Myths About Malcolm Being In The Middle: The Q&A Test


ABC Television’s Monday night Q&A program provides a stage for politicians, plus other, usually more erudite commentators, to give headline-worthy opinions on current economic and social issues.

When appearing on ABC’s Q&A programme on February 16t, and given the turmoil surrounding Prime Minister Abbott, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull must have known that he would have to pretend that he did not want to displace his leader.

That dilemma is not entirely his fault. Numerous pollsters and journalists have created a myth that Malcolm is obviously leadership material, but his performance on that Q&A program suggests the supposed leadership qualities are, at best, exaggerated.

Following the last question from a member of that Q&A audience – concerning the panel members’ visions for Australia’s future – presenter Tony Jones did not immediately turn to Malcolm, so he had more than enough time to craft his answer.

When his time came, Malcolm’s vision amounted to a hoary old set of platitudes plus the familiar jousting about the budget with the representative of the Labor Party. Vision ? We waited.

First came the sidestepping technique, telling his audience what vision meant: ‘Describe where you want to go’, ‘What is your goal?’, ‘You’ve got to explain that.’

Then came signs of a drift to something slightly more specific, ‘Pick a topic… you know what is the problem with the budget,’ ‘What is the problem, you know, dealing with the NBN or whatever.’

The fill-in-padding for these observations depended on everyone being honest. ‘Explain honestly’, ‘Honestly the problems we face,’ ‘The honest debate we should be having with the Labor Party.’

What the electorate might be honest about sounded like Malcolm’s overture to his actual policy views. He paused. Again the audience waited.  

Nothing came except attempted political point scoring. ‘Labor spending too much,’ ‘Labor won’t say how to raise revenue.’

Significant statements but hardly visionary. Lost in a thicket of diatribes about how bad Labor had been and would be, Malcolm showed that he was little different from any conservative politician. The difference is that he knows a lot about the presentation of self in everyday life – how to win friends and influence people – in particular when appearing on Q&A.

As though participating in a princely courtship, he politely suggested to his Labor opponent, Shadow Minister for Health Catherine King, they both put their cards on the table. This invitation to stop fighting and raise the level of honest debate came closest to learning how a vision might be conceived, but not born.

A picture of a socially just, economically buoyant, human-rights-respecting Australia might have emerged. There was Malcolm’s chance to justify the journalists and the pollsters’ accounts of him as the aspirin the nation needs.

He could have rejected those more-of-the-same prescriptions that the Australian economy would be vastly improved by greater competition leading to greater efficiencies and therefore more jobs. He might have said that such reliance on laissez faire economics produces not only unjust outcomes, such as greater inequality, but also shows no notion of morality.

If he had given a thought about a more socially just Australia, Malcolm would have removed his Goldman Sachs glasses and talked about raising revenue through economic re-distribution. ‘I’d abolish negative gearing, I’d stop taxing Trusts as companies, I’d reduce the discount on capital gains and I might even consider broadening the base of the GST. Despite my advancing age,’- self deprecating humour always at hand in the Malcolm lexicon – ‘I’d reduce the over-generous tax concessions on superannuation, currently estimated to cost over $50 billion by 2016-2017.’

With the possibility that a conversion might have occurred on the road to the Ultimo studios, Malcolm could then have said that he would use such revenue to re-invest in the public sector, implement all the Gonski reforms, commit funds to universal health care and encourage state governments to invest in public transport.

Such a conversion – a sort of brave coming out on widely watched Q&A – would have given a chance to return to the charm game, ‘I’d have to say, very sensitively, very politely that I would not be a Prime Minister for Roads.’

This claim could have been followed by a brief explanation as to why protecting a precious environment was a most important goal for the nation’s future and for the well-being of future generations. Such protection, ‘Will require an end to rewarding my corporate friends. They’ll have to learn, no more corporatization of public policy as in giving you fuel subsidies for polluting the environment.’

He could have said: ‘Despite what the flat earth members of my party think, I want to be honest about the need to acknowledge humans’ role in global warming. I’d also like to say that everyone’s energy future lies in the development of non-polluting technologies, such as wind and solar power. I don’t have time to elaborate, except to make the point that vision involves plans to preserve a country’s resources and to guarantee a quality of life for future generations.

Or this: ‘I also need to admit that we must lose our reputation for being as cruel as possible to the world’s most vulnerable people. We should cease sending asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru. As part of long-term population policies, and in close partnership with the relevant United Nations offices, we should cease automatic detention of asylum seekers, process their claims onshore and with the generous support of diverse communities.’

Malcolm could have said that as a lawyer, such bold changes in policy derived from his deep respect for international law. To show that he had been inspired by human rights campaigners, he might have quoted from the thesis of one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the former French diplomat, Stephane Hessel, that to be outraged about injustice is ‘the way to maintain a connection to your humanity.’ Compelling argument. Nice touch Malcolm.

As a drum roll to end Q&A, Malcolm might have borrowed from the other Malcolm’s significant book, Dangerous Allies, and thereby crafted a Turnbull perspective on foreign policy: ‘You must all know that I’m a Republican. For our nation’s security, we must cease our automatic reliance on the US. To build a democratic Republic we must cease this Monarchist-like dependence on others. A real way to security lies in creating a Charter of Rights whose law-based principles would provide for the protection of all citizens, not least Indigenous Australians and refugees.’

As a final flourish, and to illustrate that touch of irony which displays insights into one’s own shortcomings, Malcolm could have thanked Q&A staff for the opportunity to assure the public that he would continue to fund the public broadcaster in tune with his party’s pre-election promises.

‘Honestly. You don’t have to believe what my deferential followers write. Read my lips. Hear what I’ve said on Q&A. I’m putting my cards on the table. That’s a goal. That is visionary.’ 

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.