Friday, 9 November 2018

Malcolm Turnbull on a special episode of the ABC’s ‘Q and A’

It was a Thursday night (instead of a Monday night, which is when the program is normally screened) and ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull was alone on the panel facing questions from the audience. It was the first time since the Liberal Party had removed him as its leader in August that he had spoken publicly for so long.

At first I thought that he was being disingenuous with some remarks about a "media narrative" that says that he is undermining the new party leader regardless of what he (Turnbull) says, but later he was more candid about the leadership “coup” (this kind of dramatic language is used by the media to describe a process that is quite licit under the rules that govern Australian politics; the leader of the party is the prime minister and he or she is chosen by the party room, and is not directly elected by the community as happens with the president in the USA).

Turnbull named the member for Warringah Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton, Steve Ciobo and Mathias Cormann as being among the people who deposed him as leader, but initially wouldn’t say anything about his replacement as party leader, Scott Morrison. Turnbull said the only beneficiary of the Liberal Party leadership change will be Bill Shorten, the leader of the Opposition; all Turnbull’s remarks in this vein were coloured by the fact that currently Labor is ahead of the Liberals in opinion polls by a margin of around 54 percent to 46 percent. Turnbull said Morrison hadn’t been able to explain the reasons for the party decision that removed him from the leadership, finally naming his successor.

Turnbull underscored his credentials when he said that he's "joyful" because of his time as PM, not bitter or miserable. This comment serves to locate Turnbull apart from Abbott, the former Liberal party leader who Turnbull himself had removed as PM in 2015, and Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party leader who was removed as leader in 2010 by Julia Gillard, and who eventually came back to the leadership of that party just before the election of 2013, which the Labor Party lost. Turnbull said he won't undermine his successor (nor overthrow him, as Abbott did in August). His days as an active political participant have come to an end, he said.

On the nature of the Liberal Party, Turnbull told the audience that the party is shifting to the right, and that it is losing voters as a result. He noted that three conservative women have taken seats away from the Liberal Party: Cathy McGowan in Indi, Rebekha Sharkie (of the Centre Aliiance) in Mayo, and now Kerryn Phelps in Wenthworth. One questioner wanted to know how to stop right-wing extremism in Australia (pointing to the rise of Donald Trump in the US). Turnbull said that the right-wingers in the Liberal Party won't accept the consensus, and that they intimidate and bully their colleagues, but he added that Australia is different from the US because we have mandatory voting, which means you don't have to motivate people with extreme rhetoric to get them out to vote. Turnbull also noted that electoral boundaries are managed by an independent commission in Australia. This is another institutional reason why we are not like the US. But Turnbull wouldn’t comment on the US mid-terms on national TV, noting however that it is common in mid-terms for the House to flip away from the party of the president.

Turnbull also said something interesting about sexism in Canberra when he said that the Parliament there is not sufficiently respectful of women. It's very blokey and much like Australia more broadly was in the 1980s.

On the Wentworth by-election, Turnbull said he did support Dave Sharma in the lead-up to the by-election in Wentworth on 20 October, contradicting comments by people from his party that he went AWOL during the contest. He added however that he didn't make himself visible, in order not to damage Sharma's prospects. Turnbull says that the by-election was lost in the last week of campaigning, and that Sharma would have won by a narrow margin if it had been held the weekend before.

One questioner asked him why he had not, while PM, sold his achievements more forcefully, suggesting that the reason for the leadership challenge had been a lack of exposure of this type. Turnbull said that he was in the media a lot and that he did try to sell his achievements, despite what his questioner asserted.

A question came from Mike Cannon-Brookes, founder of software company Atlassian, about getting renewable energy defined as "fair dinkum power" (a slogan that Morrison had been using to describe coal power, due to Morrison being bound to the coal lobby in Australia, who want the government to finance or support the construction of a new coal-fired power plant to replace ageing infrastructure). Turnbull said Australia has an "enormous solar endowment" and that the future is in renewables but that storage is the challenge. He mentioned pumped hydro-electric as a solution. Turnbull said that the economics of power is driving the solutions that are to be built. A coal-fired power station would not be built today on that basis.

Turnbull says Morrison has the "same goal" as he had regarding refugees in offshore camps, and that the government has to keep the people smugglers out of business.

On the topic of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which owns the ‘Q and A’ show, Turnbull says that he's got long family ties to the ABC (through his mother’s father, who had worked there) but that in recent years, he said, the quality of its journalism had deteriorated. He said the ABC needs to adhere to its charter, and be accurate and objective. He said that with Twitter’s rise in popularity there was a greater need than ever for accurate and truthful news. Turnbull says that there's nothing he's said to Justin Milne (the ABC chairman who had recently removed the broadcaster’s managing director, who had then resigned himself from his position) that hasn't been announced publicly. Her thinks that the ABC needs to separate the roles of managing director and editor-in-chief.

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