I have been reading Janet Albrechtsen’s columns in The Australian since I arrived here just over a decade ago. Over that period I figure I’ve agreed with her about 95% of the time – my agreeing-with-her hit rate has been like the result in some North Korean ‘election’. I agree with her strong free speech positions; I agree with her small government leanings; I agree with most of her social commentary. And I know, too, that Janet has a thick skin, having been the subject of plenty of ad hominem attacks over the years.
In what follows I want to play the ball, not the woman, when it comes to Albrechtsen’s December 16 column in The Australian (it’s paywalled, so no point in linking). This is the one in which she graded the current government, and gave Malcolm Turnbull an ‘A’. Let me take you through that column because, in my view, it was the weakest thing of hers I’ve ever read. In fact it was laughably wrong-headed.
Start with Turnbull. He gets an ‘A’ from Albrechtsen. Why? Remember, since taking office three months ago, the new PM has
- scrapped the Bjorn Lomborg Centre that had found a home in South Australia
- played lovey-dovey with Gillian Triggs
- forked out a billion dollars for overseas global warming projects…
- … plus another billion on “innovation”
- clearly and undeniably mischaracterised what former Prime Minister Abbott said about sending forces to fight ISIS
- decided to do nothing about amending Section 18C (which Abbott wimped out on changing, but Turnbull hinted to some he would alter –until he had the top job, that is)
- bumped up the pay offer to public servants by half a percent
- carefully orchestrated the mooting of a GST rise of 50%, from 10% to 15%.
And that’s just some of the things Prime Minister Turnbull has perpetrated. There are more. What we can notice is that every single, solitary move has been to the left: bigger government (tick); less free speech, as broadly understood (tick); more policies in line with the desires of inner-city progressives’ (tick).
Of all that Albrechtsen might have mentioned, only one of the above — the billion spent on innovation — figured in her column. She said the initiative contained plenty of fluff, but then excused it “because it’s bracing to hear a politician say they do not have all the answers and admit they may need to tweak a policy if there are mis-steps or unintended consequences.” Wow! That’s a pretty low threshold for holding a politician to account.
But leave that aside. What is the real reason Albrechtsen gives Turnbull an ‘A’? As she puts it, “It’s the ‘simple measure of polls.'” So far so good is her line, but the case for the defence is close to incoherent. Is Obama an A-class president because he has won elections? No standard to bring to the table other than, ‘Can he win an election?’. OK, so by that measure, the premier of my state of Queensland also gets an ‘A’. Isn’t that right, Janet? Anna Palaszczuk has done absolutely nothing, other than watch as Queensland’s debt shoots through the roof. But “on the simple measure of polls” she’s a winner! Right, Janet? Same for Justin Trudeau in Canada, n’est-ce pas, Mademoiselle Albrechtsen?
This is the winning-is-all-that-matters and the only-basis-on-which-you-measure-a-politician way of thinking. Did Ronald Reagan go from great politician to terrible when the polls turned against him? Did Maggie Thatcher do the same? Look, surely we bring substantive values to the table in any assessment of a politician and a political party. And anyway, why vote for someone whose positions you don’t like, even if 51% of your fellow voters will?
One thing that Janet Albrechtsen has been consistently solid on over the years is her commitment to free speech. She was incensed when Tony Abbott sold out on attempts to repeal Section 18C. I was too. Fine. But the thing is that Malcolm is worse than Tony on free speech. Malcolm has doubled-down on doing nothing about 18C. Malcolm has canned the Lomborg Centre, which clearly can be seen in free-speech terms. Malcolm has banned the visit of an anti-abortion activist (again, with free-speech overtones). Malcolm wants us all to tone down criticisms of the Grand Mufti and Islam. So where were your usual standards on these issues, Janet? Does Malcolm get a free pass on all these because you were one of the people who supported dumping Abbott, free speech concerns be damned? Because it sure seems as though you are bringing different criteria to the table, at least that’s the way your column strikes me.
What about the small government-liking Albrechtsen? Well, on this count the Abbott government – yes, they were unable to deal with the Senate, but at least they wanted to cut spending – again looks a lot better than Turnbull’s. Does she criticise Malcolm for more spending? Does she condemn the Turnbull team for doing a deal with the Greens to raise tax revenue? No! and No! again (And do note here that George Brandis, who on the Bolt Report, characterised that deal as helping to deal with this country’s spending problem. It helped to raise more government revenue, which might help with our deficit, but it is in no way a cut in spending. I urge all readers to watch out for this government’s spin and sleight-of-hand techniques by which new revenue is classed as helping with the spending problem.)
Basically, the Albrechtsen who wrote that December 16 column seems to have jettisoned the criteria that I’ve seen her use these past ten years in favour of, well, I know not what. Heck, she was also wholly inconsistent within the walls of that same column. Ian Macfarlane got a “Fail” grade for “his craven political switch for self-aggrandisement”. Really? Isn’t that the same exact thing one could say about Turnbull? And Bishop? That self-aggrandisement drove disreputable behaviour? I thought Turnbull supporters thought that bad behaviour was OK, given that it proves successful. So maybe, once again, an ‘F’ grade is based on nothing at all substantive, simply reflecting that Macfarlane failed in his treachery where Turnbull’s succeeded, which it hardly requires a columnist to point out. And speaking of Julie Bishop, Janet gives her an ‘A’ too. But what of the foreign minister’s duplicity over months and months? Well, exclaims Albrechtsen, “exactly when did being a survivor in politics warrant a mark down?”
So leaking and white-anting and being disloyal as deputy is all OK as long as you, yourself, survive the coup? Have I got that right, Janet? Now I’m not so naïve as to think we bring the same standards to the political game as we do to life in general, which sees most of value loyalty, honesty, and telling it to our faces, rather than back-stabbing treachery. Even in politics those qualities should count for something. House of Cards is not real life, at least I hope it isn’t. But this tempered lack of cynicism is sloughed off by Janet with a wave of her ‘I will survive’ pop-song hand. Personally, I doubt all of Ms. Bishop’s fellow Coalition MPs will be as quick to slough off her behaviour. But then, looking at a good many of those same MPs and their seeming lack of belief in anything, I am happy to concede I may be wrong.
Then there is Albrechtsen’s ‘F’ grade for Abbott. Really, an ‘F’? Yep. You see “friends and colleagues alike warned him about the troubles facing his leadership, his office and his government [and] he ignored them all.” That’s just ex post facto rationalising, Janet. Lots of politicians over the years have been warned that their way of doing things was irking their parties. Go and look at Thatcher’s early years in office. Or Churchill’s for that matter. Or Stephen Harper’s in Canada. Things can turn around. Well, they can if the party that you took to a big election victory sticks with you. But even if not, do you get an ‘F’ without a single mention of anything substantive you accomplished, like stopping the boats, getting rid of the carbon tax and mining tax, taking on Gillian Triggs, getting almost all foreign policy matters spot-on? Sure, Abbott made plenty of errors, mostly by trying to appease the ABC types, not going head-on after the Senate, and in being too trusting (of Turnbull, and Bishop, and others). But on what possible planet does that get you an ‘F’? I suppose on the same planet where Arthur Sinodinos gets an ‘A’.
OK, so maybe you think this is just my idiosyncratic take on things. Well, if you looked at the comments to Albrechtsen’s article, and I mean the comments on The Australian’s own online webpage, they ran at least 90% against her. Indeed, there was a good deal of apoplectic rage. And these remarks are from her own newspaper’s core readers.
Which brings me to this final point. Let’s assume that about 40% of long-time Liberal voters are still unhappy about the coup. It may well be a good deal higher, but let’s understate things. (Disclosure: I put myself in this camp, if you haven’t already noticed.) Where are the writers on The Australian who offer views in line with what might be considered this core readership for what is, without a doubt, Australia’s best paper? I mean that question seriously.
Since the coup, The Australian’s opinion pages have read like the Turnbull fan club. Nikki Sava has spent endless months writing nothing but bile about Abbott. A gushing Turnbull cheerleader, she should perhaps add a footnote to her articles stating that her husband was one of Turnbull’s first office hires. Peter van Onselen, anti-Abbott from the day he took over as Opposition leader, who tried his hardest to prop up Gillard, and who was even more vehemently anti-Abbott from day one of the ousted prime minister’s tenure. Ditto. (And did you notice Abbott’s letter to the editor on December 15 about van Onselen’s hatchet-job book, and how that missive was not given a prominent place on the letters page?) Paul Kelly. Ditto. Heck, let’s make this easy: Who has been the “Turnbull is not the answer” columnist on the paper? Maurice Newman, that’s who, and he is about as far as it goes.
Let me be clear about my position. I don’t fear Mr. Turnbull losing the next election. I fear him winning. And I say that as someone with the same substantive positions that Janet Albrechtsen has defended — until recently at any rate.
I can’t see a single conservative bone in Turnbull’s body. And I don’t much like anything he’s done since taking over. Indeed, I’m moving from my initial position of spoiling my ballot and voting informally at the next election to voting for Labor (for the House that is; for the Senate the Libs had no chance of me voting for them from the day of the coup). A tough call, I know. But what we small-government, pro-free speech, tough on national security Hobbesian types have to calculate is long-term versus short-term damage to this country. Both choices are bad. But give Turnbull a mandate of his own and God knows what he might do. You’d be voting for the most left wing leader of the Coalition possibly ever. Alright, strike the ‘possibly’. Three years of Shorten would get rid of Turnbull, and it couldn’t be any worse than three years of Rudd. And remember, in 2007 The Australian came out for Rudd over Howard, something just-retired editor Chris Mitchell says he now regrets. I’m not going to wait for more of the same regret about Turnbull.
Yes, yes, yes — there is plenty of room for conservatives to disagree about whether to support Turnbull (while holding our noses). But the idea that he gets an ‘A’ so far is just plain ridiculous.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland is the author of Democracy in Decline