Malcolm Turnbull's conservatives speech

This week’s mini-furore over the Prime Minister’s Disraeli Prize speech in London is a perfect example of the media and commentators losing sight of the big picture when focusing on the detail. The real story is that Turnbull has a done a Credlin — he’s reframed his political opponents and in doing so may have shifted the nation’s political discussion in his favour.

Being a political warrior, Peta Credlin is adept at influencing the media’s depiction of her adversaries. By reframing them in a way that minimises their strengths while maximising their weaknesses, the quarry is exposed to a new line of attack for which they are ill-prepared. While this was once done “on background” through a few chosen journos when she was in the Prime Minister’s Office, the commentator now uses her own public platforms to manipulate the media.

The phrase “Mr Harbourside Mansion” is the most memorable of Credlin’s efforts to puncture the PM’s authority. But she has also been instrumental in creating a perception that only conservatives matter in the Liberal Party, and that Turnbull has no authority because he’s not an “authentic” Liberal.

That claim began to lose power in the past fortnight, however, as a succession of conservative ministers re-affirmed the historical legitimacy of both progressives/moderates and conservatives in the Liberal party.

Turnbull’s speech in London reinforced that message, but raised it from a debating point aimed at rebuffing Tony Abbott’s latest whinge to a broader national conversation.

The majority of Australians have never studied politics and are unaware of the major political parties’ philosophical roots. Thanks to John Howard limiting the progression of Liberal moderates during his time in government, and Labor/the Greens laying claim to most progressive issues, voters have lost sight of the role moderates play in the Liberal Party and instead see it as a party of conservatives.

[Tony Abbott’s plan for revenge has gone horribly wrong]

This perception lends an ill-informed ring of truth to Tony Abbott’s claim that the Liberal “base” is conservative, because the party’s core vote also involves moderates. But, at the moment, many of those moderates are despondent and have parked their votes with Labor or the Greens.

Turnbull’s London speech is the PM’s first attempt since the May budget to reach out to those moderates by publicly demonstrating that progressive values are legitimately Liberal — perhaps even more so than conservative ones.

Turnbull explained that the Liberal Party’s founder, Robert Menzies, deliberately avoided the conservative label for his new centre-right party, quoting Menzies as saying at the time: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”

Turnbull then argued that “the sensible centre, to use my predecessor Tony Abbott’s phrase, was the place to be, and it remains the place to be now”. According to media reports, this concession to Abbott was a late addition to the speech.

The comments were controversial, but deliberately so, given the need to cut through the domestic news cycle with a speech delivered when most Australians would have been asleep.

Should Turnbull have made the speech at all, given it sparked another round of “leadership tension” stories? Yes, of course he should have — Abbott is reportedly on overseas leave this week, and Credlin appears to be on leave too, providing the PM with clear air to make his case without being white-anted by his high-profile critics.

As for the contention by former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett that domestic issues should not be discussed when overseas, this is a complete furphy. Political scientist Mark Rolfe pointed out a few years ago:

“Political leaders abide by what is known as the London Convention of not talking about domestic politics while on foreign policy business. This was invented by Bob Hawke in the late 1980s when he was getting hassled while overseas by Australian reporters about domestic politics, in particular the problems created by Paul Keating. When Keating was prime minister, however, he didn’t think much of the convention.”

[Turnbull should crash through on Finkel — he’s crashing anyway]

And given the speech was more about rekindling his authority through the normalisation of Liberal moderates in the eyes of the broader Australian population than it was about demonising conservatives, Turnbull had every right to deliver it in a place of his choosing.

That’s not to say the conservatives got off scot-free from the speech, because they did not. Turnbull’s related intention was to loosen their grasp on the claim to be the party’s base.

The PM argued that labels “have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics,” leaving them only to be “appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose”. He could have just as easily said “beware any politician who claims that a philosophical label gives them political authority”.

Malcolm Turnbull has desperately needed a way to reconnect with the moderate/progressive voters that once had high hopes for him but now have stopped listening.

The May budget clearly didn’t meet the authenticity test that would have warranted a second hearing, but the London speech just might.

Peter Fray

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