New Challenges For The Left In Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘Disruption Narrative’

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Aden Date argues that the left has some political challenges ahead in Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation nation.

The Turnbull government’s innovation agenda has been dismissed by some as rhetoric, but the new Liberal innovation narrative is a way post for the future of right-wing thought in Australia.

Some weeks after the Turnbull government launched its signature reform package, criticisms of the package have broadly fallen into two categories.

One camp dismisses it as mere re-framing, a policy that is small in impact but comes with all the vibing silicon valley jargon that makes the country feel different, whilst the fine print just tinkers at the margins of Australia’s fledgling start-up culture.

The second camp points to the hypocritical dimensions of Turnbull’s support for innovation. Turnbull’s hostility toward’s action on climate change, the National Broadband Network, and even CSIRO’s big data group Data 61 reveals the rhetorical dimensions of Turnbull’s agenda.

These criticisms miss an important point, however. In a culture of politics where broken promises are regarded as normal, it is not enough to highlight Turnbull’s contradictions. Turnbull’s continued support in the polls, in spite of his contradictions, demonstrate the power of narrative in influencing public perceptions.

Turnbull’s positive narrative represents a new orientation for the Liberal Party, one focused on the future rather than the past.

This alone is unprecedented for the Liberals, who since Howard have been rooted in a social conservatism that resists change (such as multiculturalism or climate change) which might shatter this quarter-acre delusion.

We barely need to discuss Abbott, who’s anachronistic policies took on a post-satire quality, the pinnacle of which was the re-institution of Knights and Dames. Howard took us back a generation, but Abbott managed the task of taking us back an era.

Tony Abbott, addressing media after Malcolm Turnbull announced he would challenge for the leadership of the Liberal Party.
Tony Abbott, addressing media after Malcolm Turnbull announced he would challenge for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Turnbull’s language is not just new for the Liberals, however – it’s the most forward-looking our country has been since Keating.

Rudd tried to demonstrate leadership on climate change, but the Greens held him to account on the gap between his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and his description of climate change as the “greatest moral, social, and economic challenge of our time.” Rudd is now ultimately remembered as a climate incrementalist.

He was more ambitious with his Resource Super Profits Tax, but it was framed by the mining sector as flipping the lights on, turning off the stereo, and announcing the party was over.

The Carbon Tax under the Gillard government was a progressive policy, but doomed to never be a part of a coherent Labor narrative due to Gillard’s earlier promise to not introduce a carbon tax.

Gillard’s Industry and Innovation Statement was primarily focused on protecting the ailing manufacturing sector, the avatar of which was our sickly car industry. The policy was an incoherent narrative that tried to look forwards and backwards simultaneously.

Of the Greens, their progressive leadership during the last 15 years mostly occurred in those intermissions where they could clutch at power. The Greens’ leadership is marked in individual policy pieces, rather than bigger narratives.

The Greens are playing the long-game – making impact where they can whilst trying to grow their primary vote, and so are forced to play in whatever sandpit the major parties play in.

Howard, Rudd, Gillard, and Abbott shared the same temporal orientation. Howard and Abbott’s social conservatism chained them to the past. Rudd and Gillard were both chained to the unions, and to an idea of a country that made things.

Turnbull’s language is different. He speaks about the future in a way that has not been heard in politics for some time: “You can see it [disruption]as a threat, hide under the doona, but you will miss out on all the fun,” he said.

Turnbull’s rhetoric is different in both form and content. In form, it is forward-looking, excited rather than fearful, and focused on opportunities rather than challenges.

The old Liberal ideas are still there, with Government presented as a shepherd of economic activity. Innovation still exists in service of employment, skills, and growth.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The content is also new, and Turnbull is electing not to walk on the desecrated ground of climate change and multiculturalism.

The left did not hold Turnbull’s green credentials in high regard and his poor performance so far is unsurprising. Rudd staked his office on the threat of climate, and Abbott staked his on the threat of refugees.

Turnbull knows better.

The new ground, the new content of his Prime Ministership, is the language of disruption and technological change.

The temporal and spatial distance of climate change is closed on the battlegrounds of disruption because we can hold the devices of disruption in our hands.

There is also a return to classic liberalism in the revival of the entrepreneur as the centre of Australian economic progress. The symbol of Australian success is no longer Gina Rinehart, but Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brooks, the Co-Founders of Atlassian.

The old story used to begin with a seven or eight figure inheritance that was grown through gradual acquisition into something with a few more zeros. The new story involves a $10,000 credit card debt, a big idea, and a whole lot of hard work.

The timing is just about right too. Unemployment figures are still positive, and the effects of the end of the mining boom are not yet widely felt. If there was a time for Australians to be patiently persuaded to allow the government to fumble it’s way through innovation, it’s now.

Criticisms of the rhetorical and hypocritical dimensions of Turnbull’s agenda are accurate, but they miss the point.

Liberals no longer regard themselves as policymakers, but as “storytellers.” Innovation will ultimately be left to the private sector and all that is required of government is knob-twiddling, tape-cutting, and cheerleading.

The Liberal’s job used to be to celebrate the mining sector, and now that that party is over, it must celebrate something else. Talk is enough in the Liberal party.

Or in Turnbull’s words: “Australia’s greatest assets are not those under the ground but the men and women walking on top of it.”

If you are concerned about the charismatic appeal of Turnbull’s Brave New World, you should be.

new matilda, malcolm turnbull
Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull.

Disengaged voters who moved left as a protest vote against Abbott no longer have anything to fear. The beating heart of the Turnbull government is still blue, but the skin is Greener. Turnbull has appeal to white-collar city-dwellers who have voted Green for primarily aesthetic reasons, to women and to established multicultural Australians.

Turnbull’s ‘ideas boom’ promises it all. It can, according to Turnbull, “last forever.” Here, Turnbull’s language moves from forward-looking to extreme optimism, claiming technology can defy the boom-bust behaviour of capitalism.

Turnbull’s ‘ideas boom’ promises a world in which the power of ideas creates tangible prosperity. Capital-lite tech start-ups will sell bits and bytes via the Internet of Things, clever young people will become billionaires, so the story goes, and Australia will live happily ever after.

This is what Peter Gordon, cited by Clive Hamilton in When Earth Juts Through the World, calls the “triumph of consciousness over its surroundings.”

Turnbull’s ideas boom represents nothing less than the ultimate triumph of modernity; the orgiastic climax of capitalism. Liberated from the need for inputs, “ideas” connect the ethereal to the real. No more need for grim stuff, like mining and manual labour.

The left will need to call out Turnbull’s excessive techno-optimism. Quiet voices, mostly from academia, warn of the potential for technological disruption to result in mass unemployment, and even killer robots.

The conversation on tech companies’ corporate tax avoidance is alight. Open access to knowledge through platforms like Wikipedia and Wikileaks will become even more important in an era where knowledge is becoming increasingly commodified, and therefore unevenly distributed.

Bill Gates, by all rights a techno-optimist, reminds us that carbon taxes and government R&D are essential in combating climate change.

Turnbull’s high-GI start-up innovation may create the next Uber, but it will accomplish very little to curb planetary warming. Energy, unlike the ‘ideas boom’, still exists in the world of things – something has to be built somewhere. It is capital intensive and opportunities to replace power generators only occur once every 25 or 30 years.

The left will also need to champion disruptive economic, social, and democratic innovation.

Discussions around providing a basic minimum income or, more broadly, the transition towards a circular economy, will become more important.

Universities, now becoming a tool for commercialisation, must be returned to their roots as institutions of social mobility and collegiality. Universities should be connected to both industry and community.

In the near-term, the left needs to remind voters of the role of Government in promoting innovation – see Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State.

The left is leading the way in democratic innovation through platforms like GetUp! And Purpose. Flux, a micro-party premised on direct democracy, will register within the next few weeks. These platforms may provide an early prototype for what a new model of democracy might look like.

True innovation has the potential to undermine capitalism, as discussed by Guy Rundle in Crikey.

The left must carefully balance their cautionary conservative function with a vision for a more socially cohesive and democratic society, enabled by technology and people power. This new democracy has the potential to disrupt capitalism itself.

The hardest story to tell is that of our increasingly tense relationship with Earth. Climate change represents the ‘Wrong Way, Go Back’ on the long road of neoliberal capitalism. Techno-optimism encourages us to just power through with the roof folded down. If techno-optimism is about “consciousness over circumstances,” the left must champion “circumstances over consciousness.” The right cannot comprehend Mann, Carson, or even Galileo.

The ‘circumstances over consciousness’ story is difficult to tell in a disrupted world, with it’s multiple digital identities. The sense of what is ‘real’ is becoming lost. This is why our elected officials can be applauded for being “good storytellers” or “changing the narrative.”

There is no easy way to untie this knot, and in time climate change will do the job for us if we cannot do it ourselves.

This is a concerning time to be an Australian. Turnbull is running a thoroughly Liberal government, but it’s new aesthetic will have appeal to voters who voted Green because they preferred the ‘vibe.’ Turnbull’s innovation agenda plays at the margins and reinstates neoliberalism as the path to the end of history.

In the fringes of Turnbull’s speeches, we see the crazed elements of his techno-optimism, which permit us to question everything… except neoliberalism.

The challenge for the left is great. The debate will become more subtle and nuanced. The left must provide the cautionary tales of digital disruption and automation, but balance this with a progressive vision for a just and inclusive democracy.

The final spinning plate, as always, is climate change – our warming world challenges not only our politics, but also our philosophy.

A WA Greens bumper sticker on a car on my street reads: “True Progress.” For 15 years, the left has only had to defend the cause of Progress. Now it must defend the cause of True.

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Aden Date is a Perth-based consultant, freelance writer, and performer. He previously lectured in and coordinated community-engaged learning at UWA and co-designed the UWA McCusker Centre for Citizenship. His main areas of interest include philosophy, education, and climate change.

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