Opinion – The Turnbull ascendancy

Turnbull yes we can

Australia has a new government. Normally this happens only after an election, but so significant is Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership, and so profound the changes that are accompanying it, that for all intents and purposes we are starting again.

The speed of Turnbull’s coup stunned many, but more significant is its extent. The national mood has changed, and so have most of the old agendas. Most people are still not aware of the magnitude of what has happened, and the effects it will have.

The national debate in recent years has sunk to new lows, beset by name-calling, sloganeering, and a truly astounding level of intellectual dishonesty. Turnbull has promised the change that, to engage with the public and to respect their intelligence.

Debate in Australia on much-needed economic reform had all but stopped. Virtually everybody agrees that Australia’s taxation system is in great need of an overhaul, and there is even broad agreement on what needs to be done in such major areas as superannuation concessions, negative gearing, GST, company taxation, and multinational profit-shifting.

Other public policy areas, as diverse as broadband communications, same-sex marriage, copyright law, water catchment management, media ownership, science and research, education, are all back in play. Mr Turnbull has a great deal of good will from a public tired of the pettiness and hypocrisy that has characterised the public agenda for a decade or more.

The difference may be one of style as much as substance, but a new style of governing, of setting and executing policy, is just what Australia needs. It is the difference between pessimism and optimism, seeing the glass half full and capable of overflowing.

Malcolm Turnbull has explicitly said that he will rule nothing in and nothing out. The single most important criterion will be whether it works or not. Mr Turnbull’s past record shows that he is a pragmatist, unencumbered by any ideology beyond an unwavering belief in our ability to better ourselves through smart thinking and intelligent – and hard working – execution.

If he has a political philosophy, it is classical liberalism, a belief in the primacy of the individual and the necessity of the light hand of government to leaven its excesses when necessary.

Few except anarchists and nihilists believe in no government, and few except Stalinists and Maoists believe government should control all we do. We live on a continuum, or many of them, and we all have different views on how far we should go towards either extreme, in any area of policy.

We will never reconcile these disparate views – it is in the nature of humankind that they exist. The history of the world is the history of clashes between adherents of different ways of thinking. Effective government means creating an environment that helps ensure that intelligence drives out stupidity and knowledge drives out ignorance.

Malcolm Turnbull, with a successful and varied career behind him, with demonstrable enthusiasm for technology and its benefits, with a great diversity of interests and abilities, is the right man at the right time for Australia.

John Howard famously said that the times would suit him, and he was right. Then under Tony Abbott the Liberal Party became dominated by the troglodytic views of yesterday’s men, scared of the future. At the same time the once-proud Australian Labor Party imploded, also largely as a result of its anachronistic us-versus-them view of the world.

Liberalism, in the true meaning of the world, is a proud and noble philosophy. It has been in short supply in recent years, in a world dominated by extremes of the left and right. It appeals to reason rather than prejudice, but for that reason it has usually won out in the end as the internal contradictions of rival philosophies have led to their eventual demise.

In Malcolm Turnbull Australia has its first ever liberal (as opposed to Liberal) prime minister. He is also the first ever technocrat, and he has the intelligence and the charm to persuade others of the merits of his ideas.

Australia has already become a very different place in the short time since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister. If he succeeds in realising his vision it will also be a much better place.

He has the goodwill of most of the population and much of the intelligentsia and the leaders of commerce. He is beset by critics from the left and the right, from the professionally selfish and the congenitally stupid.

As so many people have said recently, ‘Australia is better than this’. Malcolm Turnbull deserves to succeed, just as Australia deserves to succeed.

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