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Malcolm Turnbull, the ABC and the mystery of the red carpet

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Gosford Anglican Church, 8 July 2015 (via Fr Rod Bower / @FrBower)

Have Malcolm Turnbull’s comments at the Sydney Institute managed to wedge both sides of politics — or just himself? Alex Jones comments.

In a speech to the Sydney Institute last Tuesday (2/7/15), Malcolm Turnbull made the logical, yet nevertheless isolationist move, of rejecting bipartisan measures that are only superficially “tough” on countering Islamic terrorism:

“It is more important that counter-terrorism measures be the right ones, the effective ones, than that they simply be 'tough'. Tough policies can be popular, they may even be justified at the time they are conceived, but they can still be a mistake.”

This anti-populist message of common sense marks an ideological fault-line for Turnbull within the ranks of the Liberals. It was only in mid-June that Tony Abbott claimed the Labor Party was “rolling out the red carpet for terrorists” when they raised concerns over the constitutionality of stripping suspected terrorists of their Australian citizenship.

One hardly needs to remark that there is an elephant in the room: who is rolling out the red carpet for terrorists again? Regardless of this self-conscious distancing of Turnbull's own positions from the fearmongering tactics of the PM, however, it is uncertain whether the Member for Wentworth will have the rug pulled out from under his feet.

Although the specific goals of Turnbull’s speech remain opaque – aside from injecting a degree of intelligence into the relentlessly fevered discussions on national security – his comments at a stroke have managed to wedge both Labor and the Liberals into a corner.

Though stuck in the mire of Bill Shorten’s appearance at the Trade Union Royal Commission, Brendan O’Connor stoked the fires in the Liberal camp by stating that Turnbull’s comments represented a “very thinly veiled attack" on Abbott’s own position.

Note that this is entirely different from Labor giving bipartisan support to Turnbull’s line of thought. Labor are seeking to highlight the discrepancy within the Liberals rather than communicate an endorsement of Turnbull's nuanced approach. If they were to do this, the drawback is that they would consequently be exposed to predictably renewed accusations of their perceived softness on terrorism at the hands of a gleeful Abbott.

In the latest Morgan poll at the end of June, conducted on a two party preferred basis, Labor’s lead dipped by 1%. They sit 53.5%-46.5% over the Liberals, with little breathing space, especially given Shorten’s current tenuous position. A Shorten-led Labor Party won't align themselves with Turnbull out of a combination of ideological cowardice and the pragmatics of realpolitik. Labor know that they cannot win the next Federal election by appearing meek on national security so, at least for now in their eyes, Turnbull is a political pariah.

We could also rest assured that the PM would remain quiet on Turnbull’s act of independence. Although a week is a long time in the microcosmic world of federal politics, the wounds from February’s spill motion testing Abbott’s leadership are still well and truly open.

As the PM said at the time:

"I can fight the Labor Party, but I’m not very good at fighting the Liberal Party.”

Such an honest comment from Abbott was a tacit admittance of the philosophical divide within the current Liberal Party, between an increasingly neoconservative side and a few dwindling liberal voices, best represented by the PM himself and Turnbull, respectively.

The last thing Abbott wants is to revive former PM Malcolm Fraser’s comments in 2010 that the party has lost its liberal roots and is more a conservative entity than ever, without many distinguishing links to Bob Menzies’ original vision.

If Abbott did publicly admonish Turnbull, it would have symbolised an attack on the tenets of classical liberalism, particularly one’s freedom of conscience and expression and the focus on the individual as opposed to a bullying pack mentality. While Abbott is a bumbling if effective politician, he is no political philosopher.

Thus, we were appropriately left with Turnbull’s possible appearance, yet-to-be-confirmed though yet-to-be-denied, on Monday night’s forthcoming episode of Q&A. It is in this climate that Abbott’s decree forbidding frontbenchers to appear on the program meets the dying embers of liberalism's emphasis on the right to freedom of speech. And, after testing the waters, Turnbull has since withdrawn from this scheduled appearance.

We can read two things from this protracted “decision”. The first is that it awkwardly aligns with Turnbull’s odd comments on ABC Insiders in late June, that the ABC

“... has a higher duty, it has a duty of objectivity that the rest of the media does not.”

There goes the minister’s so-called defence of free speech: bought and sold at the drop of a hat while nodding along with Abbott’s authoritarian decree. On the other hand, just the day after, he also said that he has

“... no doubt that all of us [the Liberals] will be appearing on ABC programs including Q&A in the future.”

Turnbull’s retraction from Q&A therefore reads as a temporary tactical retreat; a sort of “I’ll be back”, by way of “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Where does the Member for Wentworth truly stand, then? His fumbling positions on free speech and the role of the ABC seem to sit in stark contrast to his sensibly lucid remarks on counterterrorism earlier in the week at the Sydney Institute.

Ultimately, Turnbull’s position, as enunciated there, is one that has cowed Labor and silenced a vulnerable right. Indeed, during his speech Turnbull alerted the audience to the fact that the “debate” on counterterrorism “is not an easy left/right divide”. Such a comment belies the major parties’ virtual convergence on matters of national security and their bipartisan efforts to dispel the unwelcome voice of reason emanating from Turnbull.

So, at a time when we need to hear more speeches like Turnbull’s (as well, of course, as more nuanced methods of fighting terrorism), the Member for Wentworth doesn’t seem to know whether he should pipe up or quieten down.

For though the value of a polity often relies on an individual voice to oppose the tyranny of the majority, it is made infinitely stronger when other voices respond to the call for civic dissent. The worst outcome for Turnbull could well be that he ends up talking to himself.

You can follow Alex Jones on Twitter @AlexJon08509680.

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