“This will be a thoroughly Liberal Government. It will be a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.”

How long ago 14 September 2015 seems, and what a different world. Pre-Trump, pre-Brexit, pre-Hanson, at a time when the verities of the Age of Neoliberalism seemed eternal. Malcolm Turnbull’s promise the night he became Prime Minister to lead a “thoroughly Liberal government” (the capitalisation was his own) was rapidly broken, and not at all because of some negligence or malice on Turnbull’s part, but because the world in which his commitment was made was rapidly ending. “The hour is late,” he said more than once that night, and he was right in ways that he couldn’t possibly know.

But reflect on those words. Freedom. The individual. The market. Turnbull offered a kinder, gentler neoliberalism — not in an economic sense; if anything, he was (initially) all about embracing change and disruption, and the early focus from new Treasurer Scott Morrison was on the spending problem he had inherited from Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. But in a social sense: gone would be Tony Abbott’s strident social conservatism and his bitted hatred of modernity, replaced with a genuine commitment to the social logic of individualism, the liberalism that Turnbull had always espoused, that saw him long ago embrace marriage equality, republicanism, that saw him take his cue from Margaret Thatcher on climate action. The government Turnbull would lead would be the iron fist of the market enclosed in the leather jacket of Q&A Malcolm.

Two years later, the insults and abuse fly in a marriage equality postal survey imposed on him by party reactionaries (Turnbull having eloquently demolished both postal surveys and plebiscites in times past), the deficit is still $30 billion, government intervention is de rigueur and Turnbull spruiks the virtues of coal-fired power.

Turnbull hasn’t merely been trapped by the far right of his own party– the equality and climate denialists — and his inability to assert his authority; he’s been wrongfooted by the unexpectedly quick death of neoliberalism and the populist resentment that has driven it across the west. This has frequently made for an ill fit for Turnbull — one day assailing Bill Shorten as a Corbyn-style socialist threat, the next day lambasting Shorten’s business links while himself engaging in a de facto nationalisation of power plants and gas supplies. Nor is Turnbull at all consistent: he has embraced big-government interventionism not merely on power but on manufacturing, via the defence budget and an ever-more aggressive anti-dumping regime, while spruiking a tax cut for the world’s biggest corporations, trying to slash higher education funding and increase student debt and urging wage cuts for low income earners.

No government is ever ideologically pure, of course, and the best governments are marked by pragmatism, but Turnbull’s government is more accurately described as deeply confused than pragmatic. Not merely is it crippled by a divide between conservatives and liberals (imagine the media coverage if a Labor government by its own acknowledgment couldn’t devise an energy policy because the Left was holding it hostage?), but it is intellectually divided in its own view of the world. Is it 2015, when the market was still something to be celebrated, or 2017, when corporations are regarded with seething hatred by voters? Is it the age before Trump and Brexit, or is it the era of staggering incompetence in the White House and Number 10?

At no stage has Turnbull sought to try to address the electorate’s disaffection for market economics; neither he nor his Treasurer have ever attempted to explain to, to educate, voters about the virtues of markets. And, contrary to the views of business leaders who still think all a return to neoliberalism requires is some 80s-style “leadership”, it would have been a fool’s errand, because it’s not the 1980s, and Turnbull is certainly no Paul Keating. The electorate has a pretty solid understanding of the market, thank you very much, because they see it in their stagnant wages and their soaring power bills and in the media week after week as ever more corporate scandals erupt out of the business pages and onto the front page. Any politician looking to “explain” the virtues of neoliberalism to voters would be lucky to escape tarring and feathering, or at least the social media version thereof.

Turnbull is thus stuck with the question “what comes next?” If we retreat from neoliberalism, where do we go? Back to a Keynesian past of interventionism? Back to an era fondly remembered for full employment that masked a dramatically lower participation rate, the economic disempowerment of women and an uncompetitive economy? After two years, it’s not clear that Turnbull understands that this question needs a coherent answer rather than the apparently arbitrary policy positioning that has marked his time in government.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey