra on TPS Extra.

The philosophical myth of neo-liberalism

In my pieces I often refer to neo-liberalism. As explained in my pieces last year, ‘Whose freedom?’ and ‘Whose responsibility?’, the neo-liberal idea of freedom is based on the rational self-interested individual and it also adopts the approach of ‘negative’ freedom (following Isaiah Berlin as explained in ‘Whose freedom?’): that is freedom from interference or coercion. It is the modern version of the old libertarian.

It is also based on the principle of property rights: that I am the owner of myself and of everything I create and I should, therefore, be free to determine what I do with that property.

Their approach, however, has a problem. Its logical and pure outcome is anarchy. That comes about because if we are each rational individuals able to make rational decisions in our own self-interest, without the need for external influences to direct us towards beneficial decisions, then there is no need for government or rules — that is total freedom from interference. Can you imagine such a world? Neither can any but the most extreme libertarians and neo-liberals. But they do like the idea of ‘small government’, minimal tax and minimal regulation.

Political philosophers have often begun with what they term the ‘state of nature’, a construct meant to envisage human society before political structures. Hobbes and Locke ended up with opposing views on that ‘state’: Hobbes thinking it was one of constant conflict and Locke seeing it as harmonious, although with the potential to lead to conflict. What they did agree was that there was a ‘social contract’ whereby people gave up some of their freedom for the protection of the state, or government. Hobbes saw that leading to the need for strong government and consistent enforcement of the rule of law to restrain the inherent conflict, while Locke saw the government as existing only because the people granted it the capacity to exist — the state’s primary role was to protect the individual’s property (including the person). Locke is considered the ‘father’ of liberalism.

For neo-liberals, however, the ‘social contract’ raises a philosophical problem because it is seen as binding the property rights of future generations. For them, if a ‘social contract’ exists to give rise to government, and a monopolistic power of protection and coercion, it should be renegotiated by each generation. Otherwise they are back to their state of pure anarchy. So they needed another way to explain how government arose and it was provided by a philosopher in the 1970s — Robert Nozick.

Nozick posited that ‘the state’ could arise from the actions of individuals. While he saw rational individuals acting ‘morally’ in the state of nature (as Locke did), there could arise occasions where some did not act ‘morally’ forcing those under attack to join ‘mutual protection agencies’:
These agencies sell security packages like a free market economic good that individuals in a state of nature would surely buy for self and property protection.
So the individuals become clients of the agency when they purchase its protection. The steps involved in those mutual protection agencies developing into a state are:

  • A mutual protection agency becomes a dominant or pre-eminent protection agency in its territory.
  • It becomes what Nozick calls an ‘ultra-minimal state’ when it gains a monopoly on force in the region, even though protection is still purchased as an economic good.
  • The minimal state emerges when the first two conditions are met but the agency also extends protection to non-clients within its territory — which then comes at a cost to its clients.
For neo-liberals, this approach follows market principles and is based on the rational self-interested individual voluntarily purchasing protection from ‘the state’. The state then also has a role in stopping people enforcing their own protection against other individuals as it has the monopoly on coercive force.

It was not just the explanation of the rise of the state but the implications it gave rise to that attracted neo-liberals.

Nozick considered that the state’s single proper duty is the protection of persons and property and that it requires taxation only for that purpose. Taking tax for redistributive purposes is on a par with forced labour:
Seizing the results from someone’s labor is equivalent to seizing hours from him … If people force you to do certain work, or unrewarded work, for a certain period of time, they decide what you are to do and what purposes your work is to serve apart from your decisions. This process whereby they take this decision from you makes them a part-owner of you; it gives them a property right in you.
So from the neo-liberal perspective, taxation, other than to provide for protection of the person and property, gives the state a property right over us and therefore is an intrusion on individual rights — someone else is deciding what to do with the results of an individual’s labour. (Hockey’s claim that we work more than a month just to pay for welfare can clearly be seen as based on this argument and seemed to be driven by the false assumption that everybody else, not just he, believed it.)

Nozick also saw no philosophic problem with inequality. As each individual owns the products of their own endeavours and talents, it is possible for an individual to acquire property rights (as long as they are not gained by theft, force or fraud) over a disproportionate amount of the world: once private property has been appropriated in that way, it is ‘morally’ necessary for a free market to exist so as to allow further exchange of the property. And the individual then has complete control as to how that property is passed on. So it is logically okay for someone to inherit a fortune having contributed nothing to gain that wealth: reward for effort or just desert do not come into it for Nozick — it is only property rights and market mechanisms that count. ‘Reward for effort’ has remained, however, in the neo-liberal lexicon to justify the extreme wealth that some, like Trump, have obtained and to allow them to argue that the less successful have simply not put in enough effort.

There is also no such thing as the ‘common good’ in this approach, only individuals:
While it is true that some individuals might make sacrifices of some of their interests in order to gain benefits for some other of their interests, society can never be justified in sacrificing the interests of some individuals for the sake of others. [emphasis added]
In summary:
The state then can be seen as an institution that serves to protect private property rights and the transactions that follow from them regardless of our thoughts of some people deserving more or less than they have.
You can see why neo-liberals and capitalists generally were happy to have such a philosophic basis for their actions (even though Nozick later retreated from some aspects of it).

That whole approach adopted by the neo-liberals, and their economists, ignores the evidence that humankind is a social animal (see ‘Whose responsibility?’ linked at the start of this article). I won’t reiterate that aspect but want to consider the evolutionary psychology theory around ‘coalitions’ — which are also part of our social being. Basically it says humans have an evolved tendency to form coalitions, a stronger tendency in men than women according to the researchers. It also leads us to recognise categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’. For prehistoric humankind, this may have been an essential element for survival: an ability to recognise those whom one could trust and rely on from those who may pose a threat or, at the least, not provide support or assistance when needed. It also included a major element of reciprocity: I will support others in the coalition because I know they will in turn support me.

Modern experiments have suggested that the need to form coalitions can over-rule ‘race’ as a categorisation. That has led some to suggest that ‘race’ is merely a form of coalition that can be over-ruled by circumstances. (Categories based on age and gender are not affected in the same way.)

The reciprocal nature of coalitions has been tested against ‘game theory’. In game theory it is said there are three basic approaches: co-operate with opponents to maximise group benefits (but at the risk of being suckered); free-ride (try to sucker co-operators); or reciprocate (co-operate only with those who show signs of co-operation but not with free riders). Economists talk about an equilibrium being achieved in which individuals adjust their behaviour in order to maximise their own gains; but evolutionary psychology says that these approaches will not be equally represented in society, that there are ‘evolutionary stable strategies’ hard-wired into the human brain (which can be over-ridden but remain a default position). In recent experiments, the evolutionary approach has come out on top. In a series of four-player games 63% were found to be reciprocators, 20% free-riders and 13% co-operators but, more importantly, the researchers were then able to predict the result of further games because most individuals did not change their strategies (or did not adjust their strategies to maximise personal gain as the neo-liberal economists predict) — the missing 4% in those numbers could not be readily fitted to the three categories which, I assume, means they did change strategies and that may also suggest that only 4% of the population utilise the neo-liberal position. If reciprocity is such a highly valued approach, then it supports the view that we are hard-wired to identify and participate in coalitions and are also hard-wired to identify ‘cheaters’ or ‘free-riders’ — which is what governments are appealing to when they refer to ‘dole bludgers’ and ‘welfare cheats’ when cutting social welfare payments.

Political parties themselves are a coalition and have a coalition of supporters. Those coalitions are quite strong: Obama can be elected as a Democrat despite his race. That is one reason the old adage of ‘never discuss politics or religion’ has some validity. It is to enter into a discussion in which coalitions are already strongly formed and expressing your opinion may only identify you as an outsider.

We must also remember that coalitions can be flexible. People can come and go, or join a different coalition. Coalitions may also disappear completely if the reason that gave rise to them no longer exists or its leader falls and the coalition fragments.

Politics and religion, however, are now institutionalised, so they can continue irrespective of their original purpose and irrespective of movements in the coalitions associated with them. In evolutionary terms we looked to physically strong, reliable and trustworthy leaders if we were to join a coalition in the first place — it may have been to raid a neighbouring village. In our institutionalised coalitions, changes of leadership do not really change the structure of the coalition but we still carry that evolutionary approach and see a change of leader as a potential threat to the coalition – á la the public reaction to Rudd being dumped. The Turnbull ascendancy has been easier. The major difference would appear to be that Abbott was already in a position where he was no longer seen as a trusted and reliable leader of a coalition, although he was attempting still to portray himself as a strong leader — one out of three wasn’t good enough!

What I find fascinating is the contradiction between the two approaches I have described. Despite a natural propensity to form coalitions and engage in reciprocity, the neo-liberals continue to tell us that we function as individuals seeking only our own advantage. From the evidence, it is based on a philosophical myth that ignores the way humans actually behave. It is a construct of an ‘economic being’ that appears to have little relationship with reality.

It leads to businessmen expressing their natural humanity by forming coalitions, locally, regionally and nationally, while at the same time fighting the very existence of workers’ coalitions (unions).

We have our current government, itself derived from coalitions (the Liberal and National parties as separate coalitions of like-minded people who have the same or similar goals — their formal ‘coalition agreement’ so as to govern is a different matter). Although arising from coalitions, in the evolutionary sense, the government insists it should treat us only as individuals and ignores the coalitions we may form.

Despite insisting on the economic individual as central to policy, Abbott commonly resorted to the ultimate coalition — nationalism — to justify his leadership: there were people out there ‘coming to get us’; we had ‘Team Australia’; and you were either with us or against us and, if against us, may lose your citizenship. A blatant appeal to our evolutionary trait of identifying ‘us’ and ‘them’. While Turnbull may not play the nationalism card, he has made it clear that his will be ‘a thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market’, exactly the foundations of the neo-liberal approach. As this was from his oral victory speech, it is not clear whether he meant ‘liberal’ or ‘Liberal’, and I did note that different on-line media sites used those different forms of the word, but it does not change the point that, either as a Liberal or liberal, he is promising a neo-liberal approach.

Stressing individuality supports the success of the rich businessman (like Turnbull) but leaves the poorer individual helpless (and, ironically, more dependent on government or community support). It basically matches Nozick’s view that inequality is irrelevant.

Logically, the government cannot have it both ways: we are either all individuals, in which case nationalism has no place and business coalitions should be ignored, or we are all members of various coalitions, from the nation state to local groupings, and the government should recognise those coalitions, engage with them and recognise them in policy. Instead it engages with the business coalitions but insists the rest of us are mythical individuals and Turnbull’s words in his victory speech suggest that is unlikely to change.

What do you think?
Heavy, ay? If the economic individual created by neo-liberalism is a myth, where does that leave the philosophic basis of the Liberal party? Should a Liberal party even exist? — it is, after all, a coalition. Should government policy, as Ken suggests, focus on groups, the coalitions we naturally form, rather than the individual? Would that work? Let us know what you think.

Next week 2353 looks at some of the turmoil created by Turnbull’s ascension to prime minister in ‘Pass the popcorn’.