Malcolm Turnbull and the Need to Compromise

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WORDS Jacob Harrison

Liberal party member Malcolm Turnbull was elected to the House of Representatives in 2004. Fast-forward to the 8th of June 2013 – 9.30 PM and Turnball is making an appearance on Australian television. 

With the notable absence of his trademark leather jacket, the former Leader of the Opposition and now Shadow Minister for Telecommunications, Malcolm Turnbull, appeared on the ABC’s Q&A.

Towards the end of the program, Turnbull was asked a particularly tricky question by audience member Daniel Skehan, “With the Rudd Government’s plan to move to an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the Coalition’s policy being to scrap it, what would your position be?”

After the reinstatement of Kevin Rudd as PM, several of Labours policies are under review, including the prioritising of the change from a carbon tax to a market-based ETS with a rollout as early as July 2014. With Tony Abbott’s promise to repeal the carbon tax and the ETS that the current tax would evolve in to, he may soon have to capitulate in scraping a market-based carbon reduction model, a model that he strongly supports. His support for such a model in 2009 combined with the ‘Utegate’ debacle initiated by Godwin Grech lost him the Leadership of the Opposition. Turnbull admitted that “There would be more convincing advocates…” but when it comes down to it, he must “support the collective wisdom of the party room.”

The final question of the night, came from Fraser Tustian on the role of compromise in politics. Tustian asked about the difficulties in compromising one’s own beliefs and reconciling it with that of the party, as well as the role of compromise between parties in passing legislation, making direct reference to the ETS and the personal and conflicting interests that Turnbull might soon need to address.

Turnbull might not have had to face this question at all if a compromise had of been made between the Liberal, Labour and Greens parties in late 2009. Indeed, if a compromise had of been struck, Turnbull could have been addressing the question as Prime Minister, or worst case scenario, as Leader of the Opposition with an approval rating Tony Abbott would kill for.

On the other side of the chamber, too, there would have been considerable differences to the political reality we find ourselves in. If the initial Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) had passed through the senate, or a double dissolution election was called, chances are that Rudd would have never lost his job, and there would not have been the much maligned, yet highly productive, hung parliament of the past three years. Rudd may have returned to office comfortably in 2010, and would be leading the government towards an election with a dedicated deputy in Julia Gillard and an experienced treasurer in Wayne Swan. The panel might have faced questions on how to get ordinary Australians to reengage in politics with such a dull, predictable polity.

For the Greens also, things would have worked out better if they were able to compromise. They would not have achieved the lofty goal of an emissions reduction of 25%-45% by 2020, but they would have something more effective than the current model that aims for a reduction of only 5% by 2020. They would not be faced with the terms of a new ETS, possibly far less favourable than the original CPRS, and either way likely to be repealed after the next election.

Alas, this is not the world we live in. In our reality, it is highly likely that the Greens’ refusal to compromise in 2009 lead to the ousting of the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader. This led to a chaotic three years by the minority government, and most disastrous of all for the Greens was the loss of Malcolm Turnbull as Leader of the Opposition, who was far more sympathetic to the goals of the Greens environmentally and socially than Tony Abbott ever would be. Through the Greens’ sanctimonious attitude and refusal to compromise they squandered the best chance they ever had of enacting real change in carbon emissions. Because of the greens intransigence and immaturity in 2009, they may well trigger in late 2013 the election of the most environmentally and socially conservative Prime Minister since Robert Menzies.

Tony Jones turned to Malcolm Turnbull and asked the question on compromise again, adding “…I mean you acknowledge, in fact, that you have given up one of your most treasured policies in order to go along with the team.”

Turnbull, who must be intensely aware of all that could have been possible, answered in a reflective but pragmatic manner, “Well, look, politics is the business of compromise and, you know, there are none so pure as the impotent, right? And so you can be pure in isolation there and not compromise with anyone and not achieve anything and that’s the reality…”