Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers the key-note address to kick off the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 2, 2017. (Dept. of Defence photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Released)

MALCOLM Turnbull would consider voting for a strong moderate liberal independent in the Sydney federal electorate of Wentworth, and has named NSW seats he believes could be vulnerable if ‘voices for’ groups nominate outstanding moderate liberal independents – Wentworth, Mackellar, North Sydney, Bradfield and Hume. 

In an interview for the #transitzone podcast, the former prime minister laid out what he saw as an unstable Coalition beholden to hard-right political terrorists in “a system” where Rupert Murdoch’s media companies acted as propaganda arm and influential player in the government.

The National Party no longer represented farmers, according to Turnbull, and the Liberal Party had shed its roots as a “broad church” of conservatives and liberals to become a right-wing party where liberals had little power or influence.

If we go to Glasgow with our climate policy being 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 some very decent liberal moderates.

Malcolm Turnbull

As a result, he said, it was not independents who destabilised government, but the power of the hard right to get what they wanted by threatening to “blow up the joint” with the backing of Murdoch’s media.

“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 in the Nationals,” Turnbull said.

“There are a lot of people who would say the moderate liberals would be better off being in a moderate Liberal Party and being in their own party room and being in coalition with the Liberal Party,” Turnbull said, adding that ‘voices for’ liberal independents would be unlikely to join to maintain their independent coalition of voters in their seats.

According to Turnbull, the demise of liberalism as a force in the Liberal Party meant it had to be “acutely alert to the fact that the three people who have won safe liberal seats and held them (Zali Steggall in Warringah, Helen Haines in Indi and Rebecca Sharkie in Mayo)… are small-l liberals, are progressive on social issues, rational on climate and women. Those are the sort of people who by and large are not getting pre-selected in the Liberal Party.

The grassroots ‘voices for’ movement was inspired by the victory of Cathy McGowan in the Victorian federal seat of Indi in 2013 and Steggall in Warringah at the 2019 federal election. It seeks to find common ground in voters across party lines in safe Coalition seats through ‘kitchen-table conversations’ and, in some cases, select community independents in safe Coalition seats who demand strong climate change action, a restoration of political integrity, and a positive, service-based approach to the practice of politics on behalf of constituents.

Ruling nothing out: Turnbull

Asked if he would consider voting for a strong liberal independent in his seat of Wentworth, Mr Turnbull said: “I’m a 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’m 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) 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 and it will all depend on who the candidate is. Hugely, that is probably 80 per cent of it.”

Mr Turnbull noted that the three liberal independent MPs were kick-started by unpopular incumbents who did not reflect the values of their seat, and said it was an open question whether those who did could be defeated because they had no influence on policy. 

“If people feel that climate is not being taken seriously, if integrity in government is not being taken seriously and if they feel the Liberal Party has moved well away from the values they espouse,” he said, “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, ‘you are a good bloke and we know you’d like to do more but you have no influence, no say, your voice is irrelevant, so why don’t we elect someone whose values may be quite similar to yours but will be free to say what they like on the cross bench’? 

“The problem that the moderates have, and this is true of Trent (Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney) and Jason (Jason Falinski in Mackellar) and Dave Sharma here in Wentworth and even (Paul) Fletcher in Bradfield… is that people will say ‘yeah, 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 crazy culture wars, what use are you’?

“I’m not suggesting (moderate MPs) should be less behaved but it is a real problem, because if we go to Glasgow with our climate policy being 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 some very decent liberal moderates, and that’s the risk they run,” Turnbull said.

Morrison ‘all tactics’

According to Turnbull, the dynamic of the Liberal Party is that Prime Minister Scott Morrison assumes that the moderate liberal voters in those inner city electorates will “hold their nose and vote for the Liberal Party even if they don’t agree with a lot of its policies”.

“One thing you can’t fault Morrison for is tactics, his fault is he’s all tactics,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone in North Sydney hates Trent Zimmerman or Jason in Mackellar, let alone Dave Sharma in Wentworth, so the real question is can a small l-liberal independent win in a seat when the sitting member is not in and of themselves a lightning rod. And we don’t know the answer to that.

“Someone like Angus Taylor, with a really compelling candidate in Hume, I think he could be at risk, because there’d be a lot of people who’d be very disappointed with him. But he may well have some very devoted supporters as well.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of people in New England who can’t stand Barnaby Joyce, but I expect for all his loopiness and meandering ravings… he would be hard to toss out. Having said that, if you had someone with strong local connections, high profile, maybe they could beat him.”

Stressing that there was no indication she was interested, Mr Turnbull indicated former National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) president Fiona Simson would be an outstanding independent candidate in New England.

“She’s one of the best, most capable leaders in Australia,” he said. 

“Cathy McGowan had a similar background. She was never head of the NFF but she was a very prominent in a women’s farmers movement. She’s got roots in the soil (in Indi).”

Margo Kingston, Peter Clarke and Tim Dunlop come together to talk through the transitions and transformations happening in the world at the moment as we all deal with Covid-19 pandemic. Check out the #transitzone podcast on Apple and Spotify.

Turnbull spills on:

The Liberal Party

One of the problems in the party at the moment is that it is no longer fairly described as a broad church… there’s a sense that… the right has taken over most of the Liberal Party, especially 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. They don’t have big prominent figures feeding their side of the party room any more and there are a lot of people who would say the moderate liberals would be better off being in a moderate liberal party and being in their own party room and being in Coalition in the way the Nats are…

(In Queensland) the right wing of the Queensland Liberal Party caused (it) to merge with the National Party and you ended up with a much more right wing LNP, and of course …that has a big impact on the Coalition party room. 

Culturally the right operate like terrorists… in this way, and I’ve seen this so many times. 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’. And 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 so I’m speaking with the voice of hard-earned experience. And why do they do that? They do that because they 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.

The National Party

The reality is the National Party has 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 it’s basically been captured by the mining sector. They should call themselves the political wing of the Minerals Resources Council.

Why the Coalition has stymied climate change action 

Any big employer or big company is going to have influence, right? They’re going to get heard. In terms of financial contributions there are a number of people in the fossil fuel industry who’ve been especially influential with the National Party. Trevor St Baker obviously one, Gina Reinhart is another, and there are others particularly in Queensland. 

Donations are a big part of it, but there’s also… see people don’t fully understand how interested the media is with politics; and that (the) right-wing media ecosystem – Sky News, Murdoch tabloids, 2GB, rusted-on LNP voters, fossil-fuel sector – it is a system, so the people who are pulling the levers and the main commentators on Sky and in the Murdoch press are as influential in that ecosystem as any member of Parliament, probably much more influential than most of them. What’s happened is that as the media has become more siloed and – particularly the Murdoch media – is no longer really describable as news. It’s basically propaganda now, people are essentially living in a bubble, they’re living in an information bubble which is not entirely or consistently reality based. In the United States it’s a more extreme version of this but that’s clearly where we’re heading. As I’ve said elsewhere, Murdoch has succeeded in monetising 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 their trying.

Coalition government integrity

There is a real issue with the federal government about integrity. 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 they hated me forever after because of that, which is probably why Morrison didn’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?” Josh was struggling for an answer, it was hard when you think 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 is 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, and 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 integrity at the moment in a way that I haven’t seen with previous federal governments whether they’re Labor or Liberal. 

Murdoch’s impact on democracy’s health in the US and Australia

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 again Fox is a good example, ‘Sky After Dark’ in Australia is another, which basically will indulge any crazy point of view. Yeah sure, politically biased is one thing… but it’s 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’s a market for that, and so that’s what they’re pursuing. 

Now here’s the problem as I see it: we always assumed as we justified free speech, the First Amendment and so forth, that in the marketplace of ideas truth will prevail. Well, does it? We’re drowning in lies. So really 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. What Kevin Rudd’s done with Murdoch has been formidable. I think he’s got a couple of assistants helping him with it, but it’s a really excellent campaign, just of accountability, and I think more’s going to have to be done with advertisers as well, because you can’t any longer say that it isn’t real. Look, people used to say, “oh 25 or 30 per cent of Americans think the moon landing was faked or Elvis is still alive or the Earth is flat,” and you can just roll your eyes and say 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, which was untrue, or they believe that this president, Biden, was not lawfully elected, which is also untrue, then you are starting to get real consequences, and it’s not just a question of crazy ideas. So this is a time to basically say we’ve got to hold publishers responsible for what they’re doing, for the consequences of their falsehoods, to hold them to account. 

What motivates Murdoch

I’ve discussed Trump with Murdoch… 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 unsuitable to be president for all the obvious reasons. I mean he was a mountebank showman, a narcissistic one-man PR machine, right? But once Rupert thought that he could win he got in and supported Trump to the hilt; and he basically saw that Trump was the avenue for two things, at least. One was much higher ratings for Fox and the other one (was) that it gave Murdoch access and influence. 

Again, rational people who are commentators, writers and 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, I’ve always been interested in – when I’ve sought political power I always wanted to do things with it. I guess because I hung out or worked with some 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?’ It’s like 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.

But Trump was just all over him, and you could see it was absolutely so deferential. When I met Trump for the first time in person… when we were due to have our one-on-one leader’s meeting, Trump wanted Murdoch to be in the room with us. And I said, ‘oh no we can’t do that’. But he really wanted him to be there.

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

Just a complete train wreck: Transcript of Part 2 of the #transitzone interview with Malcom Turnbull

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