Turnbull As The Terminator: The Progressive Malcolm Myth That Just Won’t Die


In the original Terminator movie, soldier Kyle Reese goes to great lengths to kill the cyborg assassin sent from the future to eliminate Sarah Connor.

mrReese throws pipe bombs during a car chase which explode the Terminator’s truck. The killing machine’s flesh is burnt away but it does not relent. Reese hammers the Terminator with a metal pipe and throws another pipe bomb, this time into its abdomen. The Terminator explodes but survives, now a one-armed legless torso still in pursuit of Connor.

Much the same thing is happening in Australian politics.

The myth of Progressive Malcolm has all the resilience of the Terminator. The long list of columnists who have written pieces attacking this myth have all invoked the spirit of Kyle Reese.

There’s no shortage of such myth busting pieces. Please enjoy this selection:

Malcolm Is Not So In The Middle, A Malcolm Turnbull Comeback Would Not Be Good News For The Left, Why We Should Be More Afraid Of Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott Is Gone, Forgive Me For Not Being Excited, Progressives, Don’t Be Fooled. Turnbull Will Rule From And For The Big End Of Town, Why Malcolm Turnbull Is No Progressive Hero, Turnbull To Charismatically Dismantle Public Services And Charmingly Violate Human Rights, Media Praises Turnbull’s ‘Reasoned’ And ‘Nuanced’ Torture Of Asylum Seekers, Malcolm Turnbull: The Shiny Charlatan, Turnbull A New Salesman But The Same Agenda, Rule For The Rich Turnbull Targets Penalty Rates, Unions, Medicare, Malcolm Turnbull: ‘Small L’ Liberal Or Planet-Eating Death Star?, and Optimism Is The New Denialism In A Warming Malcolm Turnbull World.

Despite these blistering attacks on the Progressive Malcolm mythology, like the Terminator, the myth refuses to die.

The idea the PM will magically transform into a shining light of the left once he has a mandate from the electorate still circulates in progressive publications and the wider community.

Left leaning voices, like Don Watson in The Monthly, still indulge in fantasies about the “Saviour that might have been”.

The ‘Turnbull Greens’, those who will vote Greens but preference Malcolm, are often cited to say current polls underestimate the coalition vote because they use preference flows based on Abbott’s 2013 election.

Despite the inevitable disappointments of his young Prime Ministership and the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Malcolm remains a great hope for many progressive Australians.

See this cartoon representation of the tenacity of the Myth:

You might ask, well if this battery of opinion pieces hasn’t destroyed the myth, why bother trying again? Isn’t there a saying about doing the same thing, expecting a different result, and insanity?

What if previous attempts all suffered the same structural problem? What if they were too one-sided in their assessment of Progressive Malcolm?

Thus I present to you a balanced, comprehensive and nuanced assessment of the arguments both for and against the motion ‘Prime Minister Malcolm Bligh Turnbull is progressive’ in a wide range of policy areas.


IMAGE: Takver, Flickr.
IMAGE: Takver, Flickr.

Immigration and Asylum Seekers

For: Turnbull once said he was concerned about asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus.

Against: As opposition leader in 2009, Malcolm Turnbull said “Only a Turnbull government can stop the boats and secure our borders”. Around the same time he promised to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas and said Australia had become a “soft target” for people smugglers.

He has voted very strongly for Temporary Protection Visas, voted against implementing refugee and protection conventions and voted strongly against increased scrutiny of asylum seeker management.

As Prime Minister he has endorsed the harshest aspects of Abbott’s immigration policy. He’s backed the Border Force Act, legislating up to two years’ jail for speaking out about human rights abuses on Nauru and Manus. He deported the traumatised Abyan, an act condemned as “grotesque”, “inhumane” and showing a “complete disregard for… the rule of law”. He’s advocated discriminating against Muslim refugees in Syria in preference for Christians. He supports the return 267 of refugees, including 37 babies, to concentration camps on Nauru and Manus.


(IMAGE: Beth Cortez-Neavel, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Beth Cortez-Neavel, Flickr)

National Security, Defence, Government Transparency and Civil Liberties

For: Sometimes whispering the word ‘freedom’ helps Turnbull get to sleep.

Against: According to political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher, Turnbull “has strongly reaffirmed the government’s policy of “stopping the boats”, embraced all aspects of the Abbott foreign policy, and… delivered a defence white paper that, in all main elements, is the same one Abbott had under way”. In other words, he’s started an arms race with China because, you know, arms races usually end well – especially ones with a much stronger rival.

As Communications Minister in 2014, Turnbull introduced mandatory data retention laws into the Parliament. He supports ASIO laws which include up to 10 years jail for ever reporting on special intelligence operations.

He wants to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission which was opposed by Labor back in 2013 for denying basic civil liberties. Professor George Williams and Nicola McGarrity have said the commission’s investigatory powers “have the potential to severely restrict basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to silence”.

He has voted very strongly against increasing access under Freedom of Information law and very strongly against increasing accessibility of government data and documents.

Turnbull has appointed arch-conservative Andrew Nikolic as chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Mr Nikolic is all for stronger counter-terrorism powers for police and intelligence agencies. He has said the threat of terrorism makes civil liberties “redundant” and argued opposition to new counter-terrorism powers amounts to “impractical nonsense”.


(IMAGE: Guillame Paumier, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Guillame Paumier, Flickr)

LGBTQI rights

For: Some people reckon he gives off a bit of a pro-gay vibe.

Against: Turnbull has voted very strongly against extending government benefits to same-sex couples and voted very strongly against same-sex marriage equality.

He has backed Abbott’s destructive and pointless $160 million plebiscite plan, designed to banish marriage equality to the Never-Never.

He pandered to the extreme right of his party in calling for a review into the Safe Schools LGBTQI program. He failed to condemn the homophobic garbage spouted by Senators Bernardi and George Christensen.



For: He thought Hilary Swank was a pretty good teacher in the film “Freedom Writers”.

Against: Turnbull has voted very strongly for deregulating university fees, voted for increased indexation of HECS debts, voted for voluntary student unionism and voted strongly against increased funding for university education.

The Turnbull government pulled out of the last two years of Gonski school funding.

Turnbull is taking over the TAFE system and making it much worse.


new matilda, no smoking signHealth

For: Malcolm agrees with Ricky Ponting that, “You’ll feel better on Swisse”.

Against: Turnbull has voted very strongly for increasing the price of subsidised medicine and very strongly against plain packaging for tobacco.

In 2014, he supported Abbott’s $7 GP co-payment.

In December 2015, Prime Minister Turnbull announced $650 million in cuts to Medicare over four years. Doctors and pathology companies are saying this will mean co-payments of around $30 for things like pap smears, blood tests, MRIs and urine tests.


(IMAGE: Andrew Thackway, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Andrew Thackway, Flickr)


For: He doesn’t care for greyhound racing.

Against: Mr Turnbull voted very strongly against increasing restrictions on gambling.


(IMAGE: Heather Paul, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Heather Paul, Flickr)

Animal Rights

For: As a child, he patted a cow.

Against: He voted very strongly for live animal export.



(IMAGE: Michael Coghlan, Flickr).

The Republic

For: He was the chairman of the Australian Republican Movement.

Against: As soon as he had the power to actually do something about a republic, he stalled momentum by saying: “The best time to do that will be after the end of the Queen’s reign.”


(IMAGE: Mack Lundy, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Mack Lundy, Flickr)

Environment and Climate Change

For: Sometimes the PM showers for less than 10 minutes, and he once owned a Prius.

Against: His voting record on the environment says somewhat more than his showers.

Turnbull has voted strongly for CSG mining, voted against a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), voted strongly against increasing investment in renewable energy, voted strongly against increasing marine conservation, voted very strongly against a carbon price, voted very strongly against increasing fishing restrictions, voted very strongly against increasing protection of Australia’s fresh water, and voted very strongly against letting environmental groups challenge the legality of certain government decisions.

As Minister for the Environment, Turnbull approved the Bell Bay Pulp Mill, strongly opposed by environmental groups.

As opposition leader, Turnbull introduced amendments to weaken the CPRS, including large increases in compensation for carbon intensive industries.

As Prime Minister, he has endorsed Abbott’s paltry emissions targets and woeful direct action policy. He has parroted some of Abbott’s worst comments about coal and argued global emissions would increase if Australia stopped exporting coal. He leads a government which has devastated the renewable energy industry and refused a pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. He ripped $1 billion from the foreign aid budget for a climate fund to help clean up the mess created by the industry he props up with billions in subsidies each year.

Meanwhile he described Labor’s proposal of a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2050 as “reckless”, approved creation of one of world’s largest coal ports, near the Great Barrier Reef, appointed Australia’s first wind farm commissioner, and ruled out a shift to emissions trading.

And he sold his Prius.


(IMAGE: Chris Graham)
(IMAGE: Chris Graham)

Indigenous Affairs

For: The PM once started a speech in the language of the Ngunawal and wiped away a tear at the loss of Indigenous languages.

Against: On the other hand, Turnbull didn’t cry when he voted very strongly for the Northern Territory Intervention. This was the same intervention that suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and led to an increase of 500 per cent in reports of self-harm or suicide by Indigenous children and a large spike in the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. Nor did he shed a tear when he voted against increasing Aboriginal land rights.


new matilda, money
(IMAGE: Ben Hosking, flickr).

Political Donations

For: He once refused a political donation. It was a Yoho Diabolo and he couldn’t think of any use for it.

Against: As Minister for the Environment, Turnbull invested $10 million in a Russian/Swiss rain-making technology just before an expensive election campaign. There was no evidence the technology worked, but irrefutable evidence the rain-making company was partly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s nephew, who makes large donations to Turnbull’s fundraising group, the Wentworth Forum.

He voted strongly against restricting donations to political parties.


False-Balance-ABCABC, SBS and Media Ownership

For: He has worn a leather jacket on Q&A at least once.

Against: Turnbull has voted very strongly for decreasing funding to the ABC and SBS. These cuts at the ABC were $254 million and cost 400 jobs.

He spearheaded the Q&A witch-hunt surrounding Zaky Mallah and pressured the ABC over its coverage of the Coalition’s NBN broadband policy.

He intervened to get Scott McIntyre sacked following some Anzac Day tweets.

In the past he has voted against increasing diversity of media ownership and as Prime Minister he is gunning for deregulation of the sector and increased concentration of ownership in the hands of the biggest media companies.


new matilda, iphone
(IMAGE: William Hook, Flickr).

Science and Technology

For: Turnbull is a fierce advocate for gravity.

Against: Turnbull once described the National Broadband Network as the “telecommunications version of Cuba” and voted very strongly against the NBN.

The Turnbull government is slashing funding to the CSIRO, resulting in the loss of 350 jobs in two years. This will include 110 positions at the Oceans and Atmosphere division and a similar reduction in the Land and Water division. In other words, Turnbull is ramping up the government’s ideological crusade against climate science.



For: His wife, Lucy Turnbull, is female.

Against: In 2014, Tony Abbott cut $300 million to women’s shelters and legal services.

In other news, Malcolm Turnbull said of the 2014 Budget, “I support unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the Budget”.

In NSW, since 2014, the number of refuges specialising in cases of domestic violence has dropped from 78 to 14. Since becoming PM, Turnbull announced $100 million for a ‘women’s safety package’. Yet only $5 million of this package went to crisis accommodation.


(IMAGE: Christian Haugen, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Christian Haugen, Flickr)

The Economy

For: If he had his way he would turn Australia into a nation of communes linked into a highly sophisticated barter network. Or maybe I misinterpreted him.

Against: Turnbull voted very strongly for tighter means testing of family payments, voted strongly for decreasing the availability of welfare payments, voted for privatising government assets, voted to increase the pension, voted against increasing consumer protections, voted very strongly against a minerals resource rent tax and voted very strongly against increasing transparency of big business by making information public.

As opposition Treasury spokesman, he opposed a tax on luxury cars.

His interpretation of the Global Financial Crisis is one of the most thoroughly ideological and totally wrong you’ll ever hear: “The proposition that the Global Financial Crisis was caused by wicked neo-liberal governments deregulating their financial markets and ‘letting the free market rip’ is nonsense”. He then praised moves “towards more open markets and greater economic freedom, including greater free trade”.

Turnbull has lauded New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who “has been able to achieve very significant economic reforms in New Zealand by… explaining complex issues and then making a case for them”. Reforms being code for Key’s increased GST, income tax cuts for the rich and weaker protections for workers.

It’s worth repeating Turnbull’s statement when Abbott introduced his grossly unfair 2014 Budget: “I support unreservedly and wholeheartedly every element in the Budget”.

As Prime Minister, Turnbull does nothing about the 38 per cent of large Australian and foreign companies which paid no tax in 2013-2014, but does lead us through a protracted debate about increasing the GST and is considering reducing company taxes yet again (they’ve already been slashed from 49 per cent in 1986 to 30 per cent in 2016). He has also increased attacks on the poor by proposing fines for unemployed and underemployed Australians.

The PM also fervently supports our recent wave of free trade deals, including the devastating Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In response to Labor’s attempts to reform negative gearing, the PM launched an Abbott-style scare campaign, even deploying Abbott’s exact phrase that Labor’s reforms would send a “wrecking ball” through the economy.


flickr, chefs, working, workers, kitchen, udon
(IMAGE: Flickr, Danny Luong)

Industrial Relations

For: Malcolm’s second cousin’s wife’s friend’s boss’s uncle once met somebody from the working class.

Against: He voted for WorkChoices.

Over the many years since, Turnbull has voted very strongly against increasing the power of trade unions in the workplace. He backed the Trade Union Royal Commission and promised to make union power an election issue.

He has said that penalty rates are old fashioned and cutting them “inevitable”.

He has also repeated the myths that minimum wage rises “discourage employment” and argued unfair dismissal protection is a “tax on employment”.



Though there were some strong points for the motion (patting a cow, advocating for gravity, having a female wife), the opposing arguments carry the day and it turns out Malcolm Turnbull is in fact not at all progressive.

Perhaps this piece will bounce right off Terminator Turnbull just like all the others.

Yet if nothing else, at least we can all sit back and enjoy another reference to the 1980s classic.

Here’s to a vision of the future when Australia finally crushes the Progressive Malcolm Myth once and for all.


Liam McLoughlin teaches English, politics, and media, and writes a bit. You can find his stuff at Situation Theatre or on Facebook and Twitter. He still can’t decide which quote is more profound: Karl Marx’s “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” or Stewart Lee’s “David Cameron and Ed Milliband are about as different as two rats fighting over a courgette that has fallen into a urinal. The main difference being that the David Cameron rat is wearing chinos, in an attempt to win over the youth voter”.