Alas poor Malcolm, we didn't know you at all

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Saving democracy, one truffle at a time... (Meme via @michaelhallida4)

Malcolm Turnbull has long been a conservative, consistently overrated, and a man lacking loyalty, judgement and political nous, writes Ingrid Matthews.

In what has become a regular feature of the Australian mediascape, the obituaries for Malcolm "moderate" Turnbull flowed thick and fast last week.

As always, they came more in sorrow than in anger. Such a waste. So much potential. The disappointment. In the laziest cliché of Australian political commentary: the Prime Minister was – again – solemnly declared to be a captive of the conservative right. As though the Liberal Party is not an old boys club of conservative private school Burkeans to its bones.

The consensus narrative – again – is that the great white hope is lost. Multiple commentators signalled that they would not return to play the revival game on his behalf. But while it is de rigueur to proclaim Turnbull a once great man fallen on unpopular times, the trademarks of Turnbullism have been around as long as he has — and certainly from day one of his prime ministership.

This is not to imply that anyone missed the barking-not-whistling racism that Turnbull and Dutton trotted out last week, with their tired old rhetoric on migration, visas and citizenship. Those columns must write themselves, so compacted is the ground they cover. But the white-knight posturing to the women’s vote was largely overlooked, even though it is at least as prevalent and enduring as other forms of conservative bigotry.

There are political announcements and then there is the coverage of political announcements — and I will get to the neglectful coverage of this ramped-up sexism shortly. But first, this proposition: Malcolm Turnbull has long been a conservative, consistently overrated, and a man lacking loyalty, judgement and political nous. The evidence is ample and on the public record.

A very brief history of Turnbullian ineptitude

"Potential" was not realised when, in November 1999, Turnbull led the Australian Republican Movement to ignominious defeat. He was easily outmanoeuvred by John Howard, and Turnbull has not progressed towards a republic since ascending to Howard’s old job. Did we expect him to? Why?

"Moderate" does not describe the candidate who wrestled pre-selection for the seat of Wentworth from a sitting member in 2004 (recounted here). Turnbull did not care for courtesy, or convention, or compromise then and he doesn’t now. Why would he, when strong-arming worked so well?

"Smart" does not describe the bloke who fell for Kevin Rudd’s insistence, in 2009, that the Coalition support a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in the Senate. A wedge, sure, but also a monumental debacle, which took down both men and set back climate mitigation policy in Australia for ten years and counting.

That is, except for the brief period we had a price on carbon under Prime Minister Gillard. Mr Moderate did nothing to stem the tsunami of abuse she weathered from his colleagues and former colleagues in the parliament and the press. Instead, there is Turnbull chortling as his cabinet colleagues pass a lump of coal around in Parliament (in breach of the rule against props and stunts, but rules are for plebs, of course).

Greg Jericho's description of him as ‘easily the best orator in parliament does not describe an empty and aggressive speech designed to rally troops who, being troops saturated in private boys school culture, are easily rallied to a bit of homophobic hazing. "Sucking hard in the living rooms of Melbourne… tucked his knees under the billionaire’s table" honked Turnbull across the chamber.

On what was Bill Shorten supposed to be "sucking hard" while "on his knees"? A string of emasculating tropes is "oratory" now?

Then there was Turnbull claiming to "strengthen" the Racial Discrimination Act by requiring more persistent racism before a complaint could be upheld. This display also prompted a litany of columns, penned to bury Malcolm while praising (old) him. It is worth remembering this ANZAC week that, two years ago, Turnbull the free speech champion picked up the phone to SBS head Michael Ebeid to share his thoughts on SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre tweeting about the horrors of war.

McIntyre was sacked (and his unfair dismissal claim later settled out of court).

Turnbull stated that he had contacted SBS's Michael Ebeid

'... as soon as I was made aware of the tweets by Mr McIntyre… [who] as a private citizen, is entitled to express his political views, but in his capacity as a reporter employed by SBS he has to comply with, and face the consequences of ignoring, the SBS social media protocol… The management of SBS, however, not the government, is responsible for staffing decisions.'

Bullying and dissembling, not moderation or smarts, is the signature Turnbull move.

Turnbull was never above the Liberal Party culture of racism, nationalism, xenophobia and homophobia. From the mess he has made of marriage equality, to the transphobia of failing to guarantee the Safe Schools program, Turnbull does not stand apart. The Liberal Party elevates (and post-factum mythologises) mediocre white men. Turnbull is one of them. How enlightened.

Trolling woman like a sexist boss

Turnbull began his prime ministership with a grandiose announcement to allocate $100 million to combat violence against women. This money was a third of the $300 million needed to "plug gaps in services" created by Abbott Government cuts. A third again was allocated to "changing attitudes" to domestic violence — $30 million advertising spend going not to essential services like women’s shelters and legal aid, but to whichever lucky ad and ad-buy and media companies get such government gigs. 

Such beneficence to women and children, direct from public revenue via our saviour Malcolm Turnbull and a few advertising and media companies.

Then there was the "first woman defence minister" announcement, although Labor minister Ros Kelly held the Defence Personnel portfolio in the 1980s. Turnbull likes a good first. It feeds meritocracy mythology, the biggest lie of liberalism. Claiming the first woman defence minister, or the first Aboriginal MP in Queensland MP Neville Bonner, obscures the fact that conservatives otherwise aggressively resist social progress.

Turnbull is a feminist, too. During the interminable 2016 election campaign, he erased his own mother in his mawkish childhood story video, released on social media. He told us his dad taught him to cook and iron. As everybody knows, feminists always reassure audiences that we know how to cook and iron — and Facebook is super-innovative in 2016. He also dined at a men-only club: very feminist, that. He announced superannuation changes that would assist older women living in poverty. The self-funded super base rebelled, the Liberals lost fourteen seats, and the changes were chopped. What a feminist.

Intersectional trolling

Which brings us to the Turnbull-Dutton round of nationalist nonsense, with extra overt sexism wrapped in the standard religious bigotry. Both harnessed domestic violence to the cause, using women’s pain for political gain. Attorney-General George Brandis joined the team on Monday, hailing partial restoration of Abbott Government cuts as proof of the shining-armour credentials of what is a typically sexist government.

Meanwhile, Dutton stepped it up further. In classic copper saviour mode, Pete will save (Muslim) girls from forced marriage and missing out on school; and babies from genital mutilation. Anyone would think these two had dedicated years to feminist causes — like Julia Gillard, among countless others who have worked for years on these exact issues. Yet she did so without grandstanding, without exploiting mutilated babies.

As mentioned, there are announcements and there is coverage of the announcements.

Standard media coverage of this latest "values" debate contained the usual angst. A disappointed commentariat duly noted the racism and xenophobia as an exception rather than a norm. This obscures the fact that racism is coded into the Constitution of the nation and that Turnbull has long-term form in trolling women.

Re-writing history requires ignoring reality; and the consensus narrative requires that Turnbull has moved to the right, even though he has sat squarely within conservative boundaries all along.

The ludicrous spectacle of two garden variety mediocre white men posturing as saviours to (Muslim) girls is matched by the banality of the assumptions that their choices are attributable to voters. The citizenship announceables are "populist", we are told. The "controversial changes" would "gain traction" in the current global climate. Look at Trump, and Brexit.

Is there evidence the electorate is more racist than the political leadership? A subsequent Newspoll, widely seen – and condemned – as the whole point of the citizenship exercise – saw movement of less than half the margin of error. Murdoch outlets breathlessly headlined this as a "rise", of course, but so what? The sound and fury may have signified plenty, but it achieved nothing. The leadership has a far louder voice, a higher platform, more positional power, than the electorate to broadcast its values. Maybe the point could be to increase racism, not merely gain traction. But does it work?

There is evidence that it does not.

There is nothing new in a conservative government smearing Muslim migrants, and using the glittering prize of Australian citizenship to do it. This dreary backwardness was dragged around by John Howard in 2007 — famously adding a Don Bradman batting average question to the citizenship test as he faced electoral oblivion.

Howard lost government – and thus the prime ministership – plus his seat.

In precisely the same format as Turnbull – loyal lieutenant Peter Dutton at his side, a promised consultation paper – Tony Abbott called a flag-soaked press conference in May 2015 to announce a "national conversation on citizenship". At the time, the Australian Citizenship (Allegiance to Australia) bill had already been drafted by then-Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison. The Senate referred it to the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee on 30 October 2014 (my analysis here).

Abbott lost the prime ministership within four months. The bill passed into law on Turnbull’s watch, in December 2015.

Turnbull might support every Trump foreign policy move in that clingy, embarrassing way, but that does not mean Australian voters agree. Abbott used to compare those seeking asylum in Australia to mass movements of refugees across Europe, but that does not change the geography. Brexit was triggered by Oxford-educated Tories struggling for dominance, but that is where the comparison ends.

Back home, George Megalogenis compared Turnbull Government "economic policy" (what economic policy) to Keating. When the Prime Minister has been spouting utterly discredited trickle-down nonsense for well over a year. There is no excuse for such a weak claim, but it is not unusual. I have written before about this weird kind of reach, in the context of specifically ignoring the achievements of Julia Gillard and erasing the struggles of suffragettes, for example.

Why look so far away to Brexit, or so long ago to Keating? Are these comparisons relevant at all?

A common excuse for citing "populism" (racism) here is the Hanson factor. Much has been made of Pauline Hanson and her return from the political grave; much less of the fact that Turnbull’s decision to call a double dissolution election enabled her current leverage in the Senate. Meanwhile, in one of the historically most isolationist and racist jurisdictions of the Commonwealth, Western Australian voters earlier this year roundly rejected a Liberal Party-One Nation preference deal. Ben Wyatt is now the first Noongar treasurer.

In three NSW by-elections, as expected, voters doubled the average anti-government swing, sending a clear message to Premier Berejiklian and to he who absconded retired to coach his son’s soccer team get a job in a bank.

The relevance here is that the NSW by-election vote was anti-authoritarian (forced council amalgamations) and anti-privatisation (selling off the Land Title office). Both privatisation and authoritarianism are hallmarks of neoliberalism — an interventionist, strong-arm state, run by men who talk dishonestly of "free" markets and "small" government.

The bullying. The dissembling.

And here is the nub. That neo- in front of liberalism does not refer to a new type of liberalism. It refers to the liberalism of old – government by propertied white men for propertied white men – reasserting itself in the face of "new" social circumstances: the post-civil rights era, third wave feminism, gay pride. It is no longer acceptable to keep out Aboriginal treasurers, or women prime ministers, or gay CEOs.

Neoliberal ideologues always abuse incumbent power to try and resist such social progress. They use the same methods every time. Sexism and racism, xenophobia and homophobia, misogyny and transphobia — these are the blunt instruments of meritocracy mythology. But the blunt reality is also this: no matter what the commentariat says, Malcolm Turnbull is right there among them. He is first among bigoted white conservatives, at the head of the hetero-masculine political pack. Turnbull is running his prime ministership exactly as his public record would predict.

Ingrid Matthews lectures in law at the University of Western Sydney. You can follow Ingrid on Twitter @iMusing or her blog Ecomuse.

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