Mal has a dream that one day this nation will rise up…
I was reading Annabel Crabb’s exquisitely written essay on Malcolm Turnbull this week and was struck by two things.
Firstly, it’s remarkable how much of Turnbull’s personality as described by Crabb was at play in his handling of the so-called Utegate affair. The parallels between Turnbull’s precipitate attack on the Prime Minister and his muscling up to Douglas Meagher QC (the Counsel assisting the Costigan Royal Commission) are telling. I was more provoked, however, by suggestions about what motivates Turnbull to participate in parliamentary politics.
The suspicion, of course, has always been that it’s more about Malcolm himself than about a big policy reform that’s been eating away at him over the years. Not that he’d be the first person to come to politics with Messianic motivations; Bob Hawke had more than a bit of that about him too, but he also had a clearly articulated program of reform he was able to put before the people as icing on the cake of having him as Australia’s PM.
Crabb describes the difficulty Turnbull’s own colleagues have in saying the same thing about the Liberal leader.
The best that most Liberal MPs can come up with to describe Turnbull’s policy ambitions is “freedom”.
Now, even as a long-term Labor leftie, I admit that my immediate reaction to that was something like “aww, isn’t that nice; Malcolm wants us to be free”, much as if he’d tied his political objectives to the perpetuation of the species.
On reflection, though, I reminded myself that this isn’t 1940s Russia or even Iran in 2009. Isn’t a clarion call for freedom in Australia in 2009 a bit fatuous?
Freedom, of course, is an elastic concept.
The freedom that traders on Wall St enjoyed to slice and dice billions of dollars of bad debt into AAA rated CDOs is presumably not the variety of freedom that keeps Turnbull coming back to Canberra.
Given his fondness for defamation suits, it’s even a little unclear whether an unadulterated freedom of speech lights Malcolm’s fire.
The one concrete proposal we have from Turnbull that perhaps adds some meat to the bone is his call, while still in Government, to reduce the top marginal tax rate (though we’re still unclear whether that was really just a device for driving Costello to distraction).
Anyway, I reckon the “person in the street” test will yield the same answer you get from people who look at the question of freedom for a living; Australia is one of the most free societies in the world.
Freedom House’s annual survey of the globe places us in the top echelon in this respect. Perhaps more compellingly for Turnbull, you only need to look at the Heritage Foundation’s 2009 Index of Economic Freedom.
In case you’re in any doubt as to the political leanings of this American think tank, you’re greeted at its website with the reassuring tonic that “The Left is on the March. Heritage has the Answers”.
Australia ranks third in the world in this year’s Heritage Index, behind Hong Kong and Singapore. Indeed, we’ve actually improved our rating in the past 12 months and remain well ahead of comparable nations like the United States (6th), Canada (7th) and the United Kingdom (10th).
Such a rating is no mean feat for a nation that divides its economic power between the Commonwealth and States in a way that, I’m sure, made good sense in the 1890s, but presents us with some challenges not faced in the city states that occupy the first two places on the dais.
In my relatively short time in Parliament, I have to admit to never being told by a constituent that their major concern (or even a secondary concern) was that Australians are not sufficiently free.
At street corner meetings on Saturday mornings, voters want to talk to me about the state of their kids’ schools, our response to climate change and, most importantly in the current environment, job security.
In broad terms, though, Australians seem to me pretty happy with the sort of society we’ve carved out over the past 100 years or so.
That’s not to say that the Government thinks that there’s not more to be done to make our economy work more seamlessly and efficiently.
The Henry tax review and COAG’s Business Regulation and Competition Working Group are just two examples of Kevin Rudd’s drive to make our economy even more efficient and productive.
But if Malcolm Turnbull is going to present a serious alternative agenda to Australian voters, he’ll have to do better than fatuous musings about freedom.
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