Those on the right have never been fans of Malcolm Turnbull. He comes from the far left of the Liberal Party and is a representative of the cultural elite. During his first stint as Liberal leader in 2009 he nearly took the party down the path of supporting economically destructive climate change policies. When he returned in 2015 many conservatives were not happy and unsurprisingly he did not live up to the expectation of being a charismatic and reforming Prime Minister. He has largely been Labor lite, especially on the key cultural issues of our time.
However that disappointing period might be coming to an end as Turnbull is appearing to begin channeling his inner conservative. This started when it was apparent to all of us that the great South Australian renewable energy experiment had failed with constant blackouts and high power prices. Turnbull and his government talked about the need to construct new coal fired power plants to meet increasing demand and slammed Labor’s ludicrous 50% renewable energy target. Last week words were put into action after the announcement of a $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Hydroelectric scheme to counter the nation’s current energy crises.
In the past week, he has also stared down pressure from the business community to abandon his promise to hold a plebiscite on the issue of same sex marriage. To his credit, he has stood firm on this issue by reiterating that the only way forward on the issue is a plebiscite. He has announced legislation which seeks to outlaw payments from big business to trade unions for favourable enterprise bargaining agreements which was a recommendation of the Royal Commission into trade unions. He is still maintaining the government’s tough stance on border security. All of these actions should give conservatives reasons for optimism.
This change in direction and style was rewarded by the Newspoll released on Monday where the Coalition government had significantly closed the gap in the two-party preferred vote to be only 48-52% behind Labor. Turnbull has also increased his lead as preferred Prime Minister over Bill Shorten to 43% to 29%. Although they are still behind this is not a catastrophic position to be in so far out from an election.
Then yesterday Turnbull had arguably had his finest day as Prime Minister when after a debate in the Coalition party room at a press conference with Attorney General George Brandis he unveiled his government would be proposing changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and reforming the way in which the Human Rights Commission handles complaints. The words “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” will now be deleted and replaced with “harass”, while the complaint process will now have a ‘reasonable persons’ test’. He also gave a stirring defence of free speech in Question Time in face of Labor’s usual railings against it.
The chilling effect that 18C has had on freedom of speech in Australia recently are obvious to those who value this freedom. Andrew Bolt back in 2011 had two of his articles banned because he highlighted the fact that light skinned middle class aboriginals were taking advantage of the many government and institutional benefits available to aboriginals.
More recently the case of the QUT students who objected on Facebook to being kicked out of an indigenous only computer lab found themselves before the courts for racial vilification. The case was eventually dismissed but not before three-year legal ordeal where their reputations were trashed and thousands of dollars of legal bills incurred. There was also the failed attempt by the Human Rights Commission to process a complaint against the late Bill Leak for a triggering cartoon he drew highlighting the dysfunction in indigenous communities.
Reform of 18C had long been a goal of many conservatives and libertarians in the Liberal Party however the main hindrance to any legislation being introduced was not the opposition from the left-wing parties but from cowardly MPs within the Coalition itself who were scared of a supposed backlash within ethnic communities in their electorate. Apparently, they are more concerned with short term politics rather than any principles. This is why it is such a courageous political decision by Turnbull and one that is bound to energize the conservative base he needs to rally support for his government. Although it looks unlikely the reforms will pass the Senate at least putting the proposed legislation to a vote is still an important symbolic action.
It is worth noting that Turnbull in this announcement has taken greater steps to reform 18C than Tony Abbott did during his Prime Ministership who abandoned free speech for fear that it might turn Muslims to terrorism. Abbott during his time on the backbench has tried to portray himself as the voice of the conservatives. But why didn’t he behave as a conservative while Prime Minister? He had his chance to lead a conservative government and failed.
Abbott’s apparent political epiphany should only be viewed as a cynical political move to regain the Prime Ministership. Sure, Turnbull is also taking these recent actions because he wants to save his job but the key difference is that Turnbull is actually pushing important conservative causes while Prime Minister where the decisions on national policy are made. Turnbull’s recent change of course has even drawn praise from his biggest critic Andrew Bolt.
A month ago, it was fair to say Turnbull was finished, but this past month he just might be back from the dead. We may not like the guy but changing Prime Ministers again would be another unwanted experience for the nation. He has certainly let us down many times already but if we can get further conservative policies out of him in the next few months we might have cause for optimism and a Coalition government worth defending and fighting for.