Leading article Australia

Sensible centre

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in fine form the other day when he proudly proclaimed to a gathering of Victorian Liberals that ‘[Menzies] knew that the future was in the sensible centre of Australian politics – not reactionary, but Liberal, proudly Liberal.’

‘Above all,’ he continued, ‘you build from the centre, bringing people together – and that is our commitment.’

It’s not the first time Mr Turnbull has fired up the faithful with the promise of a journey to this mythical, plentiful land of the Sensible Centre. Last year, in a speech in Brisbane not long after narrowly winning the election but losing Tony Abbott’s majority, he also urged ‘Bill Shorten, Labor and all the parties to … meet us in the sensible centre.’

It’s a tantalising dream, this imaginary place of political gold buried in the distant, sensible, centrist hills, but where exactly is it?

Not in Canberra, that’s for sure. Much like the legendary Lasseter’s Reef, a vast gold-bearing deposit rumoured to have been discovered and then lost again, at the turn of the 19th century, on the western edge of the MacDonnell Ranges in central Australia, Menzie’s Sensible Centre is probably also way out west somewhere. But even if it did once exist, it’s unlikely to be found again any time soon.

As the Prime Minister accepts, and even advocates, the Sensible Centre is marked on his treasure map with a big X close to the treacherous quicksands of ‘negotiation and compromise’. Arguably, it is the quest for these twin imposters that has rendered Australia close to being ungovernable over the past decade, with one critical policy after another being compromised or negotiated away to the point of inefficiency or futility.

Our debt is the most obvious. For nearly a decade now, budget ‘negotiations’ and ‘compromises’ have delivered a payload of fool’s gold that consistently fails to cut government spending in any meaningful way whilst ramping up spending and locking it in place. There is no ‘sensible’ middle position with out-of-control debt. Peter Costello and John Howard understood this instinctively.

Similarly, there is no ‘sensible’ middle position with border control. Tony Abbott understood this instinctively. And there is no ‘sensible’ middle position on climate change. Our actions in cutting emissions are either beneficial to the globe or they are pointlessly inflicting great damage on lives, livelihoods and economic prospects. Given that no politician or scientist is capable of producing any credible evidence that a) climate change is human-induced and b) cutting emissions even to the maximum amount will reduce global temperatures by any significant degree, there can be no ‘sensible compromise’ on, for example, subsidised renewable energy targets. There is only bad, worse or much worse still. Alas, the only party who appears to understand this is One Nation.

Again, on industrial relations, taxation, welfare and other areas where the government is charged with getting the best results out of every tax dollar it is given, or setting laws to promote free enterprise, the only ‘sensible’ and just measure can be efficiency. Every dollar must be targeted well and spent wisely.

If the government’s tax cuts are good for promoting jobs amongst businesses under the arbitrary turnover amount of $50 million, then by definition they would be even better for businesses turning over more than that. It’s not a question of being ‘sensible’ – it’s a question of doing what will work best.

There is no ‘sensible compromise’ between free speech and hate speech. That’s like saying there’s a sensible centre between diamonds and dogshit. The former is precious and to be preserved at all cost, the latter is revolting and wherever it leads to incitement must be met with the full force of existing criminal laws. The ‘sensible’, ‘compromised’ changes to 18C are a farce.

Of course, there are some issues where the Sensible Centre can indeed be found – on social issues, where communal harmony is achieved through give and take. So, for example, where some people desperately want same-sex marriage legalised, and others believe this is intrinsically wrong, the sensible centre is civil unions with full legal rights for same-sex couples. Or where there are legitimate concerns about Islamic radicalisation on the one hand, and a respect for cultural mores on the other, the sensible centre is to be found in assimilation and integration of ethnic/religious minorities coupled with respect for cultural traditions so long as they fall squarely within mainstream values (and the law).

Rather than advocating compromise for compromise sake, Mr Turnbull and his team would be better served choosing one or two convictions – such as balancing the books and providing cheaper energy – and fighting through hell or high water for them.

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