Originally published in the Guardian Australia, 19 July 2013
And so it has begun. Michael Short made the first real foray into the debate this week, arguing that the Liberals would be wise to replace Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull. Bob Ellis was quick to follow, arguing that Abbott’s “invisible substance” gaffe may lead to his end. And with Kevin Rudd currently enjoying good poll ratings, people have started to salivate at the thought of a Turnbull return.
Interestingly, a significant part of this push has come from the left. Ellis is a Labor man, and if you quickly scan the hashtags #libspill or#reTurnbull on Twitter, you can spot a raft of lefties pushing the idea of Turnbull making a comeback. Much of this is comes from a hatred of Abbott, but a lot more is due to a love for Turnbull. As Short argues:
As a former leading businessman, Turnbull has appeal in the corporate sector. As a former leading internet entrepreneur, he has appeal to younger people. As a moderate, he appeals to the many voters who are uncomfortable with what they feel are unduly harsh policies on asylum seekers, to those who suspect Abbott would screw down on workers’ entitlements by toughening up industrial relations policy and to those who favour action on climate change.
It is important here to point out some blatant hypocrisy. There is something particularly special about people who a few weeks ago were calling the ALP leadership spill a “made-up media frenzy” to then turn around and try to push leadership speculation based on a few polls. It is awful to tear down Julia Gillard’s leadership because she was leading the government to a catastrophic defeat, but it is okay to do the same to Abbott because the polls are now tied? Paint me confused.
But hypocrisy aside, I cannot help but question the progressive logic behind having Turnbull as Liberal party leader. Ever since he was dumped in 2009, Turnbull has taken on an almost hero-like persona within a particular part of the progressive community. He fell on his sword in a fight for climate action, and then became one of the first Liberal MPs to come out for marriage equality. He is a Liberal who has taken on important progressive causes, and has been rewarded by progressives even since.
Problem is, it is ridiculous logic based on a false image of the man.
Let’s gloss over the fact that it was Turnbull who presented amendments that significantly watered down the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. We would also have to ignore the very structural issues of queer discrimination that will forever exist in the Liberal party – the very party we want Turnbull to lead. Simply put, Turnbull’s support for climate action and marriage equality are certainly not as strong as they could be.
But what about the rest? Turnbull is extremely pro free-market, and is anti-union. He voted for Workchoices and as prime minister would very likely cut welfare programs. His ministerial team, including the likes of George Brandis, Peter Dutton and Eric Abetz, would still have all the elements of a rabid right-wing Liberal machine. As Liz Humphrys explains:
Turnbull is committed to privatisation of the public sector, radical industrial relations policy, and solving serious social problems (such as climate change) by leaving them to market mechanisms. He has even gone so far as to call building the National Broadband Network ‘the telecommunications version of Cuba‘.
When you look at it like this, you can see a basic political failure from those who claim to be progressive and who hope for a Turnbull return. The logic should be simple: if you have an opponent that is largely disliked (as Abbott clearly is), as progressives, you shouldn’t encourage a switch to a more popular alternative.
But instead, we have a new form of progressivism forming – one obsessed with symbols over structures. And Turnbull has become one great symbol. As Helen Razer argued earlier this year, “the left now hungers for symbols of cultural identity and spurns the idea of class.”
I would disagree that it is the left that is now doing this (as I’m not convinced “progressives” and the “left” are the same thing), but the basic theory is true; progressives have turned away from class and structures, and towards symbols. Again, as Humphrys argues:
While progressives have been speaking out on crucial social issues (from mandatory detention of refugees to tackling climate change), we have often done so in a way that fails to challenge the dominant economic framework that underpins these problems. We have let the rich and powerful pursue their economic agenda effectively unchallenged.
This is the sort of progressivism that cares about the climate, but refuses to challenge the structures (for example, neoliberalism) or institutions (say, the fossil fuel industry) that perpetuate the climate crisis. It is a brand of progressivism that cares about gay people, but is resistant to challenge the underlying structures – and by that I mean the heteropatriarchy – that are the foundation of queerphobia. It is the sort of progressivism that champions same-sex marriage as a conservative vote winner, without acknowledging that it is the very conservative nature of marriage that feminists have been fighting against for decades.
So let’s not kid ourselves: Turnbull as a Liberal leader would be more likely to win an election, and in doing so would take the country far further to the right.
It may be fun to watch a Liberal leadership spill before the election; I think I’d enjoy it. But if the left thinks this is the way to achieve a progressive victory, it is sorely mistaken.