Progressive people in Australia are facing a significant dilemma: as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard is disappointing many and Tony Abbott is not an acceptable alternative. If elected, he would be the most conservative prime minister in decades.
This dilemma is leading to some strange conclusions. Too many progressives are now looking back at the period of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership with such rose-coloured glasses that they see him as the solution to all our ills. With his martyrdom over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) and his support for same-sex marriage, Turnbull is now seen as having the passion and drive that is lacking in Gillard. He seems to have adopted enough progressive positions to forgive the fact that he is in the Liberal Party. He is apparently the perfect alternative.
Such an analysis however lacks a true understanding of what a Turnbull government would mean. Even in the unlikely event that Turnbull was returned to Coalition leadership sometime soon, promoting this Turnbull-as-saviour analyis is also to promote a politician who would take progressive ideals and policies backward.
If there is anything that has won progressive activists over to Team Turnbull it has been his stance on climate change. After his support for the CPRS brought down his leadership he became a hero to many in the climate movement.
What is forgotten is that in the negotiations around the CPRS, Turnbull significantly watered the legislation down from its already pretty rotten core. His amendments included, among others, significant increases in compensation to polluting industries and the permanent exclusion of agriculture from the scheme. It was enough for the Australian Conservation Foundation to remove its support for the scheme. Based on this history, it is very possible that watering down the current carbon package could definitely be on the agenda of a Turnbull Government. It is hard to see any scenario where Turnbull would strengthen climate laws as prime minister.
In other areas as well, Turnbull has taken very conservative positions.
For example, Turnbull recently stated that he thought that the Fair Work Bill has gone "too far". As leader of the Coalition he argued for the reintroduction of temporary protection visas and for offshore processing for all asylum seekers. He also continues to actively oppose the means testing of the private health care rebate, the Minerals Resource and Rent Tax and the National Broadband Network. It’s nice to think many of these positions would change if he was leader but the evidence of his time at the helm doesn’t suggest that will be the case.
Yet, what is worse about a potential Turnbull government is the ministers who would come with him. Based on his shadow cabinet from when he was leader, a Turnbull prime ministership would result in a cabinet including Eric Abetz, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton, George Brandis, Warren Truss and (if he wasn’t required to stand down) Tony Abbott. Given the changes that have taken place within the Coalition since he was leader, it is almost certain that we would see people such as Sophie Mirabella, Cory Bernardi and Michaelia Cash in some position of power too.
It’s nice to think that Turnbull could keep these ministers in line but we all know that a prime minister cannot control every element of their government. The decisions of ministers may not be as big as those of a prime minister but what we have seen with the election of Liberal governments in Victoria (with decisions around issues such as wind farm regulation, negotiations with nurses, and swearing in public), and in New South Wales (with its introduction of a "surrogate form of WorkChoices"), is that decisions that don’t make headlines in a campaign can have a huge effect.
There are genuine reasons to be disappointed with the Gillard Government. But to think that we can deal with this disappointment by making Malcolm Turnbull our Prime Minister is dangerous at best. A Liberal Government is a Liberal Government — no matter who is leading it.
If we want a progressive Parliament then we need to vote and campaign for a real progressive alternative. Gillard and Abbott may not be the people progressives want in the top job — but Malcolm Turnbull is certainly not the alternative we need.
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