The great possibility is that Malcolm Turnbull is a tactical genius. Well, not genius, but a man of some talent. Tactical, note, not strategic. Strategically, he and the party he leads have been all over the place since he took power — and of course in the Abbott period before. Indeed, the better he is tactically, the worse he and the party become strategically. And forget anything to do with implementing a program. Programmatically, we remain in the Gillard era — a centrist social market politics frames real government action, whether it be Gonski 2.0, the NDIS, co-funded public transport in Victoria, and so on and on. Nothing has come along to replace it; there has been no will within the Coalition to frame a realistic and consistent centre-right social market politics that acknowledges the reality of a fractured Senate.
Thus, only tactics remain. By the very nature, it involves a lot of dashing about. Malcolm jumps up in London to say, utterly incorrectly (factual, not political incorrectness) that the Liberal Party was founded as a wholly liberal party, and that its co-founder, Robert Menzies, was a wholly liberal political animal. A few days later, we’re at a military base, and, among the most sinister bastards you’ve ever seen, up pops Malcolm, to announce a vast centralisation of state power in one department, and a weakening of the barrier between military and police operations in domestic matters.
These tactical moves are deployed against Tony Abbott first of all, of course: challenge his basic vision of the party, and then promote Peter Dutton — Peter Dutton! — as a leader of the conservative forces within the party, in a policy so reactionary and based on Big Fear that it would be impossible for Abbott to get to the right of it without advocating a generals-bishops junta for public safety.
But such tactical moves are a twofer, because they’re also directed against Labor, reviving the ancient charge that it is “soft on national security”. The optics of the announcement was intended to be as grotesque as possible — masked robot-like military men, entirely non-citizens, behind suited politicians. The illiberal and anti-democratic spirit of the announcement was obvious. The back-and-forth between the London declaration of liberalism and the entirely unnecessary rupturing of the military-civilian barrier is, too. Turnbull will call this “nimble and agile”. The rest of us will remind ourselves that he’s a hustler from way back — a man who does deals, and then is out of the room and onto the next one before people realise what the deal was.
Yet in carrying on this frenetic drive to political survival, Turnbull is being truer to the Menzian spirit than he intends, or perhaps understands. Menzies, having started the Liberal Party rolling in the dying days of the Second World War, and relying on a number of genuine liberals to do so, had them purged in the late 1940s. This gave the cover of liberalism, but it returned the party to control of the business elites dating back to the days of the Bruce government. Having done that, Menzies launched an attempt to ban the Communist Party — the legislation for which gave the government the power to deem non-party members as Communists, and thus restrict them from public life, especially in the unions. The move had the added benefit — and perhaps the main purpose — of leaning on the cracks within Labor, until the party split entirely.
This gives the clue to the heritage of Australian political liberalism. It has less resemblance to liberalism in European governments than it does to the semi-repressive governments of the Third World at the time. The repressive measures — trying to ban whole political movements, the censorship of thousands of books, manipulation of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (precursor of the Australia Council) to exclude leftist writers, support for apartheid South Africa, etc, etc — were combined with a mild Keynesianism. It was a thoroughly illiberal state, which emphasised the illiberal parts of the wider society, and downplayed liberal currents within it.
To his great discredit, Malcolm Turnbull is willing to take that route again. A genuine liberal would welcome the fact that we have had very few successful, fully terrorist acts in Australia. Most of those that have been labelled as such appear to have been incidents in which disordered and malign thinking, or suggestibility, has become attached to jihadist themes. The most deadly recent “event” was the Bourke Street mall drive-through, which had no jihadist or political content whatsoever. In fact some events, such as the Lindt Cafe siege, might have been made worse by treating them as political events, rather than crimes. Thus, in order to be “nimble” and “agile” around these events, a “liberal” government is creating a ministry turning civic functions into security ones and creating a vast bureaucracy, which will require additional layers of management, creating reporting contradictions, and quite possibly slow down the responses to actual security events that occur. All in the hands of a minister who is a proven incompetent.
Tactical advantage, possibly, as I say. But one that also courts disaster, both actual and political. For years now, we have been told that the foiling of “a dozen terrorist plots” has been due to our current security set-up. We’re never told the detail of these dozen plots, and it is quite likely that most of them were in the so-called “pre-planning” stage, i.e. bullshit being talked in bugged coffee shops in western Sydney.
But on the supposition that some of them were real, liberal enlightened thinking would suggest that this is positive evidence that our current arrangement works. It is being abolished for a structure for whose superiority there is no evidence whatsoever. It will take at least a year for the internal structure, reporting, communication and command structures of the new mega-department to be worked out. During that time, we will be objectively more vulnerable to an efficient terrorist act than ever before. It will be the least important part of it, but should such occur, Turnbull’s premiership and reputation will be a smoking ruin. In the meantime, for sheer tactical, petty advantage, our illiberal prime minister has given civil society a kick in the guts, and lived up the Australian liberal tradition.