The mystery of Malcolm Turnbull is the absence of mystery

 Malcolm Turnbull, MP. Transcript: Doorstop Interview Canberra. 14 September 2015. Available at:

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Sometimes the result of the narrowest election truly matters. If a few hundred citizens of Florida had voted for Al Gore rather than George W Bush in 2000, there would have been no invasion of Iraq and the question of climate change action might still be on the US political agenda. Or, to move from the global to the local, if in December 2009 a couple of Liberal Party parliamentarians had voted for Malcolm Turnbull rather than Tony Abbott, Turnbull might still be leading the Liberal Party, he or Kevin Rudd might be prime minister, and the political culture of populist conservatism that overtook Australia during the Howard years might by now be losing its grip.

Malcolm Turnbull, MP. Transcript: Vote on the Liberal Leadership. 15 September 2015. Available at:

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In all these ways, then, Turnbull reveals himself to be not a secret Laborite or serendipitous Liberal but a true-believing member of the non–Labor Party tradition founded by the fusion of the George Reid free-traders and the Alfred Deakin protectionists in the first decade of the twentieth century. I have learnt that some time after he lost the Liberal Party leadership, very senior Labor Party people thought of asking Turnbull to defect with the prospect of becoming Labor leader. The idea strikes me as rather bizarre. If Labor is not social democratic it is nothing. Malcolm Turnbull is not a social democrat. He is a classical liberal.

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Examples abound. Before Abbott closed the discussion down, Turnbull was one of the most conspicuous advocates of a conscience vote on gay marriage, which he favours. To advance the cause, he conducted a careful survey of the opinions of the members of his Wentworth electorate, where opinion was strongly in support. Similarly, Turnbull proved to be almost the only federal politician who powerfully protested a police raid – sanctioned by the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, and cheered on by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd – on the gallery where Bill Henson’s photograph of a nude, pubescent girl was displayed. Though Turnbull owns artwork by Henson, his protest concerned the rule of law. Henson’s photograph might have been ‘edgy’ (perhaps too weak a word) but the chance of a prosecution was non-existent.

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Yet if Turnbull clearly belongs within the Liberal Party, equally clearly it is to its small-l liberal wing. All members of the Liberal Party genuinely believe, with different degrees of purism, in what some would call economic freedom and others neoliberalism. (Paradoxically, probably the least purist are those conservative members of the party, like Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz – known inside Turnbull’s office, as I discovered, as “the DLP” – whose political ancestry can be traced back to BA Santamaria and the tradition of Roman Catholic social action.) Fewer contemporary members of the Liberal Party, however, believe in social freedom or civil libertarianism. Malcolm Turnbull, who does, is the most important representative of this now greatly weakened tradition within the party.

com/en-au/news/australia/malcolm-turnbull-confronts-tony-abbott ..

In 2015, petitioned the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to “donate Australia’s New Year’s Eve fireworks money to our struggling farmers”.

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Representatives from the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i faiths communities participated in the event, held at Parliament House in Canberra. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, federal opposition leader Bill Shorten and Greens leader Richard Di Natale attended the launch in a show of cross-party support.

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With these thoughts in mind, I emailed Malcolm Turnbull requesting an interview. He accepted within minutes, stipulating only that we did not discuss Tony Abbott. This suited me; I had no intention of pressing him pointlessly on whether he was satisfied with his present political lot – Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband – or whether he hoped once more to lead the Liberal Party. I wanted to speak with him because he was almost the only senior politician in Australia who seemed willing to go ‘off message’. Also, because since losing the Liberal Party leadership he had delivered a series of unusually interesting speeches on a wide variety of topics outside his portfolio, which were crucial to the future of the nation – the rise of China, the global politics of climate change, the need in Australia for a sovereign wealth fund, WikiLeaks and the rule of law, democracy and the decline of newspapers. Most importantly, it seemed to me that Turnbull was the principal inheritor of the noble but now threatened liberal tradition stretching from Alfred Deakin to Malcolm Fraser, and the principal obstacle to the Howard-inspired and Abbott-led transformation of the Liberal Party from small-l liberalism to populist conservatism.