(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

If you use inducements or threats to manipulate a political process or public debate then we will unleash the full force of powerful new laws and defend our values and democratic institutions … foreign actors who would do us harm are now on notice: we will not tolerate covert, coercive or corrupting behaviour in our country.

Malcolm Turnbull, December 7 2017

These were people that were a foreign company, controlled by foreign nationals, was conspiring to overthrow the prime minister of Australia… you’ve got it from Murdoch’s own admissions.

Malcolm Turnbull, April 20, 2020

Plutocrats, Malcolm Turnbull called them in his ABC interview last night promoting his book A Bigger Picture: media moguls like the Murdoch family, who wanted to restore Tony Abbott to the leadership of the Liberal Party, even at the price of sending it into opposition, because they could control him, whereas they couldn’t control Turnbull. The Murdochs were responsible for trying to engineer regime change in Australia.

Ironically, one of Turnbull’s legacies is foreign interference laws aimed at exposing and limiting the influence of, inter alia, “a foreign political organisation” in Australian politics.

According to Turnbull in his book, “News Corporation operates now like a political party”; he compares Fox News in the US with “the state-owned media of an authoritarian government”.

Alas, Turnbull never took the opportunity to extend foreign influence laws to the malignant influence of “a foreign company, controlled by foreign nationals” operating “like a political party”.

Indeed, Turnbull was helpful to News Corp, managing an historic change in media ownership laws in 2017 — “the biggest reform to Australian media laws in nearly three decades,” as he termed it at the time, including “abolition of redundant ownership rules that shackle local media companies,” meaning the two out of three rule limiting News Corp and Nine from owning newspapers, TV licences and radio stations in the same market.

Turnbull thanked News Corp and Foxtel, along with the rest of the mainstream media, “for supporting these reforms.”

Turnbull also cut $84 million from News Corp’s number one enemy, the ABC, in the 2018 budget, following on from the Abbott government’s quarter-billion dollar cuts in 2014.

Like Kevin Rudd — who peddles a silly conspiracy theory involving Turnbull, News Corp and the NBN — Turnbull has only called out the Murdochs from the safety of post-political life. At least Turnbull’s predecessor as communications minister, Stephen Conroy, was still in power when he accused News Corp of trying to engineer “regime change” in 2010.

Given his extensive experience with media moguls, his legal and merchant banking experience, his time leading the republican movement, his wealth, family connections through his marriage and, of course, his political career, Malcolm Turnbull is, more than anyone else in Australia, even more than John Howard, perfectly placed to discuss how power really works in Australia. And while he’s happy to now call out the Murdochs, he fails to offer us the advantage of that, to provide a proper dissection of how power — and not just media power — shapes public life and policy here.

Take climate action, a topic close to Turnbull’s heart. The Coalition is held hostage by a “toxic alliance”, he says in the book, of the right of the Liberal and National parties, the Murdochs “and other right wing media”, and the fossil fuel lobby itself, with its big donors including Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer.

That’s one of the few occasions political donations get a mention in the book — donors are mentioned in passing (including the exhausting work of wining and dining them on budget night), and his own donation during the 2016 campaign is discussed, but not the role of donations, and the lack of disclosure around them, in politics and policymaking.

In 2016-17, and 2017-18, while Turnbull was prime minister, the Coalition across its federal and state divisions took over $650,000 in donations from fossil fuel energy and coal mining companies. Clive Palmer now uses his money for his own political party in an effort to stymie climate action, but those who benefit from a lack of serious climate action policy in Australia were major donors to the government Turnbull led.

Turnbull can at least claim he initiated a royal commission into financial services, but only after being dragged to it by Labor, the minor parties and the Nationals, and only after putting up stiff resistance to the idea before and after the 2016 election.

The Coalition — like Labor — accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the major banks and large insurance companies during his leadership. Similarly, the big four auditing firms’ consultancy arms, which have enjoyed a rich and ever-growing harvest of taxpayer funding from the government’s outsourcing of policy advice, lifted their already-substantial donations to both sides while Turnbull was PM.

Turnbull also declined to establish a federal ICAC or do anything to improve the lack of transparency around influence peddling and corporate attempts to influence policy at the federal level.

The point is not so much Turnbull’s hypocrisy; hypocrisy is unremarkable in politics and if anything Turnbull was less inclined to it than most. And there’s a strong element of truth in his argument that he drew the wrath of the Murdochs for being his own man, compared to the docile figure, vindictive Tony Abbott.

But that’s just one small part of the structure of power in Australia, and the way key figures and corporations use that structure to serve themselves through the political system. A true bigger picture would have provided a better perspective on the abuse of power in a country where voters believe the system serves the powerful and not them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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