Why Malcolm Turnbull is no progressive hero

Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull depart at the end of Question Time on Monday, hours before the spill.

Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull depart at the end of Question Time on Monday, hours before the spill. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

How good is the phrase 'conservative rump of the Liberal party'?

In the sub-24 hour period since Malcolm Turnbull rolled Tony Abbott, I've heard about this supposed rump over and over. In times gone past the socially conservative faction of the Liberals went by dignified names involving words like 'wing' or 'bloc', but no more.

Turnbull, the small-l liberal who acknowledges climate change, supports marriage equality and doesn't spend his free time actively thinking up new ways to piss off chicks, has transformed this formerly upstanding group of bigots, fuddy-duddies and Old Farts into a marginal sect.

A small but jubilant crowd lead by James Brenchey (multi coloured jacket) congregate on the corner of Taylor Square, ...

A small but jubilant crowd lead by James Brenchey (multi coloured jacket) congregate on the corner of Taylor Square, Darlinghurst, to celebrate the ousting of Tony Abbott. Photo: James Alcock

Heaps of spill coverage revolves around this narrative, that the conservative rump will be the big loser under a sane and progressive Turnbull Prime Ministership. The rump itself is on board with this reading. Rump representatives in the media like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones were first out of the gates this morning, putting the boot into Malcolm for his loony Lefty ideas like 'not letting global warming destroy the planet'. According to them, Turnbull's ascendancy is some sort of communist plot, and latte-sippers in cafes all over the nation are congratulating each other on having one of their lot installed as PM.


But as usual, crusty conservative persecution fantasies are just that – fantasies. Turnbull has promised the rump that he won't change the party's direction on The Brazen Gays or Greenie Climate Hysteria.

Assuming he pursues a policy agenda based on his known free market enthusiasm, the real losers are likely to be the same as they always are: ordinary people – with the degree of loss becoming more severe as you move down the income scale. Strap yourselves in poors, it's not going to be a good decade.

Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Andrew Meares

"Our values of free enterprise, of individual initiative, of freedom; this is what you need to be a successful, agile economy in 2015," said Turnbull at the pre-spill press conference. This sentence, with its high density of right-wing euphemisms, is worth going over closely. It illustrates why lefties, or indeed any non-rich person concerned with their standard of living, should not be celebrating Turnbull's victory over Abbott. He may appear friendly, but it's an illusion only sustained by close proximity to Loose Unit Tony, the Reptile Bloke.

When Turnbull says 'free enterprise', what he means is 'lots of nice government regulations that support employers and businesses'. Like many small-l liberals (the ones who favour 'small government'), Turnbull artificially separates the bits of government activity he likes from the bits he doesn't.

The bits he likes – strong enforcement of property rights and contracts, intellectual property, industrial laws that favour employers over employees – are 'free enterprise'. The bits he doesn't – the welfare state, taxes, spending on public infrastructure, anything that directly benefits workers – are 'big government' or 'red tape'. Threat to the rump: nil, as they're mostly the rich old white dudes who benefit from 'free enterprise'. Threat to ordinary people: high.

'Individual initiative' is another great libertarian term of art that actually means 'the exercise of entrenched privilege'. It's not hard to see why Turnbull believes in virtuous bootstrapping, because as he's fond of reminding us, he grew up in a flat with a single parent and is now worth millions of dollars. The idea that anyone can get filthy rich if they try hard enough is a myth close to his heart, and one that conveniently enables the rich to blame low income earners for their situation: "Well, if you'd only showed some more 'individual initiative', you wouldn't be snaring rats to grill for dinner," it goes. 

Of course we all know that the easiest way to get rich is to have rich parents, but that doesn't sound as good at a press conference.

'Freedom' is my favourite part. Rather than being a neutral, universally-applicable concept, small-l liberals usually use it to mean 'freedom for very rich people'. Since any honest assessment of the range of options available to the rich and the poor will conclude that the less money you have, the less freedom you have, it should really be a word used exclusively by hardcore lefties. But I'd be willing to bet that Turnbull wouldn't consider a massive expansion of welfare provision for poor and disabled people 'more freedom', even though it's the easiest and most obvious way to increase total 'freedom'. Sorry, single mums struggling to make ends meet! Your freedom to not spend every waking moment working or stressing out about money is of no importance to us!

The conservative rump has nothing to fear from any of Turnbull's closely-held values. Sure, they might lose some sleep dealing with the idea that somewhere, a gay person is planning a wedding. But when it comes to the distribution of power, privilege and resources in Australian society, Malcolm has their backs all the way to the bank.

It's crucial for us not to mistake Turnbull's socially liberal tendencies for actual progressivism that might make life better for people doing it tough. If he gave an honest stuff about disadvantage he wouldn't be in the Liberal party now, would he?