One year before Abbott’s 2013 Election victory the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) implored Tony Abbott to “be like Gough” in his first term as Prime Minister. Encouraging Abbott to replicate Gough Whitlam appeared an unusual move to some at the time, but the IPA’s reasoning was sound. Whitlam, the most left-wing Prime Minister in Australia’s history, was also our most radical in terms of implementing a rapid reform agenda.
As the IPA’s executive director John Roskam argued at the time:
“For the left, the point of Gough Whitlam is what he did. For a free-market think tank the point of Gough Whitlam is not what he did – it was how he did it.
He was prime minister for less than three years and he lost more elections than he won (including leading his party to two almost-annihilations in 1975 and 1977) and yet as the IPA Review declared “No prime minister changed Australia more than Gough Whitlam”.
By imploring Abbott to “be like Gough” the IPA hoped he would deploy a legislative blitzkrieg that would “end the age of entitlement” (which they contend began under Whitlam) and fundamentally change the country.
Unfortunately for the IPA, Abbott lacked the intelligence and political capital required to implement such an ambitious reform agenda in his first term. Abbott was never able to recover from his disastrous first budget and facing almost certain electoral oblivion the Liberal Party opted to replace him with Australia’s consummate political salesperson, Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull’s ascent does not bode well for Labor Party supporters or progressives.
With a cursory glance Turnbull certainly appears more progressive than Abbott but in reality he is far more economically radical. Turnbull is also a far more adept political operator.
Abbott’s shtick (along with sloganeering) was loyalty. He felt an irrational sense of loyalty to dud Ministers, Treasurers, Speakers, and Chiefs of Staff, because he prided himself on his unique reputation as a loyal individual plying his trade in a field where loyalty is openly perceived to be a liability.
It is clear now this reputation that so defined him as a politician ultimately led to his undoing as Prime Minister. Abbott’s irrational loyalty helps to explain the inner circle groupthink which plagued his government and prevents us from understanding what he actually stood for as Prime Minister. In the end all that we can discern is Abbott would say and do anything to repay the loyalty shown to him. Even if it resulted in his own political destruction.
In stark contrast to the rise of the Mad Monk, Turnbull’s ascent shows that disposable loyalty is the modus operandi for the real winners in Australian politics. And unlike Abbott we know what Turnbull stands for: an unwavering commitment to free market economic policy, deregulation and labour market reform.
Before he was Prime Minister, Turnbull was the Government Communications Minister tasked with destroying Australia’s first nation-building public infrastructure project in almost a century – Labor’s National Broadband Network – which he described as the “telecommunications version of Cuba”.
He also initiated an ‘efficiency review’ of the ABC and SBS as part of Abbott’s war on news impartiality which led to combined cuts of just under $280 million over five years and upwards of four hundred job losses. This was undertaken despite Abbott’s election pledge that the two national broadcasters would not face cuts under his government. Turnbull was reduced to defending the backflip with breathtaking sophistry as only he can:
“Both Joe Hockey and I made it quite clear we had no plans to make cuts of that nature at the public broadcasters, but if there were to be savings made across the board, the ABC and SBS could not expect to be exempt from the obligation to contribute by eliminating waste and inefficiencies.
“Unless you believe that Mr Abbott was, in that one line, intending to contradict and overrule the very careful statements of intention made by Mr Hockey and myself, his remarks can only be understood in the same context, which left open savings of a kind which would not diminish the effective resources the ABC and SBS had available to produce content.”
(Despite Turnull’s valiant efforts Abbott later admitted he regretted making the initial election pledge.)
Turnbull’s anti-regulatory pro-market ideology has become increasingly apparent since he ruthlessly seized power. Within a fortnight of becoming PM Turnbull had attacked penalty rates, and within little more than a month his Government had floated increasing the regressive GST (a policy proposal once considered untenable) and using the extra revenue to cut personal income tax. His Government has also moved to scrap cross-media ownership laws and deregulate the communications sector.
Prime Minister Turnbull says next years election should be about industrial relations and “increased workplace flexibility” and that he wants to lay out “some reform options” for voters to consider. While bereft of any meaningful detail Turnbull’s motherhood statements are nauseatingly amicable but also telling: It is this capacity to deliver carefully crafted and seemingly benign platitudes while pushing an ambitious reform agenda which makes Turnbull such an effective political operator and dangerous adversary for progressives.
Turnbull has the wit and ideological disposition to be the Whitlam-esque radical reformist the IPA mistakenly believed Abbott could be. If he can claim a resounding victory in 2016 and spin it into a mandate for an open slather approach to policy the implications will be disastrous for the Labor Party and Australian progressives.