opinion Last week Malcolm Turnbull gave what is generally acknowledged to be a landmark and admirable speech calling for truth, leadership and responsibility to boost the quality of debate in Australia’s rapidly deteriorating political sphere. Now if only the Liberal MP would practice a little of the same when it comes to the National Broadband Network.
One of the factors which contributes to Malcolm Turnbull’s enduring popularity with the Australian electorate is the fact that he’s not afraid to bring an educated perspective to the national political debate. I’ve been following the Member for Wentworth closely since he was appointed to lead the Communications portfolio for the Coalition in November 2010, and I’ve never failed to be impressed by the breadth of Turnbull’s thinking, as well as its depth, and the gravitas with which he delivers his carefully considered ideas.
In an age where the chief catchcry of Tony Abbott’s Coalition has been the bottom-feeding phrase “stop the boats”, and where virtually any other issue of any significance has been linked to that other great evil, “the carbon tax”, Turnbull never fails to deliver a breath of fresh air whenever he speaks. Unlike so many of his colleagues, Turnbull’s thinking is complex and nuanced, in both the breadth and depth of his subjects. The former Opposition Leader is able to switch seamlessly from the topics of philanthropy and liberalism to Australia’s complex relationship with China; from gay marriage to the evolution of modern art as tracked by famed critic Robert Hughes.
To watch Turnbull in action is to watch an informed mind flexing its muscles at full capacity; his thoughts are always delivered in an erudite manner, with panache, and often with little self-referential jabs at the nature of political life which tend to incite wry smiles from his charmed audience. It’s such a different experience to the bruised and battered feeling you get after speaking with the strictly ‘on-message’ parliamentarians typical of our political society: You know the ones I mean — the ones who can’t think for themselves, but only repeat the same tired party lines ad nauseum. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy used to be a prime example of the species; but recently he has evolved along much more positive lines.
Turnbull’s delivery of the George Winton Lecture to the University of Western Australia last week was no exception to this stellar record. Turnbull’s topic: Traditional republican ideals, and Australia’s flawed political ecosystem.
From that most famous of republics, Rome, to another tragically flawed state, America, Turnbull tracked the history of political virtues which revolutionaries and politicians across the ages have fought and sometimes died for. Turnbull quoted Thomas Jefferson, no less, with a quote which would appear to apply as accurately to modern day Australia as it did when the US founding fathers penned the Declaration of Independence: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” It’s a philosophy which Labor, with its Orwellian Internet filtering and data retention schemes, appears not to believe in.
Inevitably, of course, Turnbull’s mind turned towards Australia’s own flawed democracy. As he’s pretty fearless about putting his ideas forward, the Liberal MP turned his relentless gaze on not just one side of politics in his analysis, but all. It wasn’t solely the Labor Federal Government which came under Turnbull’s scrutiny in his speech, but also the Coalition and the Greens. Not individual parties; but Australia’s entire political class. And Turnbull’s comments were scathing about what he described as “a deteriorating political discourse”.
“There is almost nothing more important to good government and our nation’s future than the quality, honesty and clarity of political discourse: how we explain policy challenges and trade-offs, and educate voters about the constraints we have to work within … how we express our position, our basis for reaching it and why it differs from that of our opponents if this is the case … how we communicate changes in policy and their implications,” Turnbull told his audience. “Yet paradoxically, there is almost nowhere else in our national life where the incentives to be untruthful or to purposefully mislead are so great, and the adverse consequences of such behaviour so modest.”
“Blatant misrepresentations, exaggerations or outright lies in politics”, Turnbull said, should easily be revealed, not only by the watchful fourth estate, but by rival parties and MPs, commercial interests and other stakeholders and even the public itself, which, through social media, perhaps has a greater ability to have its say about political policy than ever before.
However, Turnbull said, such safeguards were not functioning. ” … many, if not most Australians, believe it is not working effectively in our political system,” he said. “Important issues are being overlooked, barely discussed and where they are, routinely misrepresented. I am not suggesting politicians are innately less accurate or truthful than anyone else. But rather that the system is not constraining, in fact it is all too often rewarding, spin, exaggeration, misstatements.”
“Most Australians believe we need an honest, informed policy debate. Yet I don’t see many people who believe we have that. Instead, we all hear again and again that Australians are ashamed of the parliament, that they see it as nothing more than a forum for abuse, catcalling and spin.”
Turnbull reserved especial censure for the media, whose numbers, he said, were “dwindling fast”, leading to a “diminishing” capacity to hold powerful figures to account.
“The truth is that the foundations of journalism, of reporting, have been for many years the newspapers, especially the big metropolitan papers,” said Turnbull. “They have had the revenues and the space to cover the field and they created the agenda from which television and radio selected the handful of stories and issues they would follow up. But the arrival of the Internet has changed all that. Around the developed world, newspapers are in dramatic decline.”
“And while newspapers are shrinking think tanks seem to be expanding – wouldn’t it be great if some of those public intellects actually held politicians like me to account, pointing out where we had exaggerated or misled. Public fact checking would raise the quality of debate.”
At the end of the day, Turnbull said, the public would decide and judge politicians, based on moral values.
“In case you think my call for a change of attitude and practice to truth in politics is just idealism – let me make a practical political point. It seems to me that we don’t simply have a financial deficit, we have a deficit of trust. We can argue for hours which side and which politicians, which journalists indeed, have contributed most to it. But it affects all of us and all of our institutions. The politicians and parties that can demonstrate they can be trusted, that they will not insult the people with weasel words and spin, that they will not promise more than they can deliver, that they will not dishonestly misrepresent either their own or their opponents‟ policies – those politicians and parties will, I submit to you, deserve and receive electoral success.”
Now, on the one hand, Turnbull’s comments resonated strongly with me. I agreed very strongly with his opinion about the need to improve Australia’s political debate; it’s an issue I feel passionately about.
However, on the other hand, as someone who’s followed Turnbull’s exploits day in, day out over the past 18 months, it’s hard not to be flabberghasted at the colossal case of hypocrisy evident in his words. Quite frankly, when it comes to the Communications portfolio, and especially the National Broadband Network, the Member Wentworth has certainly not practiced what he last week preached.
Where was the responsibility, for example, in Turnbull’s relentless pursuit of NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley throughout late 2010 and mid 2011, on the issue of his former employment with Alcatel-Lucent? At various stages Turnbull used the full force of his media profile to attempt a character assassination of Quigley, who was clearly bewildered by the vitriol repeatedly thrown his way. Given that there was never any evidence put forward of wrongdoing by Quigley in his past, and that the NBN Co CEO remains one of the most transparent and above board executives in Australia’s telecommunications sector, Turnbull’s approach came across as nothing short of spiteful.
Where has the truth been, in another example, in Turnbull’s ongoing claims that the Coalition will “complete” the NBN Co objective, but in a more cost-effective way than it is currently being deployed? Given that the Coalition’s rival NBN policy would see the project drastically modified into a completely different fibre to the node rollout style — a style for which Turnbull has consistently declined to release detailed financial modelling for — it’s not hard to see why some have seen this line of reasoning by Turnbull as extremely disingenuous. There is also the oft-missed point that the NBN will not “cost” Australia anything — in fact, it is slated to make a modest profit for the Government, delivering massively improved telecommunications services along the way.
And there have been a number of other comments made by the Shadow Communications Minister over the past 18 months which have displayed a questionable regard for the truth. Turnbull’s continual misstatements on the cost of building and accessing the NBN, for example, or his technically dubious claims regarding satellite capacity to serve rural areas; these are just several of the claims which Turnbull has made about the NBN over the past 18 months which have sometimes been demonstrably inaccurate and sometimes merely grossly deceptive.
To continue, where was the leadership in Turnbull’s recent refusal to comment on the Federal Government’s highly controversial data retention and surveillance scheme, which has the backbench of Turnbull’s own party up in arms due to its blatant attack on Australia’s civil liberties and rampant antagonism of traditional liberal (and, dare I mention it, republican) ideals? Alternatively, where was Turnbull’s sense for leadership when he decided to invest financially in France Telecom, placing the Liberal MP in a conflict of interest situation due to the company’s extensive Australian interests?
Then we come to the media.
In his delivery of the George Winton Lecture last week, Turnbull lamented the decline of newspapers and their fact-checking capabilities. But in recent months the Shadow Communications Minister has earned a sizable reputation of his own for attacking journalists for doing just that — fact-checking his statements. In late July the Liberal MP accused the ABC of creating “relentless propaganda” to support the NBN, in a stance which Turnbull described as “embarrassing”. And just weeks later it was the turn of independent media outlets like yours truly to come under fire, with Turnbull slamming what he said were “specialist technology journalists … fanning a pro-NBN zealotry among tech-savvy citizens”.
When Delimiter recruited the efforts of its readers in a comprehensive fact-checking exercise on Turnbull’s comments in July — exactly the sort of process Turnbull exhorted the press to in his speech last week — the Liberal MP completely ignored the effort, and has consistently declined to respond to a list of key questions Delimiter subsequently sent the Shadow Communications Minister about the Coalition’s rival NBN policy.
Speaking of that Coalition policy, where is the transparency in the fact that Turnbull has consistently declined to publish its full details, despite the fact that the Liberal MP has publicly stated that it has been finalised and even costed? Is it not true that withholding Coalition policy documents until the even of the Federal Election would do much to accelerate the deterioration of Australia’s political discourse? How does it serve the development of a better discourse when Turnbull selectively ignores those aspects of the debate in his portfolio which he doesn’t feel comfortable addressing?
Personally, I want to believe Turnbull when he espouses the republican views he spoke of last week. And my instinct tells me that Turnbull believes what he says. Consequently, I am at a loss to explain why his personal actions in the Communications portfolio run so contrary to his stated ideals. Is it just political expediency which guides the Member for Wentworth’s actions with respect to the NBN? Is he a complex enough thinker that his mind is able to hold, and believe, several contradictory positions at the same time, without needing to deal consciously with the inconsistency? Is his approach just tactical, compared with the strategic thinking he displayed in the George Winton Lecture?
History tells us that Thomas Jefferson also held conflicting public and private ideals. Jefferson is acknowledged as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and was publicly opposed to the widespread slavery practiced by white property owners in his day. And yet Jefferson also personally owned hundreds of slaves and is believed to have fathered children with one of them. It’s puzzling; perhaps there is an element of humanity about this, or maybe just an element of convenience. Perhaps, in considering his own republican views, Turnbull might do well to consider that hubris is also an ideal which to which republican leaders have historically subscribed.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull