Social Democracy in Focus, Issue 9

July 19, 2016


Malcolm Turnbull – a new kind of progressive politics for Australia?

Our Social Democracy in Focus Series is designed to look closely at the policies of progressive governments, and see how they translate into practice to implement a progressive policy agenda.

Given the change in federal leadership, we thought we’d take a moment to evaluate our new PM, now over a month into his leadership, given that he is so often described as having “progressive” views.

The transition

September 15th 2015: “There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”, proclaimed our new PM as he took over the reigns of government.  He declared that a “government formed under his leadership, is a government for the 21st Century”.

Not since “Kevin 07”, has such optimism flooded over our polity, a welcome respite from the constant fear mongering, three-word slogans and divisive politics that defined Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership.

After 30 consecutive negative Newspolls, it was clear Australians didn’t resonate with Abbott’s sense of Australian identity, culture, and politics. Nor did we appreciate his combative leadership style.

Adding insult to injury, the Abbott government failed to deliver on the key issue underpinning its 2013 election victory.  As Per Capita Research Fellow Stephen Koukoulas, pointed out a week before the spill, economic management had become Abbott’s weakest claim to re-election, and it was clear that feeling was widespread. Along with the polls, Turnbull cited the economy as his main reason for taking the leadership.

So, what has Australia gained from this transition?

Already, there is a sense that politics has changed.  Labor’s attack-based tactics are falling flat.  Their attempt to attack Turnbull’s wealth and how he pays his taxes backfired.  It didn’t resonate with the electorate and gave the Coalition a bump in the polls.  Labor would have been better served contesting Turnbull on policy.  Itâ’s clear that Australians are sick of negative and combative politics.  Is this part of the honeymoon halo? Or has Turnbull broken the cycle?  Are we returning to a politics that looks for genuine solutions rather than just looking for the wedge?

Only time will tell.

Implementing a (more) Progressive Policy Agenda

Style is good, but substance is better.  This is where the electorate remains uncertain about Turnbull.

Turnbull is known to have progressive views on climate change, the republic, marriage equality, and women’s roles in society.  He’s an enthusiastic supporter of public transport and has forward-thinking views on the digital economy.  But it’s not yet clear how his views on any of this will shape his policy agenda, or whether he can take his party along on these issues even if he wanted to.

Turnbull’s agenda is constrained by his lack of popularity within the Liberal Party, where he is, and always has been, contentious.

The response to the 2014 Budget shows Australians are supportive of progressive policies that value fairness, but Turnbull may not be as far removed from his predecessor as we might be hoping.

To the disappointment of moderates, six weeks into his Prime Ministership Turnbull remains steadfast in his commitment to policies constructed under the Abbott government such as Direct Action, cuts to penalty rates, harsh border control, and a watered-down NBN.

Where to from here?

Turnbull’s defeat over conservative Abbott reflects a trending shift among western democracies towards more progressive policies, away from the politics of attack and fear. Last week’s elections in Canada saw a defeat for the conservatives under Stephen Harper, a close ideological ally of Abbott and Howard, and a decisive victory for the centre-left Liberals under Justin Trudeau.  In his victory speech, Trudeau thanked Canadians for beating fear with hope.

It looks increasingly like electorates are fed-up with negative politics, and are instead demanding a long-term vision, and policies that encompass a positive, equitable and sustainable future.  It perhaps means we can be optimistic that we can rebuild faith in our institutions and political players, and that leaders will feel they have the space to develop innovative and reforming politics.

In our last edition of Social Democracy in Focus we looked at whether social democracy is in crisis, and Per Capita’s David Hetherington argued that the crisis stems from a failure of vision on the left, and called for a new iteration that upholds the values of social democracy, which has delivered such enormous increases in living standards for so many people.

Certainly the Abbott/Hockey experience has taught us that Australians still do value the fundamentals of social democracy, as attempts to undermine universal healthcare, limit affordable access to higher education, and cut pensions were roundly rejected. So the argument for a progressive policy agenda is already there, we just need leaders with vision and courage to implement it.

Is Turnbull the one to do it?

Malcolm Turnbull presents us with what might appear on the surface as a political contradiction: a social progressive from the right.

However, given the results of recent elections in Canada and Britain, the mix of moderated market-based economics with socially progressive views is becoming a more common formula. This is something Per Capita has looked at before.

In 2012 at a Per Capita Reform Agenda Series event looking at the future of the left, Andrew Leigh MP argued that renewal for the left can be found at the point where two powerful ideas merge: liberalism – standing for regulated markets, minority rights and freedom of speech, and egalitarianism – standing for the social democratic values of fairness, equality of political and legal rights and developing policies with particular regard to the poorest and most vulnerable.

Turnbull’s policies appear to reflect these two streams.  He has responded to the Murray Inquiry with a “host of reforms to the banking and financial system”, most notably to superannuation concessions; and has acknowledged the epidemic of violence against women in Australia, announcing a $100 million package to combat domestic violence.

It would be premature to predict the “progressiveness” of Turnbull’s government at this stage.  While his views are well-known, he is without a mandate to implement policies based on them.  Turnbull’s ability to bring his party along on these issues is uncertain and the economy will remain the single most important issue.  Turnbull’s ability to manage these factors will determine whether he can retain leadership of the Liberal party, win the 2016 federal election, and then perhaps implement a policy agenda more appealing to progressives.

Download the full report here: Action and Impact