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King Cnut

Will Malcolm Turnbull be able to hold back the rising tide of illiberal liberalism?

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

26 September 2015

9:00 AM

Next year will see the millennium of Cnut becoming King of England. It is an anniversary which must be high on the radar of many of the politicians in Canberra. However I must confess to being surprised when I thought that I heard (through the poor hearing in my left ear) that Richard Dowdy, a junior staffer to Tony Abbott, had hailed our new Prime Minister as a successor to this former King.

Although it is possible that bringing in a republic and even being a Head of State may be there on Mr Turnbull’s bucket list, I would doubt that he would want to see it within such an archaic royal context. That being said, his 180 degree turn from being a Director of Ausflag which was working for a new Australian flag to becoming a paid up supporter of the current flag through the Australian National Flag Association shows that anything is possible in Turnbull-world.

It is difficult to know what Malcolm really thinks about anything. His very first answer to Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30 interview with our new prime minister was to state that any previous statements of his which may have claimed that elections were the only polls which mattered were only ever said somewhat ‘tongue in cheek.’

What other statements of his have been somewhat tongue in cheek? To Patricia Karvelas on Radio National in May he stated that although he would not go so far as to say that a plebiscite on same-sex marriage was little more than a glorified opinion poll, the matter was really ‘parliament’s responsibility.’ He made it clear that they already have the means to deal with it. But then there was his answer to David Koch on Channel Seven’s Sunrise recently where he said that a plebiscite is ‘as democratic as you get.’

Which approach is tongue in cheek? There was his statement to Michael Brissenden on ABC Radio’s AM programme that journalists need to change and that what needs to be talked about are the ‘real issues that affect people’s lives.’ A noble statement which sits uneasily with his immediate response to a reasonable question by Lisa Wilkinson on Channel Nine’s Today about how he would unite the party after the spill. He opined that Lisa should be more ‘sunny and optimistic’ in the morning and that she must be ‘grumpy by the afternoon.’ I’d rather know how he plans to unite a party torn apart by treachery.

Again, which of the following is tongue in cheek? His recent claim that the current policy of the Government on Climate Change is the ‘right’ one or his view in 2009 that Abbot’s policy on the matter was ‘bullshit?’ In the steps of Cnut, Prime Minister Turnbull knows that the sea is rising and seems to think that he has the power to stop it. Will it be, as he famously said in an earlier incarnation as leader of the Liberal party, that he ‘will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change’ as he is? If the party is not as committed what will he do? Perhaps he will continue to give tongue in cheek answers as he seeks to set his own leftish agenda behind the scenes.

His Laboresque rise to power, based on promoting his skills at selling policy, is already coming unstuck as he clearly has to answer with tongue in cheek to questions of policy where he has made his differing views well known in the past. Such answers poorly hide the sort of government he might lead if he were to win the next election.

Turnbull has said that there are more immediate issues than a republic at the moment. This will not prevent him from following the pattern of others who have been involved in creeping republicanism. The mooted execution of Knights and Dames is no doubt top of such a list.

The workload in Parliament must be extremely light if Bill Shorten sees this issue as being of such high importance that he wrote to Malcolm Turnbull within the same week of the leadership change calling for an immediate removal of the honour from the Order of Australia. One would have thought that his time could be better spent dealing with more substantial issues. But if Mr Turnbull does go down the path of pandering to the recent advice of the Leader of the Opposition it will be just another indication that he finds more in common with Shorten’s Labor than with many members of his own Liberal party. It also paints a picture of a much wider and unsettling image for the future.

As Communications Minister his defence of the ABC against alleged (and at times blatant) bias would make Sir Humphrey Appleby proud. When Jim Hacker’s political advisor said to Hacker in the TV series Yes Minister ‘You just say everything the Civil Service programmed you to say, what are you, a man or a mouth?’ he could have been speaking about Turnbull in that Ministerial role. Was Malcolm a man or a mouth, and if the latter, for which party?

The one area in which he will excel and in which he has already proved himself is his ability to throw snide comments out at those from within his own ranks who hold a more conservative viewpoint. As a thoroughly modern small ‘l’ liberal he follows a growing pattern of those whose liberality vanishes into thin air when faced with different views.

On innovation his current mantra is that ‘we have to work more agilely, more innovatively; we have to be more nimble.’ These may be the tools he needs to use as he publicly supports current policies at odds with his own political ethos whilst working on his own political agenda.

The tide of illiberal liberalism is rising in the West. The Prime Minister has a real opportunity to stand against the tide and do something practical about it, not least by being completely open about his own agenda and working in a truly collaborative way with the whole party, not just with sectors of it.

Otherwise he might be sat out in the sea all by himself – and be just another King Cnut.

Philip Murphy is a Melbourne based writer

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