It is a truth universally acknowledged, one might say, that contemporary Australian politics is uninspiring and unengaging. In an atmosphere of increasing cynicism about the political process, few of its practitioners appear able to connect with a largely disengaged electorate. Those politicians who do elicit trust and admiration, then, are particularly noticeable. One such figure is former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull, who famously lost out to Tony Abbott by only one vote in December 2009 and went on to cross the floor to vote for the Rudd government's doomed emissions trading scheme.
Turnbull inspires respect across party lines, and it is not difficult to see why. He makes speeches like this, tweets about literature and global politics as well as local concerns (and recently gave Rupert Murdoch a classy serve regarding Fox News' approach to gun policy in the US), and continues to emphasise the need to address climate change in the face of an awkward ambivalence on his party's part. Where Abbott chose the occasion of Margaret Whitlam's death to have a partisan dig at the 1972-1975 Labor administration, Turnbull spoke warmly of her optimism, generosity and compassion.
It is therefore understandable that Turnbull has become somewhat iconic among political junkies (he is for instance regularly voted 'sexiest male politician' in Crikey's annual poll). What is more mysterious is the habitual suggestion that he wandered into the wrong political party by mistake and ought to be a member of the ALP – or even its leader. In 2009, Turnbull was forced to deny that he had ever approached the ALP to seek a parliamentary seat, and stated instead that he had been 'courted' by prominent party members, including former PM Paul Keating, and had advised Keating that 'I wouldn't be comfortable in the Labor Party and it wouldn't be comfortable with me'.
Some voters appear to have found Turnbull's political allegiance difficult to accept, or entertaining to reject: 11% of respondents to an Essential poll from August 2011 supported Turnbull as Labor leader (Kevin Rudd garnered 37% support to Julia Gillard's 12%). Turnbull downplayed the poll, while maintaining that that popularity with the 'other side' was useful rather than detrimental, arguing: 'You don't win elections by persuading your most devoted supporters to cast a vote for you with even more enthusiasm than they did at the last election…You win elections by persuading people who didn't vote for you at the last election to vote for you. Elections are always won at the centre'.
This concept of the 'sensible centre' was evoked in the latest rush of blood to collective heads about Turnbull's place in Australian politics. A charming double-act between Turnbull and Rudd on Q&A late this year intensified a flurry of enthusiasm about both former party leaders; at the end of the program, an audience member asked:
You two have a lot in common. You both are moderate, wealthy, and not very popular in your own parties but very popular among people…Many Labor voters are very disillusioned with the influence of the factions and unions. Many Liberal voters are disappointed with the influence of big business and the far right wing. Why don't you two join and establish a new party that can open a new chapter in politics in Australia?
The enthusiasm for a return to Rudd and Turnbull as leaders of their prospective parties has already been subjected to critique and the concept of a new third force in Australian politics comprising the two old adversaries and other 'moderates' remains a rather strange fantasy.
What is striking, though, is how little ideology featured in these discussions. The view that Turnbull ought properly to sit across the chamber from the Coalition seems based at least in part on his style – witty, charming and urbane – rather than the substance of his beliefs (which is, incidentally, not very flattering to the Liberals). Where his actual political leanings are discussed, there seems to be an assumption that Turnbull is of the left simply by virtue of acknowledging the existence of climate change, supporting marriage equality and being a republican – a characterisation that seems to set the bar for progressive hero status rather low. On Q&A Rudd alluded to Turnbull's supposed radicalism when he joked that the two men could not form a new political party because 'Malcolm's far too [sic] the left of me. I just couldn't, you know'.
This is passing strange. Although, as Andrew Leigh points out, Labor has always had a liberal strain, there is still a difference between Turnbull's small-l liberalism and the social democratic project which the ALP (in theory, at least) supports. It should not be forgotten that Turnbull was a member of the Howard government, although not yet a minister, when it brought in the punitive Work Choices regime. More recently, in 2011, Turnbull conceded that the Coalition had been 'sent a message in 2007′ and that 'Work Choices is dead' but opined that 'there should be the maximum freedom and flexibility in the workplace'. The terms 'left' and 'right' have become blurrier over the years, and no Australian political party can boast of ideological consistency, but if a person can be described as 'left-wing' who does not prioritise the rights of workers over managerial 'flexibility', the term really has lost all meaning.
If Turnbull is indeed a 'centrist' (which some have doubted), so what? Why ought we to revere the centre? There is a danger that strongly held ideological positions can become overtly rigid, and it is true that the majority of legislation passed by the parliament each year is uncontentious, but a reasonable-sounding liberalism can only take us so far. It is ideology which helps us determine our view of the good society and, accordingly, what policies we support. It is not just a matter of a neutral 'management', contrary to Turnbull'sstatement, prior to the 2010 election, that 'the Labor Party has demonstrated they are not capable of managing Australia… The Coalition is capable of governing. We have done it before and done it well'.
Further, the argument that the 'sensible centre' ought to prevail – that those 'in the middle' will tend to be correct on any particular issue – is superficially appealing but vague. In his recent book Why Marx was right, academic Terry Eagleton asked: 'why should the middle always be the most sensible place to stand? Why do we tend to see ourselves in the middle and other people as on the extremes? After all, one person's moderation is another's extremism'. He asked rhetorically, for example: 'What is the middle ground between racism and antiracism?'
Even if Turnbull does not 'fit' within the Liberal Party in its current incarnation, this fact alone would not necessarily mean he could slot neatly into the ALP. The spectrum of views that an individual can hold is vast and multifaceted, and is by no means adequately encompassed by the parties which hold seats in Australia's parliaments (which party, for instance, could offer a comfortable home for libertarians?). It was the inability of existing political parties to address particular views and beliefs that led to the creation of the Democrats, and the limitations of the two-party system helps to explain the Greens' popularity.
Crikey cartoonist First Dog on the Moon responded to the enthusiasm for a 'Ruddbull' political party by asking: 'Does anyone seriously believe that the path to Australia's political redemption is ANOTHER political party made up of the same sorts of people doing the same or slightly different sorts of things?'
Beyond this question, we might also ask what a focus on style at the expense of substance, on personality instead of ideology, says about the current state of play in politics.