Transcript of interview by Peter Clarke and Margo Kingston with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recorded August 11, 2012, lightly edited for clarity and succinctness. Part 1

Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston
- 7 mins ago
Margo Kingston

Transcript part 1

Peter Clarke: Our guest is somebody who’s experienced democratic politics from the outside as a lawyer, banker and journalist, and from right inside the corridors and backrooms of power, where the sausages are actually made, the 29th Prime Minister of Australia from 2015 to 2018, Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Turnbull, welcome to the transit zone,

Malcolm Turnbull: Thank you very much. And I’m here in Sydney in Gadigal Country.

Kingston: Thank you very much for coming on Mr Turnbull, I’m thrilled to be interviewing my very first Australian Prime Minister. You’ve been very active in public life since your retirement, and I’d just like to know how you envision your role as a public figure now, in helping shape Australia’s future?

Turnbull: Well, I’m a citizen of Australia. I’ve always said that the most important title in our country is not Prime Minister, or judge or Governor General, or anything like that, it’s an Australian citizen. I don’t think I’m that involved in public life, to be quite honest, Margo, but I do express my views from time to time, and I’m entitled to do that, just like any other citizen. I’m a strong believer, and always have been, in active citizenship. History is made by those who turn up, and if you don’t speak up, if you don’t seek to make a contribution or play a role, you can’t really complain if your views are not taken into account.

Kingston: Well, here we go, the ICCP report is dire as expected, you know, those fires that started in Australia, those huge images in the sky now all around the world. The Prime Minister has said he’s not going to change, Barnaby Joyce has said no to a net zero target by 2050. Broadly, what’s the optimal position for Australia to take domestically and abroad? On this existential matter?

Turnbull: Well, we should be a leader. We are a wealthy developed country, we’ve got to play our part. The proposition that because we’re only, whatever it is, one and a half percent of global emissions, therefore we shouldn’t bother to do anything, that’s the worst argument. We have to play a role. We have very high emissions per capita, we’re big exporters of fossil fuels, we have got to work towards a world where as quickly as we can, where fossil fuels are not being used to, generate electricity, or indeed in any other processes. We’ve got to stop taking carbon and methane out of the ground and sticking it in the atmosphere. That’s what this is all about. 

And so we should be moving as quickly as we can. The interesting thing, Margo, and this has been a big change in the 20 odd years that I’ve been actively involved with these issues, is that we’ve gone from a world in which the cost of going green, of having renewable energy, was considerable. And that’s why you needed to have carbon taxes or carbon prices and obliging people one way or another to use renewables. 

Nowadays renewables are cheaper. So the truth is, we can now have abundant electricity, abundant energy, and at a lower cost. Now you’ve obviously got to plan the transition. That’s critically important and that’s why you need to plan projects well ahead, Snowy Hydro 2.0 being probably the best example of that in Australia. But we can do it. 

Remember when Barnaby Joyce was going on about $100 or $200 lamb roasts, the terrible things the carbon tax would do to Australians? The truth of the matter is the reason our electricity prices are lower today than they were a few years back is because of renewables. So this is one of those very rare cases in life where you can have your cake and eat it

Clarke: Yet there was Barnaby Joyce this morning running that same line, trying to create a division between the regions and the city, talking about the windmills, you wouldn’t put those in the suburbs, creating that sense of difference. Yet when I travel around Australia as I have extensively, there are windmills. There are vast solar panels everywhere, not only big utility grade ones, but on remote pastoral cattle and sheep stations. Just about everyone is using solar out there. So how long do you believe he can keep prosecuting that particular line?

Turnbull: I suspect as long as he’s alive, and we all wish him a long life. You know, Barnaby is irrepressible. But the reality is that you’re right. In rural and regional Australia, renewable energy is delivering jobs. I’ll give a practical example of this. When Tony Abbott was elected in 2013, he was committed to abolishing the renewable energy target (RET).. or to scale it back considerably. 

We got a compromise (and)the pressure came from regional MPs. There were people like me, and others, Greg Hunt was certainly on my side in the cabinet at that time, arguing that we needed to maintain the RET, but I remember Dan Tehan 9the MP for Wannon in Victoria’s Western Districts) was saying, ‘Look, we’ve got a lot of wind farms in this district, there’s more that can be built, the farmers like them because they get rent from the wind farms, (they) generate jobs. There were others too. So this proposition that regional Australia wants to keep on building coal fired power stations is just rubbish, absolute rubbish.

The reality is that the National Party has sort of morphed into a party that’s determined really to defend the fossil fuel industry. They don’t defend farmers anymore. Matt Canavan’s great boast is that he’s a passionate coal miner. George Christensen’s much the same. What’s Joyce done for farmers recently? The reality is that coal mining in highly productive agricultural areas has done enormous damage. So they’ve basically been captured by the mining sector. They should call themselves the political wing of the Mineral Resources council or something.

Kingston: So I can see why the Nats are split – it’s really interesting, Malcolm, that the Victorian Nats are desperately trying to distance themselves from the Northern Nats because their people are farmers and rely on agriculture. But with the Liberal Party, I remember when Andrew Peacock took the first ever climate change action plan to the election in the late 80s and Dr Hewson was very strong on it in the early 90s. And then it’s a throwback to you because Abbott was so bad, but boy oh boy did you have trouble. And I saw this when I was reporting on the Howard government, that the moderates have either left or they’ve been pushed out. Does that help explain the climate evolution or is there another explanation?

Turnbull: I think that’s part of it. There’s not a lot of small l liberalism left in the Liberal Party, that’s the reality…

What’s happened with climate policy – and you see it in the United States as well – is that combination of right wing media, mostly owned by Rupert Murdoch, right wing anti-science politics, and of course the fossil fuel sector, have basically succeeded in taking an issue that should be one of science and physics, and a pragmatic, practical approach to resolving the problem, and turning it into one of values and identity. And that’s ludicrous. The idea that you say ‘I believe or don’t believe in global warming’ is like saying ‘I believe or don’t believe in gravity’. 

You saw George Christensen in the House of Representatives yesterday, basically saying COVID wasn’t anything to worry about, masks did more harm than good. I meant complete, dangerous nonsense. And the rest of the house condemned him. But there is a constituency there, and it is a crazy populist constituency that is no longer reality-based. 

You see this in the US. Consider that a majority of people who vote Republican, thanks to Murdoch’s Fox News and Trump and others, believe, no doubt sincerely, that Joe Biden stole the election. We saw what that results in on January the 6th. 

There are people in the US and some in Australia too, who genuinely believe they shouldn’t be vaccinated, that vaccines are bad. And then you get case after case. There was a right wing shock jock, you know, a COVID denying climate change denying character, who wouldn’t be vaccinated and ended up in hospital in Florida, I think, and died. His last remarks were that he wished he’d had a vaccine. This is the loopiness of it, and the fact that people are prepared to monetize it is so shameful. 

Look at Sky News here. YouTube kicked them off for seven days because they’d been promoting falsehoods relating to the pandemic and COVID and vaccines. They jumped up and down and said that was a terrible denial of free speech, but they have also quietly removed a whole lot of these clips from their site. Because YouTube did the right thing, YouTube called them out in a way ACMA doesn’t have the power to frankly, and certainly wouldn’t have the political will to. Those people who deny the reality of COVID and undermined confidence in vaccination are doing enormous harm. They’re doing the same sort of serious, deadly damage to public health that the conspiracy theorists have done to the democratic body politic with the lies about the 2020 election.

Clarke: Staying with the fossil fuel industry and how they have a squirrel grip on so many members of parliament, on the outside it’s very hard to discern how that actually works. In our jokey moments, we say they must be paying the superannuation of all these people or they’ve got some way of holding them in their thrall. You’re inside the system – how does it work? How does the fossil fuel industry actually maintain their capture of these people?

Turnbull: Any big employer or big company is going to have influence, right? They’re going to get heard. I think in terms of financial contributions there are a number of people in the fossil fuel sector who’ve been especially influential with the National Party, Trevor St Baker obviously one. Gina Rinehart is another. And there would be others, particularly in Queensland…

The donations are a big part of it (but) a lot of people don’t fully understand how integrated the media is with politics. And that right wing ecosystem – Sky News, Murdoch tabloids, 2GB, rusted-on LNP, Liberal and National Party voters, fossil fuel sector – it is a SYSTEM. And so the people that are pulling the levers and the main commentators on Sky and in the Murdoch press, they are as influential in that ecosystem has any member of parliament, probably much more influential than most of them. And what’s happened is that as the media has become more siloed, and as particularly the Murdoch media has become no longer really describable as news – it’s basically propaganda now – people are essentially living in an information bubble which is not necessarily or consistently reality based. 

The United States (is) a more extreme version of this, but that’s clearly where we’re heading. As I’ve said elsewhere, Murdoch has succeeded in monetizing the market for crazy, and it’s done enormous damage to Western democracy, particularly in the United States, less so here, but it’s not through want of they’re trying,

Kingston: Coming back to the Liberal Party, now true liberals, progressive liberals, believe that we need climate change action, as do the majority of of Labor and all the Greens. So there is quite a substantial majority that wants action. And you tried three times, I think, and finally produced a NEG which got the support of the Business Council of Australia and the National Farmers Federation. So what I’m suggesting is, it can’t just be the media that has led to a situation where the branches seem to have been taken over by a hard right or a Christian right. I noticed that a leading moderate of my time Ian Macphee McCleary came out in Goldstein, his former seat, and said progressives can’t influence the Liberal Party now so maybe you should think of an indie. So I’m just trying to work out, can true liberals strengthen the voices within the party still? Or is that complete, that takeover? Because you’re talking about, you know, crazy’s crazy policies, and we got a crazy climate change policy, so they’re controlling the majority who don’t want it.

Turnbull: Yes. Look, the reality is that the influence of the moderates is still important, particularly in New South Wales, but in the federal party room it is much diminished. That’s partly because of peple, becuase leading figures on the moderate side are no longer there – myself, Julie Bishop Christopher Pyne, just to name three of us. 

But I think the branches have become much more conservative. I think because many people are living in these bubbles of misinformation and craziness, that makes things a lot worse. And that gets quite extreme. You look at Qanon, for example, it’s loopy, completely and utterly crazy stuff, and yet there are people who not only believed that but it compelled them to go and attack the US Capitol on the 6th of January. 

So, yeah, I think the party has definitely moved to the right and that’s a real challenge. 

I think also culturally, the right operate like terrorists. Now, I hasten to add, they’re not using guns and bombs and so forth. They operate like terrorists in this way – they are prepared in a way the moderates have never been to say ‘We will blow the joint up if you don’t give us what we want’. They’ve done that to me a couple of times. Most of the people who commentate and talk about politics don’t actually know what they’re talking about. I do. I’ve been there. And, and so I’m speaking with the voice of experience, hard earned. 

And why do they do that? They do that because they have feel they’re entitled, and they have the backing of that right wing media ecosystem. It’s no accident that when Dutton was prosecuting his coup in 2018 he had the active support of the right wing shock jocks, of the Murdoch tabloids, of Murdoch himself. Rupert was trying to enlist Kerry Stokes in the efforts to get rid of me. They are players. This Coalition government is not solely between the Liberal and National parties. The Murdoch media are part of it. 

Look at the shakedown of Facebook and Google. The Australian Government, the Parliament in fact, because Labor certainly wasn’t going to pick a fight with Murdoch, they lined up, stood over Google and Facebook to give money to Rupert Murdoch, and the other media groups, but by far the biggest cheque went to Murdoch. And when Facebook and Google were negotiating, going back and forth on the terms of the legislation and the deal, you know who they were talking to, overwhelmingly? Murdoch’s lawyers. So the Australian Government’s great achievement here was to shakedown of Facebook and Google to give money to Murdoch. And do we know how much money Murdoch got? We don’t know how much money the ABC or the Guardian or Fairfax got, either by the way. And there are no investigative journalists pursuing it, I notice, because of course they’re all roped into it together. 

Clarke: I want to dig further into the whole area of the media, not just about Murdoch, but the whole media ecosystems, and I just want to be a bit nostalgic for a moment. I really enjoyed your memoir, and early on in the book you describe watching and listening to your mother Cora Lansbury dictate episodes of that very popular radio serial, Portia faces life…  Thinking back to those times of mass media and shared experiences with the media – Graham Kennedy for example, most of Australia was watching him on the TV at night. Those days have gone of course, and since the digital revolution the media landscape has changed enormously. And only just over a decade ago. In its most pervasive form, social media has transformed everything and political propaganda’s changed with it. We all know the Trump exploited his own Twitter account almost like a broadcast channel to the hilt. Has  our media-saturated society, as the democracy scholar John Keane labels it, made the authentic practice of democracy so much harder, even these days impossible?

Turnbull: I’d hate to say it was impossible, but I think it has made it harder. The problem is that we used to have a world not so very long ago, where outside of the magazine industry, which has always had specialisations, pretty much the rest of the media sector sought to obtain as broad a market as possible. And so you look at the newspaper business in Australia, every newspaper sought to get a very wide audience.

Now what’s happened is that a combination of technology has enabled narrow casting, for initially through subscription television, then through the internet, and of course the cost of producing news is so much less than it used to be, apart from the labor component. All of the kit, the cameras, the recorders, the lighting, everything is so much cheaper now. What that has meant is that you can basically choose your own news. Now the problem is that at the same time you’ve got publishers, Murdoch again being the best prominent example, who no longer take any responsibility. 

But the truth is that there is no such thing as power without responsibility. And what we’ve seen is today, you’ve got so-called news platforms, and Fox is good example, Sky after Dark I Austrlia is another, which basically will indulge any crazy point of view.
Yeah sure, political bias is one thing (but) when you start getting into the loopy conspiracy theories, the denial of science and so forth, that you’re starting to do very, very serious damage, and there is a market for that. And that’s what they’re pursuing. 

Now here’s the problem. We’ve always assumed as we justify free speech, first amendment and so forth, that in the marketplace of ideas truth will prevail. Does it?  We’re drowning in lies. So you have to hold the media platforms that tell lies, support conspiracy theories, peddle quackery, you’ve got to actually hold them to account. 

And I think we’re starting to do that more and more. I think what Kevin Rudd’s done with Murdoch has been formidable. I assume he’s got a couple of assistants helping him with it, but it’s a really excellent campaign just of accountability.


But I think more is going to have to be done with advertisers as well, because, you can’t any longer say that it isn’t real. People used to say, ‘Oh 25%, or 30% of Americans think the moon landing was faked or Elvis is still alive or the Earth is flat or whatever’. And you can just roll your eyes and say, ‘Oh, yeah, who cares?’ But when they start believing that the President was not legitimate in the sense of not being born in America as it was with Obama design true, or they believe this Democrat President Biden was not lawfully elected, which is also untrue, then you’re starting to get real consequences. It’s not just a question of crazy ideas. So I think this is a time to bsay, basically, say that we’ve got to hold publishers responsible for what they’re doing, for the consequences of their falsehoods. And hold them to account.

Clarke:What’s your perception of the mix between business and politics with Murdoch?

Turnbull: I don’t have a perception, I’ve got a recollection. I’ve discussed Trump with Murdoch. His view of Trump before Trump was President, as he expressed it to me and Lucy in our flat in New York, he just regarded Trump as being utterly unsuited to be president for all the obvious reasons. He’s a mountebank, showman, big narcissistic one man PR machine. But once Rupert thought that he could win he got in and supported Trump to the hilt. He basically saw that Trump was was the avenue for two things, at least. One was much higher ratings for Fox, so they like that. And the other was that it gave Murdoch access and influence. 

Again, rational people who are commentators, writers, historians, fail to understand power and its allure. They think that when people want power they want it for instrumental reasons. Now some people do. I think I always have, when I’ve sought political office I’ve always wanted to do things with it. I’ve never been, I guess because I’ve hung out with or worked with a lot of very powerful people in my youth, I’ve never been dazzled by power. I’ve never been particularly impressed by it. But most people are.

Saying to someone like Murdoch, ‘Why do you want to be powerful, why do you want the president to defer to you, why do you want to always be able to get through to the Oval Office’ is like saying to someone, ‘Why do you want to have sex’? 

It’s an URGE. So Murdoch went in boots and all to put Trump in the White House and in return for that, the deference Trump showed him was extraordinary. I’ve been with Trump and Murdoch. I have never seen any politician as deferential to Rupert as Trump was, no Australian politician ever, even Abbott, I’ve been with Abbott and Murdoch and plenty of other politicians too for that matter. But Trump was just all over him. And you could see it was absolutely so deferential. When I met Trump, this is the first time I’d met him in person, because we’d had that awkward, angry telephone call, when we were due to have our one-on-one leaders meeting, Trump wanted Rupert to be in the room with us. And I said, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that’. And he really wanted Murdoch to be there with him, and maybe Murdoch was offended by the fact that I said no…

The real thing is that a lot of people in business and in the media and of course in politics are drawn to power because it turns them on. It’s like saying to someone, ‘Why do you want to have sex?’ Well, you know, it’s a drive. It’s fundamental.

Clarke: Media analysts Margaret Simons writing in the Inside Story magazine spent many hours watching Sky News to assess whether we’re heading into a Fox news style information divide here in Australia. As you know, Sky News is now going free-to-air in the regions. Simons from her watching thought that was a premature call. What do you think?

Turnbull: I think that I think the answer is yes, but.  The whole Murdoch organisation is heading in that direction. It’s the Foxification of News Corp. 

But Australia is different. Thankfully we do have a strong public broadcaster in the ABC. And that is important, because the ABC is bound by statute to be accurate in its news reporting, and to be fair and balanced in its current affairs coverage…

One of the most important things it’s doing is making sure that it’s reaching out through all the digital channels, because quite a few years ago the median age of people who watched the seven o’clock news on the ABC was 61. So that’s to say, half the audience was older than 61. One of the things I did when I was communications minister was (to fend off )a News Corp push that had some support in the Cabinet to prevent the ABC from having in its charter a commitment to digital. The ABC’s got to be able, just like any publisher, to get their message across on every platform. And by and large they’re doing that.

Kingston: You say that the crazies are running the show on climate change, and I assume you would agree that corruption and lack of accountability is really starting to embed-

Turnbull: I don’t know what you mean by that, Margo. I think there is a real issue with the federal government at the moment about integrity. I’d be careful about using the corruption word because it’s so heavily loaded –

Kingston: Sorry, I mean political corruption, not money in brown paper envelopes, I mean the incredible expansion of the discretionary grants, everything’s Cabinet-in-confidence, so it can’t be released. That sort of thing –

Turnbull: When I was prime minister I upheld the ministerial standards, and I dropped ministers when I felt they had breached them or were seen to have breached them, and of course they hated me forever after because of that, which is probably why Morrison doesn’t drop anyone. I always thought one of the best questions Leigh Sales has ever put was when she said to Josh Frydenberg, “What do you have to do to get sacked from the Morrison Government?” You could see Josh was struggling for an answer, it was hard to think of what would actually constitute a sackable offence. 

I think there is a sense in the government at the moment – I just can’t believe the change has been so marked but it is totally different from my government or Abbott’s or Gillard’s or Howard’s – there is a sense of unaccountability. I think that’s partly because of the air cover they’re given by the media, not just Murdoch but generally I think the media are pretty soft on the government. 

In fact the journalists who are doing their job in the most resolute manner are by and large almost all women, nowadays. They’re not as captivated by the Prime Minister’s Office as some of their male counterparts are.

There’s just this sense of unaccountability, invulnerability, and there is a feeling that there is a real sense in the community that there is a lack of Kingston: I watched Trump’s rise for six years (and)  in the end the progressive Republican voters did go across (to vote Biden) because they had some some bottom lines. And the bottom lines here, in terms of a great majority of the public, is they would like to restore integrity, they’d like a federal ICAC, and they would like strong action on climate change. They’re not getting it for all the reasons you’ve suggested. So what do they do? I find it extremely interesting that you and Kevin Rudd are taking the same platform on Murdoch, on climate change, and on our approach to China. Is this the time for the majority to find common ground and go with that, while having major disagreements on other issues, particularly economic issues?

Turnbull: Look, every voter wants to see that every voter wants to see more bipartisanship. From a political point of view politicians are always seeking to exacerbate or exaggerate the differences. Product differentiation everyone does it, whether you’re saying oils ain’t oils or it’s selling breakfast cereal, right? …

I was always being criticized for not being partisan enough by my own party, so I’m not a very partisan politician I suppose, or ex politician.

Look, the risk that I think the Liberal Party faces is not so much from the Labor Party, because I don’t find their counter proposition that compelling. The risk they face is from small l liberal independents. And the reason for that is that traditional liberal voters in traditional liberal seats like Wentworth or Warringah or Mayo or Indi etc, is that if they keep getting served up either Liberal memebers or Liberal governments whose values are at odds with their own, will look elsewhere. 

Now they may not be prepared to vote for the Labor Party, but if there is a liberal independent who looks like the sort of person they would rather the Liberal Party pre-selected, they will vote for them. 

There are three liberal independents in the Parliament at the moment – Helen Haines, Rebecca Sharkey and Zali Steggal. They’re all in seats that had been hitherto absolutely rock solid, safe liberal seats, the sort of seats where barring some abnormality in the electoral climate, the Liberal Party would spend hardly anything on, just pay for some core flutes and how to votes and so forth.

Now why are they there? They’re there because those those people in those electorates were fed up with the Liberal members Abbott, in Warringah, Sophie Mirabella in Indi and Jamie Briggs in Mayo. That’s the main reason. 

But there’s also the issue of policy. Now while I was the leader of the Liberal Party and the Prime Minister people could say Malcolm represents those values and agendas and we know he’s battling with some of his colleagues but he’s at least there having a go.

Now, if people feel that climate is not being taken seriously, if integrity in government is not being taken seriously, and the Liberal Party has moved well away from the values they espouse, then I think they may end up voting against sitting Liberal MPs who are not necessarily unattractive, aggressive right wing personalities. 

In other words, a moderate liberal incumbent, I think, is vulnerable in this environment, because people will say, ‘Well you, Joe Blow, moderate Liberal MP, you are a good bloke and we know you’d like to do more but you have no influence, you have no say, your voice is irrelevant. So sorry, why don’t we just elect someone whose values may be quite similar to yours, but who will be free to say what they like on the crossbench’.

That’s the risk. And that’s the big question, because remember in all of these seats where small l liberal independents won, there was an electorally unattractive incumbent. And even in the Wentworth byelection where Kerryn Phelps won… the issue was in large part a protest vote about my defenestration…

I think that’s, you know that that’s the next bridge, to to see whether it can be crossed. 

Clarke: Now I understand that voting doesn’t equal democracy but democracy without a decent voting system doesn’t work very well. In Australia we don’t have the primitive first past the post voting system that they still do in the UK in the USA. We do have various versions of preferential  and proportional voting, we have compulsory voting since early in the Federation which I think served us pretty well. But the last Western Australian state election again highlighted that disconnect between the pan electorate voting numbers and the actual number of seats for any one party in that Parliament. For the Greens especially that stood out. Would you support a fundamental reform in Federal Voting towards some version of a multi member electorate akin to the New Zealand system to try to build in some more equitable representation in our Parliaments. 

Turnbull: I wouldn’t. I think we’ve got proportional representation represented in the Senate voting system.

Independents can win seats in the lower house and have been so doing so increasingly.

Right. Theoretically, if you have a parliament with single member constituencies like we do, theoretically if the government wins a majority of seats with razor thin majorities, 50 and .1, and the opposition wins a fewer number of seats but with massive majorities, they could end up with a lot more votes and fewer seats. Now, generally the party that wins the majority of seats in the House of Representatives has the majority of votes in the country. There have been a couple of elections where it hasn’t been like that but there hasn’t been anything so egregious. But they faced that problem in South Australia, where the Liberal Party I think had to win 54 or 55% two party preferred to actually get a majority of seats. So there are problems with single member constituencies, but equally there’s something to be said for the stability, I use that term advisedly, that a parliamentary system delivers. But I think what we’ve got works pretty well, but the saviour, I guess, and this is where it’s good to have two chambers because you get two bites of the cherry, is that we’ve got a Senate, where there is proportional representation. 

Kingston: Can I go back to these inner city Sydney seats. Do you agree that the ones in play would be Wentworth, North Sydney and McKellar, all of which are held by liberal moderates on the backbench who won’t cross the floor on anything, in other words won’t blow the place up as the other side does. 

Turnbull: I’m not close enough to the dynamics. I know the three members. Jason Falinsky (Mackellar) and Trent Zimmerman (North Sydney) are both friends of mine, Dave Sharma (Wentworth) is a friend of mine although I haven’t know him for as long. But you’re right, they’re moderates but they’re certainly not going to cross the floor or threaten to blow the joint up the way the right do.

Are they vulnerable? I honestly don’t know. You couldn’t really say unless you knew who … that liberal independent candidate would be. They’d obviously have to be someone with a pretty high profile to begin with, or the ability to create one very quickly and of course the election’s not that far away. I’m sure that the three members we’re talking about would be very aware of this risk but I wouldn’t be putting them in the highly risky basket anytime soon.

Kingston:  I feel, having been in the gallery under Keating and Howard, that we seem to have produced a dearth of talent, of intelligent policy driven values-based people who want to go into politics. I just wonder whether the system has developed in such a way for all the factors you’ve said that it’s not attractive to the people we need anymore. 

Turnbull: I don’t know whether it’s right. We do tend to look at politicians of past eras possibly through rose tinted glasses and remember the good things about them and overlook the bad things.

Kingston: Well Malcolm I was a Howard hater but I knew what he stood for and he got things done, you know what I mean?

Turnbull: Well, I was talking to a member of this government the other day and I said ‘So what are the things that you’re most proud of in terms of reforms?’ And the only thing he mentioned that wasn’t something that had been carried over from my government was the shakedown of Google and Facebook.  Apparentl;y he Wass proud of that. It didn’t seem a lot from three years.

I think you’ve got a couple of problems. Politics has been professionalized, you know there are not nearly enough people who go into the parliament on either side with a life’s experience outside of politics.

And if you go through the Cabinet you’ll find most of the people in there have been in politics, one way or another, their whole lives. 

When I used to sit in the New South Wales press gallery in the State parliament in the mid ‘70s when Neville Wran was the Premier… the Labor members were overwhelmingly trade union officials formerly, but they were horny-handed sons of toil… they were bricklayers and train drivers and boilermakers and all that sort of stuff. Nowadays the former trade union officials in the federal parliament are university educated men and women who’ve gone to work for the Union, as opposed to coming up through the shop floor…

On our side, how many farmers are there in the National Party? The answer is not many – they used to be all cockies.

And you see that on the Liberal Party side as well, that’s a real, that’s a real problem.

Politics a tough business. A lot of people look at the horror that politicians go through and say ‘Oh my God I couldn’t put myself through that, I couldn’t put my family through it.”

It isn’t easy. But I agree, I don’t think there are enough people with a broader experience of life in the parliament., When I was there I was, I think I’d be right in saying more ticked that box on the Liberal side of the house than the Labor side but I’m not sure whether that’s still true. 

Kingston: I know a couple of amazing women who would have loved to go into politics but tried and just very quickly thought ‘I am not going to, I can’t play that game to get pre selected’. And I just wonder whether this ‘Voices for’ movement, where people are trying to you know get together across party colors to find a community independent who actually represents (their seat), whether that’s a possibility for the future to bring in talent. I’m aware of the destabilisation potential of independents, but I wonder whether this face-to-face thing might —

Turnbull: Margo, I’m not suggesting that independents destabilise the parliament, The instability in the Parliament during the period of the Coalition Government has come entirely from inside the Coalition party room. Barnaby Joyce is the great destabiliser, and the Nationals’ George Christensen –

Kingston: You had an Abbott- 

Turnbull: Abbott himself. Honestly, the idea you know party government leads to stability, that’s not right. You can get enormous instability.

I think that the Liberal Party has to be acutely alert to the fact that the three people who have won safe Liberal seats and held them as liberal independents are small l liberals, progressive on social issues, rational on climate, and are women.

Those are the sort of people who, by and large, are not getting pre-selected in the Liberal Party, and so what you see in those electorates is liberal voters saying ‘Well if the Liberal Party is not going to pre-select somebody who represents my values, I’ll just look around and see if there’s a candidate who does. Oh, there she is.”

One of the problems in the party at the moment is that it is no longer fairly described as a broad church.  This is less true as a criticism in New South Wales and elsewhere, but essentially what’s happened is the right has taken over most of the Liberal Party and certainly at the federal level, and the moderates, as we’ve discussed, are not prepared to throw the toys out of the pram so they get rolled over consistently. And they don’t have prominent figures feeding their side of the party room anymore. 

And there’s a lot of people that would say, the moderate liberals would be better off having a liberal Liberal Party and being in their own party room and being in coalition in the way the net. 

(That is) why many people were critical of the merger of the Liberal and National parties in Queensland, because the Liberal Party in Queensland, which was generally a more liberal political movement, has basically been swamped by the Nats. So essentially the right wing of the Queensland Liberal Party caused the Liberal Party to merge with the National Party and you ended up with a much more right wing LNP. So because Queensland is a big state and has a lot of seats that has a big impact on the Coalition party room. 

Kingston: Sometimes I think this ‘Voices for’ grassroots thingo – the theory of community engagement – is a grassroots way to have a breakaway true Liberal Party, rather than coming from the top down under Don Chipp it seems to be rising up.

Turnbull: It could develop into that. Political parties are valuable because they give you a brand, and they mean a new candidate doesn’t have to introduce themselves…

It may be that at some point in the future if there were more small l liberal independents that they say ‘Why don’t we have some kind of a party structure’ but I think you’d find that they will say (they) wouldn’t want to do something that would impinge on our independence because that independence is very, very important. 

Zali Steggall is a classic example… Zali Steggall is the sort of person that the Liberal Party, when it was more of Liberal Party, would have pre-selected in a heartbeat… 

So there are people in Warringah who would look at her and say ‘She’s much more of a conventional Liberal Party candidate than this wild-eyed guy Abbott with all of his ideological hangups and culture wars and so forth’. 

So if you’re running as a liberal independent in in a safe Liberal seat you obviously want to look like someone who can represent the values and aspirations of your electorate. If you look like some kind of alien they’re not going to vote for you. 

Kingston: And also given that moderate liberalism has been basically expeled from the power center, what a way to get a liberal voice back?

Turnbull: Margo the argument against independents is that they sit on the crossbench they don’t have any power, they’re just shouting into the wind, right? Obviously, if you get a hung parliament that is absolutely not the case, they then are incredibly powerful. 

But I think the problem the moderates have, and this is true for Trent and Jason and Dave Sharma here in Wentworth and even (Paul) Fletcher in Bradfield, is that people will say ‘Okay, you’re inside the room, but we still don’t have a commitment to net zero by 2050, we’re still engaged in these sort of crazy culture wars, what use are you?’…

‘The moderates are too too well behaved. And I’m not suggesting they should be less behaved (but) it’s a real problem because if we go to Glasgow with our climate policy essentially dictated by Barnaby Joyce you don’t have to be a political genius to write the attack lines for those who want to overthrow some very decent, honorable, liberal moderates, and that is the risk they run.

The dynamics of the Liberal Party is that Morrison assumes that the moderate liberal voters in those inner city electorates (will) hold their noses and vote for the Liberal Party even though they don’t agree with a lot of its policies. The one thing you can’t fault Morrison for is tactics, his fault is that he’s all tactics.

Kingston: I think you’d agree that climate change has become a matter of conscience – you’re a member of the Liberal Party, would you vote for a strong, moderate liberal independent in Wentworth or do you feel that you have to stick with the libs?

Turnbull: I’m member of the Liberal Party and I don’t have any plans to resign from the Liberal Party or anything like that. But I wouldn’t rule out any course of action. I’m waiting to see what happens, but I’m not  active in politics, I’ve retired from politics. So I wouldn’t rule anything in or out, I’m not involved in any of the Voices for’ campaigns or anything like that.

But I do think there is no question that those moderate liberals in those city seats are potentially very vulnerable. It will all depend on the zeitgeist at the time. It will depend who the candidate is, hugely, I mean when I say hugely that’s probably 80% of what it depends on. 

Kingston: And then comes funding. Last election Clive Palmer spent $80 million, to secure his mining interests or maybe he’s a bit mad I don’t know. Do you think there will be an effort for wealthy progressives to start getting involved in funding good independent candidates, in other words are we going to Americanise in termas of the big money comes in all sides?

Turnbull: The incumbent parties have a huge advantage because of their incumbency. They’ve got money, they’re raising money all the time.

Having said that, Zali did attract quite a bit of money from well-heeled progressive voters in Warringah. I don’t know what sort of financial backing Kerryn Phelps had in Wentworth – 

Kingston: I think she funded her own campaign. 

Turnbull: Did she? I don’t know Margo, you know more than me, I haven’t ever looked into it. But look, I think there will be. Lucy and I supported Kirsty O’Connell in the Upper Hunter byelection because she was an independent running against the National Party. I noticed (NSW Nats leader) John Basrilaro was demanding I be expelled from the Liberal Party (and) seemed to overlook there’s nothing in the Liberal Party Constitution that says you have to support National Party candidates. That would be that would be a bridge too far. There’s certainly nothing in the National Party Constitution that says you have to support liberals.

But anyway, I think that I think they’ll attract – but again that’s why the personality and so forth of the candidate is important. 

The argument with Abbott very clear, you know, Vote Tony Out or Time’s Up Tony, it was very personal. And there was this massive vote that just wanted to be shot of him. And you could say, by contrast in Wentworth, the big vote for Kerryn at the byelection was people saying they were cross at being shot of me.

Kingston: That’s true Malcolm, but she kept the seat margional. She kept a few didn’t she. 

Turnbull: She did, I’m just saying there were those personal factors, so I don’t think hates Trent Zimmerman or Jaspon Falinski in Mackellar, let alone Dave Sharma in Wentworth. So the real question is: Can a small l liberal independent win in a seat where the sitting member is not in and of themselves, a lightning rod, and we don’t know the answer now… 

You can of course (get) very controversial local members,  very polarizing (but) as long as they’ve got enough people on their side of the pole they can hang on there. I’m sure there’s a lot of people in New England that can’t stand Barnaby Joyce, but I suspect for all of his loopiness and meandering ravings … I think he would be hard to toss out. having said that, if you had someone with a strong local connection, high profile, maybe they could beat him.

There’a a sort of a sweet spot. Independents are not a threat in marginal seats. They are a threat to the non-Labor side of politics in a safe seat but one that is not so safe (that) the Liberal or National primary vote is 60% or something like that. You basically need to be somewhere where the Labor vote is at least 20%, so that the independent can take some of the National or Liberal members vote, and a bit of Labor or a bit elsewhere, and finish ahead of Labor so that they can then win on on two -party preferred. So that’s te areas of risk.

So someone like Angus Taylor, if there was a really compelling candidate in Hume he could be at risk because there’d be a lot of people very disappointed with him I that seat, but he may well have some very devoted admirers too.

Kingston: At the last election there was a big push to see if Fiona Simpson (former NFF head) would stand against Burnaby – she’s embedded, she’s many generations there as a farmer. It’s that absolute quality (but) to talk people who’ve got a life into taking that on, it’s a big step isn’t it? 

Turnbull: Just a bit, yeah, I think so. I know Fiona very well and she’s just fantastic, she would be a huge asset in the Parliament, (she’s) one of the best, most capable leaders in Australia… 

I don’t think she’s got any plans to run, but Cathy McGowan had a similar background. She was never head of the NFF but she was very prominent in a women’s farmers movement.

Kingston: Four generations dairy.

Turnbull: Yeah that’s right. She’s got her roots in the soil there.

Turnbull takes to liberalism’s lifeboat as LNP ‘broad church’ blows up: Margo Kingston reports on #IndependentsDay

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