Decoding Turnbull: what his 2015 acceptance speech really said

On the day of the 2016 Australian Federal election, let’s rewind to last year.  On September 14, 2015, Malcolm Turnbull ascended to the party Liberal Party leadership, and Australia breathed a collective sigh of relief as the brief, but strange and destructive, reign of Tony Abbott came to an abrupt end.  There was a sense, especially amongst Australian progressives, that we might see a return to a more moderate Liberal Party. And if you cursorily examine Turnbull’s acceptance speech, it sounds thoroughly sensible and moderate, touching on now-familiar bromides of “creativity” and “innovation”:

“This will be a thoroughly Liberal Government. It will be a thoroughly Liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market. It’ll be focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that. The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it.”

Who can be against any of that?  Sounds good, right?  Being agile, creative, innovative! Yeaah! But having lived in the United States through the first dot-com boom, the Global Financial Crisis, and now the current tech-boom that creates only a relatively small number of jobs (and wealth for only a few of those in those jobs) and the rise of the predatory “sharing economy” of AirBnB and Uber, many of these phrases ring hollow to me. Phrases that use words like agility, creativity and innovation are very handy because they sound great as sound-bites, but are more often used as a fig leaf to disguise the true agenda.  Cognitive linguist George Lakoff in Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics has written extensively about how US right-wing think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have been successfully using words and metaphors to “frame” otherwise unpalatable policies for decades.  These think-tanks have, in turn, been diligently exporting these framings around the world through exchanges with Australian equivalents like the Institute for Public Affairs. Creativity and innovation used in the context of the LNP are code for a corporatist neoliberal set of policies that is focused on one thing and one thing only: enriching those already wealthy with even more wealth.

Many progressive Australians didn’t really see this true agenda clearly and wanted to believe that this would be a kinder, gentler Coalition government. I, too, shared this hope (although there were some commentators at the time who were not buying it). And, while the rhetoric on social issues like gay marriage has clearly shifted in a more moderate direction, in the areas that affect the most people: economics, benefits, job security and investments to build a better future, the Turnbull government has doubled-down on the economic rationalism. (The Labor Party under Shorten, by mostly sticking to economic rationalism-lite, has failed to offer a truly compelling alternatives).

So before today’s election I offer this handy decoded version of Turnbull’s acceptance speech to reveal what he really means:

“This will be a thoroughly NeoLiberal Government. It will be a thoroughly NeoLiberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the converting any  remaining  institutions devoted to the public good over to market-based solutions even in areas where they demonstrably do not work like healthcare, labor markets, carbon emissions regulation and financial regulation. It’ll be focused on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive because we’ve engineered it to be so through deregulation and capital market expansions and flexible labor market policies and there is greater misery opportunities for ordinary people, we are able to the lucky and the wealthy can take advantage of that. The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile and jumps when transnational corporate interests want us to jump as specified in “trade” agreements like the TPP, that is innovative in creating wealth for a smaller number of people with fewer stable jobs through more complicated financial services and instruments, that is creative in moving money around but is not creative in challenging corporate interests and we will defund the those in the sciences or arts organizations that do so. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves by collectively deciding where we allocate our resources democratically. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology  neoliberal policies that deliberately transfer wealth up the hierarchy by invoking an outdated notion of  technological determinism to disguise those policies, and that the volatility in change is our friend if we are for those of us who are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it, and we will heap scorn and derision and demonize those who question these policies. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today if you’re in the 1% and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian in that 1%. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future for its wealthy friends in the corporate class and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it, by privatizing Medicare, deregulating the public university system and introduce US-style student loans and removing people or groups in positions of authority in institutions such as the CSIRO or the ABC that question these policies.

In the Turnbull/Liberal National Party “vision” there is no sense of the common good, of building a democratic future together, of supporting and strengthening civil society, of investing in basic science (outside of narrowly defined biomedical science, funded through cuts to Medicare), or growing sustainable (i.e. non-venture-capital based) small and medium sized businesses that create long term value for Australians. Just every agile man and women for him or herself in the global marketplace.

Get jumping!!

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