Oct 8, 2009

Turnbull – the failed libertarian hope

I wasn't particularly moved either way by Turnbull's decision to commit the Liberals to compromising on emissions trading.

Unlike some of my more radical libertarian comrades and their fellow traveller conservative climate sceptics, I wasn’t particularly moved either way by Turnbull’s decision to commit the Liberals to compromising on emissions trading, even though I agree with the arguments that a carbon tax is a preferable method of addressing climate change concerns (PDF). As I see it, Turnbull’s position was based on what he saw as the political realities of the issue and his view that however badly designed he thought the ETS would be, the alternative of political impotence where no constructive input could be made by the Liberals would be worse, including for the sectors of the economy that could be affected by its implementation.

Agree or disagree with the assessment of this situation, it was an arguable case as a matter of political pragmatism rather than a matter of grand philosophical differences.

Nonetheless Malcolm Turnbull never lived up to the admittedly in hindsight rather inflated expectations which people like me on the classical liberal to libertarian side of politics had built up around him (see here for a flavour of the intra-libertarian discussion about Turnbull).

Were we too naive in expecting that someone of such Bobo sensibilities (to use the coinage of David Brooks) in what is essentially a Bobo electorate would be the closest the Liberal party could come to a principled classical liberal leader?

Turnbull was a hero to many civil libertarians for his role in the Spycatcher case. He was, even before he became leader, part of a ginger group within the party during Howard’s leadership that saw Howard-Costello as too tame on tax cuts and cuts to government spending. Turnbull showed some backbone early on in his leadership defending Bill Henson, placing himself briefly to the left of Kevin Rudd. He commissioned (but ultimately did not release) a review of the taxation system by Henry Ergas (disclosure – my former employer) that would have called for a transition over 15 years to a fully flat income tax system combined with a Friedman-style minimum income guarantee. Perhaps the last act was already an indication of his general pattern of political timidity though who can blame him given the relatively radical nature of some of the proposals?

But putting these aside, there would have been many many other opportunities for Turnbull to turn the Liberal party into a genuine socially and economically liberal party. He failed on both counts. He was unable to demonstrate principle on even a no-brainer like abolishing the detention debt for asylum seekers.

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9 thoughts on “Turnbull – the failed libertarian hope

  1. james mcdonald

    I also think Turnbull’s ETS is better than Rudd’s. Not perfect, but in my view this is enough reason to prefer it:
    “Excluding agricultural emissions from the scheme, but allowing the agricultural sector to contribute to abatement and earn new revenue streams by allowing the inclusion of offsets such as carbon sequestration in forests or biochar.”

    Why? First of all, ETS is about changing behaviour. We’re not going to stop food. If locally-produced food becomes more expensive, we’ll just import more of the same quantity and type of food (using international freight that is not yet subject to ETS). Might look good on the ETS balance sheet but net effect is more CO2 and we’re a step closer to being dependent on trade for our future food supply.

    Second, the government’s plan has a very narrow focus on (a) reducing carbon-compound gases into the air, and (b) “clean coal” via CO2 geosequestration. But the biggest opportunity for carbon sequestration in Australia may be in the soil, and farmers should be offered incentives to advance this.

    Australian soil science is not far advanced. Farmers have been hanging out for more, and have shown a lot of interest in a CSIRO renegade who recommends reducing use of chemical fertilizers and sprinkled bio agents, and instead promoting growth of microbe cultures within the soil. CSIRO is also quite excited about the potential for “biochar” (search it on their website, and also look up “terra preta” anywhere). This ancient Amazon soil-augmentation method may have the long term potential to sequester more carbon in the soil than Australia emits–as a side effect of increasing agricultural productivity. The bulk of Earth’s biomass is within its soil. Turnbull seems to appreciate this and Rudd does not.

    For a person like me who despises all the political parties equally, Turnbull is the most interesting Coalition leader since John Hewson. I get the feeling people are hanging out for a leadership spill simply because they are bored. Absolutely the only chance of me voting Liberal next election is if Turnbull is leading it.

  2. james mcdonald

    If the news media didn’t spend most of their time doing the party whips’ jobs for them, yabbering on about party/coalition “unity” and asking leaders what they’re going to do about “disloyalty”, no one would care. Why should the opposition all agree on everything? Why shouldn’t they split on conscience votes and take some time to figure out who will be the shadow cabinet and what their agenda will be? And how is this evidence of a leader’s “failure”?

  3. Jason Soon

    Malcolm Street
    Yes I agree re Labor as generally being a force for good in economic reform – Hawke/Keating was one of the best free market reformist governments in Australia and indeed internationally.

    Phil – I’ve never been a member of the Liberal party.

    Charles – I agree, it is stupid what the Libs are doing to themselves over climate change. If they had engaged with it earlier for one thing (e.g. when they were in government), they could have had their preferred model for addressing the issue, whether it be carbon taxes with an income tax cut or other approaches.

  4. Charles Richardson

    So much for the right’s strategy of treating climate change as an ideological issue. It just shows what happens when you come to believe that reality has to fit in with your preconceptions – evidence becomes irrelevant and compromise becomes impossible. The socialists had (some still have) the same problem with economic policy: central planning just had to work, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, because they’d built a whole worldview around it.

    No doubt many in the party would have wanted to destroy Turnbull anyway, but without climate change he might have had a chance.

  5. Phil

    You confess to be a Liberian but if true, you wouldn’t be in the Liberal party hiding under the skirts of those most anti of liberals. The conservatives own that falsely named party with their country cousins the Nationals a little more honest with their title.

  6. Malcolm Street

    “there would have been many many other opportunities for Turnbull to turn the Liberal party into a genuine socially and economically liberal party. He failed on both counts. He was unable to demonstrate principle on even a no-brainer like abolishing the detention debt for asylum seekers.”

    Had he done what you suggested he would have split the party – the Liberal party under Howard continued its trend to jettison anyone to the left of Mussolini, hence becoming increasingly a hard-line conservative party rather than the “broad church” that Menzies envisaged. With all the right-wing Catholics at the top it looks more like a latter-day DLP these days. Even without that, such a platform would have made it impossible to work with the Nationals.

    Face it – the only socially liberal parties in Australia are the Greens and to a lesser extent Labor. As for economic liberalism, the Nationals severely compromise the ability of any coalition government to act, as do the Liberals’ links to big business, who contrary to libertarian theory, just love government intervention when it makes life easier for them. (Take a bow Ansett, Packer, Murdoch and many others). All the major steps towards economic liberalisation over the past few decades have come from Labor – slashing tariffs and revaluing the dollar under Whitlam, floating the dollar and further tariff cuts under Hawke/Keating. So there you have it – crazy as it sounds Turnbull would have had more luck with such a program had he joined nominally socialist Labor (as he nearly did).

    Now I’m assuming you are a true libertarian. Unfortunately most I’ve come across seem to fulfill the cynical definition “a libertarian is a conservative who smokes dope”; if your definition of libertarianism is bashing unions and social welfare recipients then of course you’d be happier with the coalition.

  7. Durutticolumn

    Isn’t the Libs problem the CPRS? They can’t agree on it and if they choose a new leader does he/she come from the anti CPRS or the Pro and what do they do about the people who are on the other side of the argument?
    It is like watching a slow motion bus crash. They look like they will bodgie up some amendments to take to the table with Wong and then when push comes to shove in the Senate do the Australian equivalent of a filibuster and go into summer with nothing to show for their problems and uncle Kev ramping up the rhetoric and loading the gun for a double dissolution. Why would Wong even talk to them? Turnbull will probably have to hang on until the end of the year while his party tears itself apart. then he retires to the backbench or retires out of parliament all together. I can’t see how the Libs can fix this problem. The split is almost 50 50 It reminds me of the great Labor schism of the 50s. The Nats are the DLP they will get some defections from the Libs and then there are the Libs. We know how long that took to heal. Not good for the country this. As in everything I blame John Howard.

  8. Hochfelden

    COALition PARTY
    It’s all in the name.
    When are the Liberal / National parties going to be honest and drop the ‘ition’ bit at the end end of theirjoint- name?

  9. Kevin Rennie

    Malcolm’s press conference this morning was a desperate event. He launched his fightback, a wish list of economic proposals that were neither original or concrete:
    Turnbull Discovers Reaganomics

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