The precipitous ejection of Australia’s worst-ever prime minister last year brought such a sense of relief to the electorate that the arrival of Malcolm Turnbull in his place gave him the status of a knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. Even some who support Labor were not just relieved, but pleased. He looked like a prime minister and he spoke like one with measured eloquence. His urbanity had popular appeal, his smile was engaging and the way he handled criticism stylish. We no longer felt embarrassed by our prime minister. Most important though was his stated vision for this nation: it was upbeat, forward-looking, encouraging and exciting.
Those of us who have followed politics for many years had reservations though. We remembered how after his rather brutal takeover from Brendan Nelson to become Leader of the Opposition in 2008, he offered much promise to his party and to the electorate. Many applauded particularly his enlightened views on global warming and his collaboration with Kevin Rudd to mitigate it. But after a promising start, an ill-considered instance of over-reach brought him undone. Failing to do the due diligence required of an accomplished barrister, a disturbed Liberal mole in Treasury, Godwin Grech,
led him up the garden path with a fake email. He remained there, stranded and exposed as one too obsessed with bringing down a prime minister and his treasurer. ‘Utegate’ uncovered a fatal flaw in Turnbull’s personality. He did not recover fully until he removed Abbott in September last year.
But everyone knows that to garner the votes he needed to replace the unpopular Abbott, he had to compromise many of his beliefs and principles. Just how many, and to what extent, we would soon discover.
We have watched with curiosity the turn of events since he toppled Tony Abbott in no less a brutal way than he toppled Brendan Nelson and no less brutally than Abbott toppled him in December 2009. We have been disappointed that the promise that surrounded his ascension to prime ministership, a post he had coveted for so long, has been steadily eroded. We have been dismayed about the principles he has abandoned. We kept hoping that soon he would reveal his genuine views, his cherished values and beliefs, his intentions for policy renewal. So far, there’s been precious little. Disillusionment threatens.
Ken Wolff has alluded to this in A smile is not enough. We have the Turnbull smile, day after day, but not much else to engender confidence in him and his governance. In Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers, 2353NM has drawn attention to the antediluvian attitude of the Turnbull government to climate change, one inherited from Abbott, but as yet unchanged.
Let’s dissect his period in parliament into bite-size issues, in this and subsequent pieces.
Climate change is a good place to start, because it was Turnbull’s avant-garde approach that encouraged Kevin Rudd to vigorously address global warming, which Rudd described as ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’, and to come up with an emissions trading scheme to mitigate it. Rudd and Turnbull were almost to the point of bipartisan agreement on such a scheme until Rudd lost his nerve and Turnbull lost his position as leader in early December 2009. Rudd was spoofed by falling popularity in the electorate. But it was a conservative clique in the LNP that was opposed to an ETS that turfed out Turnbull in favour of Abbott. An ETS was so close. Australia could have been a world leader in carbon pollution mitigation; now it is a laggard.
But that’s not where the story ends. Deprived of his preferred carbon trading mechanism, Turnbull described Abbott’s alternative scheme, his Direct Action Plan, as a ‘fig leaf’. On 7 December 2009, Turnbull’s website spelt out his views as a backbencher: “So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he [Abbott] won’t complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition’s policy, or lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.”
It goes on:
"First, let’s get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money. To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money. Somebody has to pay.
That’s enough for now; you can read the lot here.
“So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, ‘bullshit’. Moreover he knows it.
“Second, as we are being blunt, the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion “climate change is crap” or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it’s cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left wing conspiracy to de-industrialise the world.”
Look now at the comments Turnbull made to Tony Jones eighteen months later on Lateline, in May 2011. Suitably abbreviated, they tell us what Turnbull believed then:
"Well, Tony, honestly, I don't want to comment on the direct action policy. I'm happy to describe it to you. If you want a commentary run on it, you should ask Tony Abbott or Greg Hunt about it.
You can see the whole interview and read the transcript here.
“It is what it is. It is a policy where, yes, the Government does pick winners, there's no doubt about that, where the Government does spend taxpayers' money to pay for investments to offset the emissions by industry.
“…I think there are two virtues of that from the point of view of Mr Abbott and Mr Hunt.
“One is that it can be easily terminated. If in fact climate change is proved to be not real, which some people obviously believe - I don't. If you believe climate change is going to be proved to be unreal, then a scheme like that can be brought to an end...
“Or if you believe that there is not going to be any global action and that the rest of the world will just say, ‘It's all too hard and we'll just let the planet get hotter and hotter,’ and, you know, heaven help our future generations - if you take that rather grim, fatalistic view of the future and you want to abandon all activity, a scheme like that is easier to stop.”
“…if you want to have a long-term solution to abating carbon emissions…if you want to have a long-term technique of cutting carbon emissions in a very substantial way to the levels that the scientists are telling us we need to do by mid-century to avoid dangerous climate change, then a direct action policy…where industry was able to freely pollute, if you like, and the Government was just spending more and more taxpayers' money to offset it, that would become a very expensive charge on the budget in the years ahead.”
Speaking in August 2010 at the launch of a report demonstrating the technical feasibility of moving Australia to a 100% renewable energy nation, Turnbull said,
inter alia: "We are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet. It’s the only planet we’ve got…. We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic. We know that extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency and while it is never possible to point to one drought or one storm or one flood and say that particular incident is caused by global warming, we know that these trends are entirely consistent with the climate change forecasts with the climate models that the scientists are relying on…. We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.”
Turnbull’s full speech is here.
Turnbull could not have been clearer then about his views on carbon abatement and the Direct Action Plan.
Now let’s look at what he said recently when challenged with his earlier statements. Writing in The Guardian, in Is new Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull already a climate change turncoat?, Graham Readfearn reports that in response to a question in his first QT, Turnbull said:
”[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 the 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?”
Readfearn continues: “Turnbull [once] said that to ‘effectively combat climate change’ the nation ‘must move… to a situation where all or almost all of our energy comes from zero or very near zero emissions sources’.
“But now it seems, Turnbull wants to ridicule an idea that he enthusiastically supported five years earlier.
“Turnbull once described the government’s Direct Action climate change policy as ‘fiscal recklessness on a grand scale’ but now thinks the policy is a ‘resounding success’.”
Readfearn concludes: “In 2011, Turnbull said it was important that even within the debates between the merits of a carbon price or Direct Action, people should ‘not fall into the trap of abandoning the science.’
“But now, Turnbull is defending his government’s weak targets on climate change that, if they were replicated by other countries around the world, analysts say would likely see the planet warm by 3C or more.
“Not only is Turnbull abandoning the science, he is abandoning his previous common sense position on climate for what a former Turnbull described as a policy that was no more than a fig leaf.
“To quote Turnbull himself, building a future without a reliance 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’”.
He carried these views all the way to the Paris Conference on Climate Change Policy and Practice, and has not changed them since.
Perhaps this is Turnbull’s most disappointing abandonment of principles and policy since resuming leadership. After all he has said in the past about climate change, it defies understanding. It highlights how prepared he is to discard values, indeed morality, to gain and keep office. Hope that once in office he would revert to his previous values and beliefs about climate change has so far been dashed. His radical change of approach about this crucial issue, when he knows full well the truth about global warming, depreciates his authority and demeans him as a trustworthy leader.
There are more examples of the man so many welcomed as a fresh breath of air after the oppressive atmosphere that Abbott created, now reneging on his promise of a different government and shelving his promises of policy reform. Apart from his shameful reversal of his climate change principles and practice, his prior attitudes to same-sex marriage and the republican cause are now in doubt. He has toned down Abbott’s inflammatory rhetoric on terrorism and Muslims, but continues to embrace Abbott’s punitive immigration policy. These issues are for another piece.
Writing in The Age in February of last year before Turnbull knocked off Abbott, Julie Szego draws attention to instances of his backsliding even prior to his getting the top job. We were warned:
“…having earlier affirmed the importance of the ABC, he made a conspicuously lame attempt to explain the cuts to its funding. When the changes to racial vilification laws were proposed, he similarly stammered his way through media interviews on the subject, his opposition to those changes easily discerned.
“He also backed legislation for a data retention scheme, even though he had questioned the need for such a scheme when the previous Labor government introduced its metadata plans and even though he had reportedly been left out of the deliberations about the controversial laws. Again he was forced to an unconvincing sales pitch about the measures. "I hope with clarity and precision, I am explaining what the [security] agencies are seeking," he said, drawing inevitable attention to the proposals' complete lack of clarity or precision.
“Amid such policy humiliations, Turnbull keeps the public on side with the odd self-deprecating remark, a tilt of an eyebrow, a wry grin. He exudes a knowing irony. Turnbull might be the consummate politician for the digital age. More than any other politician he seems to understand how a well-placed gesture or subtle turn of phrase on Q&A get multiplied and amplified on social media, spilling into the 24/7 cycle in a perfect feedback loop.
“In contrast to Julia Gillard, he's unlikely to try to reboot his image in the midst of an election campaign, or at all. We all know he's not "the real Malcolm", and he knows we know. Thus far, inauthenticity has worked a treat for him.
The opposition hopes that should Turnbull ascend to the top job, he'll end up terminally wedged between his personal convictions and those of his party. Perhaps he will. Then again, Labor might find that if it fails to offer a substantive policy alternative it risks shrinking the political fight to a personality contest.”
Which leads to the title of this piece: Puff the Magic Malcolm, which is clearly a take on the well-known song: Puff the Magic Dragon. While some believe that song was all about puffing weed, the three songsters, Peter, Paul and Mary insist: "... it's a song about innocence lost … a loss of innocence and having to face an adult world” Has Malcolm lost his ‘innocence’ in the adult world of ruthless uncompromising party politics?
What do you think?
Following pieces in this short series will address Turnbull’s emerging shortcomings and his backsliding as he squirms under the oppressive thumb of the reactionaries in his own party. Will he fulfill the hopes of so many that he will cast off the conservative curse, crawl out from under the repressive influence of the Abbott-led opponents, and show us the Real Malcolm Turnbull, whose values and genuine beliefs have made him so popular with the voters?
Or will he be crushed into humiliating submission, crippled by enforced conformity, curtailed in every move his better self tells him to make, imprisoned by those who gave him power? Even Laborites hope not. We know the Malcolm of old; we were hoping for something better this time around.