The myth of two Malcolm Frasers

The myth of two Malcolm Frasers

The tribute, if it could be called that, from Greens leader Christine Milne said it all.

Adding her words to the growing commentary on the death of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Milne said: “Fraser’s memory will never be free of the controversy and turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. But then and also in later years he courageously offered leadership in social justice and provided a vision for an Australia that truly embraced a fair go for everyone including refugees.”

In drawing the distinction between Fraser’s actions in opposition and then government (when he was vilified by progressives) and during his twilight years (when he became their darling), Milne attempts to reconcile the right-wing and left-wing philosophies espoused by Fraser as being from different periods of his life.

But is this an accurate characterisation? Can Fraser only be feted as a progressive hero because of what he did in his latter years? Or is the insistence on ignoring his moderate credentials while PM more a refusal to acknowledge that socially progressive views can sit comfortably with conservative economic views, as they once did within the Liberal Party?

Fraser’s political philosophy was always unapologetically of this nature: a lefty on social issues while staunchly right-wing on economic matters.

The Australian Conservation Foundation notes today Fraser was a committed conservationist back in the mid-1960s when he was an early member of their governing council. On coming to government he was able to realise that philosophy, ending sand mining on Fraser Island, proclaiming Kakadu National Park, prohibiting oil exploration and drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, and declaring the first stage of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

It was also as prime minister that Fraser first put out the welcome mat for refugees, fostered the beginnings of a multicultural Australia, and established the Human Rights Commission. His government introduced the family allowance for low-income families, indexation for pensions and unemployment benefits, and extension of the supporting mothers’ benefit to all sole parents.

However on economic issues, Fraser was a conservative – a protectionist who resisted his colleagues’ inclination to open up Australia’s economy to international markets, and a harsh critic of the trade union movement. He oversaw a period of high unemployment and inflation, and a drop in the real value of welfare payments. He also scrapped the universal healthcare system, known at the time as Medibank.

Milne and others who inhabit the left side of the political spectrum are not alone today in grappling with the allegedly dichotomous nature of Fraser’s politics.

The former PM is the third longest serving Liberal prime minister, yet his former party colleagues are having to tread carefully today to pay fair tribute to the man who brought the party back from the ignomy of defeat by the populist Gough Whitlam, but in recent years also very publicly disowned the Liberal Party as a hollow fraud.

Fraser resigned from the party he once led in late 2009, after arch-conservative Tony Abbott prevailed over the moderate Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in a leadership ballot, due to concerns the party had lost its way and no longer represented traditional liberal values.

Once Fraser’s resignation became known, conservative MP Andrew Robb dismissed it as unimportant, noting, “We’ve become used to Malcolm disagreeing with our positions on many issues for nearly a quarter of a century,” while the progressive Petro Georgiou (and former Fraser staffer) said the former PM’s resignation “should be viewed with a great deal of sadness. It should be viewed as the action of a man who takes his convictions very seriously.”

Fraser’s criticisms of his former party have ramped up since then, particularly on human rights’ issues and the Coalition Government’s treatment of asylum seekers. In recent times he took to the progressives’ favourite medium, Twitter, to share these views. And in his last opinion piece, published just last month, Fraser defended the Chair of the Human Rights Commission against the Government’s attacks on her integrity, saying the HRC is more important than ever to safeguard our existing freedoms.

It would be wrong to characterise these as the words of a former conservative ‘destroyer’ now seeking redemption through progressive utterances. On the contrary, the man who brought down the Whitlam government is the same man who until yesterday railed against the injustices of the Abbott Government. The same man with the same deeply held conservative beliefs on economic issues as well as progressive beliefs on social matters.

Considering the state of today’s political landscape, it would be fair to say most of Abbott’s Liberals are as uncomfortable with a Liberal holding both those views as Christine Milne appears to be.

Former Liberal PM John Howard stuck to the safe territory, quoting political chronicler Paul Kelly on Fraser’s contribution in government:

Fraser was a very good prime minister, much better than people would have suspected in 1975. He ran a government of above average competence by Australian standards with acumen, dedication and professionalism.

On the more thorny question of the former PM’s contribution to political life after government, PM Abbott could only bring himself to note, “In a long and active retirement, he maintained a keen interest in our country’s direction.”

And so, typically, we must revert to the once-great Liberal Party moderates to hear tributes befitting the man.

Fraser government minister Fred Chaney said the former PM’s death had caused the nation to lose “one of its great moral compasses”, while Georgiou noted “he brought into the centre of our life that we were a diverse society and that diversity should be respected”.

It’s no coincidence both Chaney and Georgiou retired as Liberal MPs when they could no longer endure representing a party that refused to accommodate the mix of social progressivism and economic conservatism that Fraser and they believed in.

The death of Malcolm Fraser is a poignant reminder of a time when it was not considered weak or permissive to be a progressive in the Liberal Party; a time when a Liberal politician and a government could be economically as well as socially responsible.

Such a combination should not be a relic of the past to be wistfully remembered, but a feature of today’s politics. The sadness of Fraser’s death is magnified by his loss as a role model for modern Liberal progressives.

Turnbull’s new pitch as Mr Right

One of the challenges posed by the unofficial contest for leadership of the federal Liberal Party is that contenders don’t want to be seen as actually campaigning.

To do so would invite accusations of Rudd-like destabilisation and treachery.

But when you’re running for the leadership of a party, people want to know what you stand for, and perhaps even more importantly, what you don’t represent. This is particularly a conundrum for one time Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, whose progressive views on climate action were seen as a bridge too far by arch-conservatives in the party, and one of the main reasons for his removal.

Turnbull has spent the years since being deposed in 2009 rebuilding his reputation with the broader Australian community, but has been less successful in convincing Liberal supporters and MPs that he’s no longer the lefty tyrant they distrust and fear.

At last count, 38 per cent of Coalition voters still prefer Tony Abbott as prime minister compared with 30 per cent for Turnbull, although a 17 percentage point gap between the two has shortened to eight points since November last year. And there’s new evidence today that Abbott is on the nose in the pivotal electoral heartland of western Sydney.

This has left the Communications Minister with little choice other than to eke out a leadership manifesto, piece by piece through media and other public appearances, in the hope of assuaging the concerns of the right while not scaring off the bulk of his progressive support base.

The “righting” of Turnbull started with his appearance on ABC’s 7.30 almost a fortnight ago, ostensibly to discuss proposed changes to Australia Post’s mail delivery service. During this interview the Minister didn’t exactly shy away from leadership questions, and in response to a query about whether his progressiveness was at odds with the bulk of Liberal supporters, Turnbull stressed he and the Prime Minister were not that different on some social issues, such as marriage equality:

The reality is that Tony Abbott and my position on gay marriage is very close. Both of us believe the party room should decide whether there should be a free vote … So you know, the idea that there’s this massive gulf between us is quite imaginary…

Former assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos backed up this assertion during an appearance last week on Lateline, emphasising the Liberal Party was a broad-based party “made up of a number of broad strands” including moderates and conservatives, but that the party was not defined by any one part of its base:

So it’s a furphy to say that X or Y is somehow outside the mainstream of the party. The fact of the matter is, Turnbull is a capitalist, he believes in market principles … he’s “socially progressive”, in inverted commas, on certain issues, but so are many others in the party and others are more conservative.

Having made the threshold attempt on 7.30 to re-adjust the right’s perception of him as a rabid lefty, Turnbull has stepped into the fray several times since in further attempts to “rightsize” his reputation.

Last week he defended the Prime Minister against attacks over Abbott’s “lifestyle choices” comment, claiming no other non-Indigenous member of the Parliament had “more involvement with, or more understanding of, Indigenous communities than Tony”, and that there should be a rational discussion of the issue “without turning it into a let’s-give-Tony-Abbott-a-belting occasion, as often people like to do”.

This statement sits in stark contrast to Turnbull having essentially given Abbott an implied belting just weeks earlier when he defended Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs against criticisms from the PM and others, saying “I don’t want to get into that. Other people can do that if they wish”.

And then there was Turnbull’s deliberate intervention last week in support of last year’s budget, which is still being championed by the right (and the Treasurer) as the cure for the nation’s future economic woes.

In a speech that was an appeal to those, either in his own party or the conservative commentariat, who believe he’s too soft on economic issues, Turnbull talked tough on economic reform, stressing the budget was not a failure but that “we clearly haven’t been able to achieve the degree of fiscal repair and reform that was and is needed”.

The social progressive flicked the switch to economic conservative, claiming the unpopular budget was simply misunderstood and that this could be rectified with an “evidence-based, spin-free, fair dinkum debate about the budget position and what we should do to fix it”:

Once you’ve explained an issue often enough that people understand there is a genuine problem and “something” must be done, you can have an intelligent discussion about what that something might be – and just as importantly, your opponents will face public pressure to come up with their own “something” if they are not prepared to support yours.

Given this speech was all about self-promotion, the Communications Minister then went on to explain how his management of the NBN and Australia Post reforms was the model for successful implementation of the budget’s unpalatable reforms.

In short, the speech was intended to add the missing economic reform chapter to Malcolm’s Manifesto for Leadership. Yet read in its entirety, the speech also presents uncannily like a budget address from the Treasurer.

Perhaps the speech forms part of Turnbull’s Plan B: to secure the Treasury portfolio as a consolation prize if the Liberal leadership goes to one of the conservatives’ preferred candidates, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison. For let’s face it, Turnbull has been willing to play the long game for the past five years, and perhaps is prepared to wait out the tenure of the next Liberal leader if he could further consolidate his leadership credentials as Treasurer during that time.

Whatever Turnbull’s plan, there’s no denying there is one, even if his resolute determination to avoid being seen as a spoiler means we are afforded only glimpses of what that plan entails. Whether he’s wooing the conservatives, or attempting to wedge Abbott on media reforms, everything Turnbull does is a move calculated to progress his leadership campaign just that little bit further.

Turnbull: too left to be right for the Liberals?

It would be unwise to assume it’s only a matter of time until the undeclared Liberal leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull becomes prime minister.

That’s not to suggest the Liberals won’t finally come to accept it’s time to replace the shambolic pugilist Tony Abbott – for they must, if their Government is to survive.

The problem for Turnbull is there are differing survival instincts at play within the Liberal Party, with some MPs focused more on protecting the Government’s hard-right agenda than its re-election in 2016. And the more time these hardliners have to resist Turnbull’s re-ascension, the better chance they have of succeeding.

These MPs are horrified at the thought of Turnbull becoming prime minister. They know the ascendency of the man who has audaciously continued to flaunt his progressive views since being removed from the leadership would be an undeniable repudiation of everything they had achieved (or still hoped to achieve) with Abbott at the helm.

The anticipated lurch to the left under Turnbull would essentially signal the Liberals’ submission to the community’s rejection of the Abbott Government’s past 17 months in office; including the budget and the budget emergency narrative, the hardline opposition to a carbon price and climate action, holding the line against same-sex marriage, and the planned reform of workplace relations law.

So it’s no surprise that escalating anxiety in the right’s “anyone but Turnbull” camp reached fever pitch in the lead-up to last week’s leadership vote. The conservatives’ flag-bearer Cory Bernardi demonstrated the panic best, declaring the spill motion an ambush orchestrated by Turnbull and his supporters, and that a change to Turnbull would throw the party into a “moral abyss” resulting in a mass exodus of supporters.

If there was such an exodus, it would be more modest than mass, considering the Liberal Party’s supporter base has been reduced to a rump. One pollster recently described this group as the remaining “rusted-on Coalition voters who would prefer to lose with Abbott than win with Turnbull”. That’s the 54 per cent of Coalition voters who prefer Abbott as leader over the 40 per cent who prefer Turnbull.

Yet it’s clear from the 64 per cent of overall voters preferring Turnbull (over Abbott’s 25 per cent) that, just as the times eventually came to suit John Howard even after he was rejected by his party, they have come to suit Turnbull too. Two opinion polls leading up to the spill vote found Turnbull as leader would turn around the Government’s fortunes, either putting it in front of the Labor opposition, or at least within striking range.

Noting this, the question currently occupying the minds of the Liberal right will be whether the times suit any other potential leadership candidates, particularly those with a stronger predisposition to the conservatives’ agenda.

This is where things may go awry for Turnbull. Going into last Monday’s special party room meeting, both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said they would not challenge Abbott for the leadership – essentially giving Turnbull a clear run. Whether that commitment carries over to any future leadership stoush is yet to be seen.

While PM Abbott managed to secure a reprieve at Monday’s meeting, and has reportedly been given time to prove his mended ways, this hiatus also gives the Liberal right extra time to further develop its “anyone but Turnbull” leadership options.

Bishop is an obvious contender, with popular support in the community despite her gender being seen as an obvious handicap by Liberal hardliners. The Foreign Minister may have not taken too kindly however to recent suggestions in the media that her role as deputy leader was in peril. This could only have been seen as threatened retribution from Abbott supporters for Bishop’s perceived siding with Turnbull.

Then again, Bishop certainly doesn’t lack ambition and so may well be prepared to forgive and forget if that’s what it takes to get the top job.

However, if she were to become prime minister through the good graces of the Liberal right, Bishop would be wise to keep a watchful eye on Morrison. The ever-ambitious Social Services Minister, who was a favourite of the conservatives while in the border protection portfolio, is now moving at full speed to soften his image in the tricky welfare portfolio (that ironically was a hospital pass from the current PM).

Despite having been in the new job for mere weeks, Morrison has already jettisoned the previous minister’s widely-ridiculed pre-marriage counselling certificates, and signaled he will drop the contentious requirement for young job seekers to wait six months before getting access to welfare support. These swift decisions, along with the commencement of a media charm offensive and an earlier statement on his determination to “stop the rorts” suggest Morrison is pursuing an ambitious strategy to win brownie points from both sides of the political divide.

The longer Abbott draws out his failing prime ministership, the more time Morrison has to implement this strategy, and the greater chance there is of him becoming a real competitor for Turnbull and Bishop in the leadership stakes. There’s also a chance that, in a three-cornered contest involving Turnbull, Morrison and another candidate such as Bishop, Morrison could benefit from the split vote, just as Abbott did when competing with Turnbull and Hockey for the Liberal leadership in 2009.

Time may well have been on Turnbull’s side since he lost the Liberal leadership, but it is no longer. With two new leadership contenders emerging from the pack, the potential prime ministerial aspirant faces a race to convince the Liberal Party’s hardliners that he is the lesser of two evils.

Turnbull’s future, and essentially that of that nation, therefore rests in the hands of those who will determine whether a lurch to the left is more or less bearable than their own electoral oblivion. To assume the outcome of that deliberation would be the height of political foolishness.

‘Left-splaining’ to Bishop misses the point

Australian fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar has reportedly awarded Foreign Minister Julie Bishop the title “Woman of the Year”. In doing so, the fashionista’s bible has kicked the barely contained hornets’ nest that is the feminist movement’s need for the label to be embraced by all women.

Excerpts of the magazine’s interview with Bishop, released to publicise the edition before it arrives in newsstands and on iPads, emphasise the Cabinet minister’s refusal (again) to describe herself as a feminist.

“Stop whingeing, get on with it and prove them all wrong,” Bishop is quoted as saying. In what has already been latched upon as criticism of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Bishop is also said to exhort: “Please do not let it get to you and do not become a victim, because it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim.”

Such advice will likely kick off another round of condemnatory opinion pieces from the stable of fine Australian female writers who are proud to call themselves feminists. Just as they did after Bishop made similar statements to the National Press Club last month, feminists will imply Bishop’s rejection of the label equates with rejection of the movement and refusal to recognise what it has achieved.

The problem with these analyses is that none of the writers can possibly know what a “woman of the right” thinks about feminism. This is because self-proclaimed feminists almost universally have a progressive point of view and have little understanding (or acceptance) of how conservative or other right-of-centre values may influence the thinking of other women.

Just as a man trying to explain feminism is often dismissed as “mansplaining” because of the clear disconnect between the perspectives of men from women, it’s time we started calling out “left-splaining” when it comes to progressives telling us what women of the right think about feminism and the advancement of women.

Bishop’s comments about “getting on with it” and “proving them wrong” is grounded very much in the individualism that is part of the Liberals’ ethos: the power of the individual, the merit of hard work in the pursuit of excellence, and the right of those who’ve worked hard to enjoy the profits of their endeavours. This philosophy emphasises every individual’s responsibility to do the very best we can, and if we fail it’s not society’s fault but due to our own limitations – be they in capability or effort.

Bishop’s acceptance of this individual responsibility was evident in her comments to the National Press Club:

For me I refuse to acknowledge [the glass ceiling]. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. But the approach I’ve taken is that if I want something I’ll work hard and set my mind to it and if it comes off that’s great. If it doesn’t I’m not going to blame the fact I’m a woman. I’m not going to look at life through the prism of gender.

The extension of this philosophy is the refusal to use gender as an excuse for one’s lack of success or failure, or to become a “victim” of one’s gender.

Accordingly, Bishop accused Gillard at the National Press Club of “turning herself into a victim” rather than accepting that “she was judged by her competence and that’s where she was found wanting”.

It could be a mistake however to jump to the conclusion that a similar quote provided by Harper’s Bazaar is Bishop having another go at Gillard. In saying “Please do not let it get to you and do not become a victim, because it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim,” Bishop could well have been exhorting women generally not to hobble themselves by accepting they’re handicapped by gender.

The flaw in this logic of course is that no matter how hard women strive, no matter how smart or what levels of excellence they achieve, there are still societal barriers preventing many women from achieving equity in pay or recognition let alone the levels of success envisioned by Bishop.

This is the nub of the disagreement between women of the left and women of the right over what should be done to progress the advancement of women. In the most basic terms, women of the left see the need for society to be changed, whereas women of the right see it as a matter of individual endeavour.

And without left and the right recognising and finding ways to accommodate these different perspectives, real progress will never be sustained.

It’s all very well in these days of fractured political philosophies and the rise of the anti-politician to say that left and right are no longer useful ways of grouping what people think. But when it comes to discussion of feminism, these labels are still a useful guide to the differences of opinion.

Women of the right are just as committed to the advancement of women as their sisters on the left. Women of the right are mothers too, and they want to see their daughters have prosperous and fulfilling lives. These women don’t reject the principles of feminism – equality and the advancement of women – but they see them being achieved in different ways. If that view is flawed, yelling at them to take on the feminist mantle will not correct it.

Perhaps the actual underlying concern for feminists is not that women of the right won’t accept the feminist label, but that they are disinclined to recognise the role of the feminist cause in what has been achieved so far. The union movement would be similarly disappointed in the lack of acknowledgement that it gets for having delivered improvements in pay and workplace conditions over the decades.

If that is indeed the root cause of the call for women of the right to embrace the label, then the feminist movement has lost its way.

Surely the advancement of women is an important enough issue for the need for accolades to be set aside. The only way forward is for women of the left to find a way to bring women of the right into the fold to work together on ending discrimination against women.

Some of those women will be the CEOs, board directors, and MPs of tomorrow. Only with their acceptance of the real need to address gender inequality, and knowledge of how to do it, will the task ever be complete.

Cool kids and the nastification of Twitter

For the past few years I’ve been blogging and tweeting under the pseudonym Drag0nista. Today I disclose this in the interests of honest debate.

The Twitterverse is huge: it consists of 300 million users and hosts conversations on a mind-boggling range of interests and issues. I dwell only in a small part of that place – the part which monitors and debates Australian politics. There you will find professional and amateur political junkies, journalists, bloggers, staffers, MPs, lobbyists, interest group personnel and some academics.

It’s not a place for the faint hearted. Political tweeps monitor their friends as well as their foes, and are likely pounce on unthinking or considered comments alike to score a debating point or defend their cause.

The very public nature of Twitter discussions can encourage groupthink and a pack mentality can easily take hold. It’s not uncommon for a tweep on one side of a debate to be bombarded with responses from the other side. These contributions can range from a considered engagement with the issue, to highly personal attacks. Someone once compared it to a lone tennis player battling with a demonic ball-throwing machine.

That’s all well and good. If you want to be loud and opinionated on Twitter then you must be prepared to engage with people who disagree with you. That’s a basic tenet. But what has struck me recently about Twitter is its ‘nastification’. While Twitter once seemed a place of wit, satire and cynicism, built upon a strong foundation of good humour, it now seems to be built upon self-righteousness, and characterised by ridicule, denigration and dismissiveness.

In my experience, this is particularly evident with the younger progressives who discuss Australian politics on Twitter. Once they were the clear majority in this part of the Twitterverse, receiving affirmation from the many others who agreed with them. But Twitter’s demographic has since broadened to include vocal conservatives, libertarians, other small L liberals and even Marxists who challenge the young progressives’ undergraduate style of political discourse. Suddenly the cool kids are not so cool any more.  And they are resorting to dismissal and denigration in an attempt to discredit those who are not like them.

I’ve previously referred to the part of Twitter that I inhabit as being like a vast ballroom filled political aficionados milling about, talking in clusters. But it’s become more like a room of student politicians, snarking about what someone is wearing (eg. #tightsarenotpants), how someone is ignorant and therefore not entitled to discuss the matter (eg. “this conversation is full of #derp”) or generally making fun of a person outside their earshot or tweetstream using a denigrating hashtag or meme (eg. #hysteriagate).

These are subtle styles of bullying, intended to isolate and discredit those who choose not to fall into line with how the cool kids think. A recent Drum piece on intellectual honesty posits a number of other ways that people try to discredit or browbeat others into silence. The piece omits, however, what I’ve observed to be the most common method used in this part of Twitter to undermine another’s point of view: the ad hominem accusation, or “playing the man and not the ball”.

The tendency by weak debaters to use the ad hominem rationale is the main reason I’ve kept my pseudonym for as long as I have. I love to have debates about political issues, but my past roles as PR consultant, press secretary and lobbyist are sometimes used to dismiss my views. “Well you would say that,” is just as much a productive debating tool as “talk to the hand”.

I don’t pretend that my hands are clean when it comes to using acerbic debating tactics on Twitter. I’ve ridiculed (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) the Pomodoro writing technique, SayYes rallies and the opponents of pineapple on pizza. And yes, I’ve struck back at individuals when I’ve felt affronted by them. But I believe the closest I’ve come to an ad hominem accusation is to point out that political staffers on Twitter are paid to support and defend their employers’ policies.

So I kept a pseudonym to see if my opinions could withstand scrutiny without being summarily dismissed as partisan or biased views.

I’ll admit that the experiment failed. As I got to know a few people in real life that I’d met on Twitter, some could not help during a heated debate to bring up my past to discredit my views. Others have privately threatened to ‘out’ Drag0nista on confected conflict of interest grounds. I must stress that bullying people in an attempt to stifle debate is not necessarily restricted to the progressive side of politics – The Australian’s shameful unveiling of GrogsGamut is a case in point.

It’s not just the bullying or the nastification of Twitter that has led me to disclose that I’m Drag0nista. It’s because, over time, I’ve realised that I’m not comfortable reading someone’s opinion without context. As a former media adviser, I always interpret reports and analysis written by journalists depending upon what I know about them. This might include who their official partner or unofficial lover is, whether they have a close relationship with MPs or people in politicians’ offices, and who they have worked with/for in other roles.

Similarly, when I read a piece on The Drum, I automatically scroll down to the author’s description so that I can contextualise what they are saying. This is not a mechanism to screen out what are valid and invalid views, but one that gives me a deeper understanding of what is being said.

So I have grown to accept that people who read my tweets and blog posts also have the right to read my views in context. That’s why I’ve decided to make this disclosure today.

I intend to keep the name Drag0nista as a pseudonym for tweeting and blogging purposes. I shall also include disclose my true name to give readers context and for transparency purposes.

No doubt the ad hominem attacks will continue. But I hope that people will see this move more as an invitation to engage with me in discussion, than an opportunity to dismiss what I have to say.

This post first appeared at The Drum