Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 14

Does Turnbull Offer a Progressive Alternative?

Peter Van Onselen

In his 1967 memoir, Afternoon Light, Robert Menzies wrote: ‘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 rights and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea’.1 This commentary has been used by the progressive wing of the party ever since to justify why Liberals should not allow conservatism to dominate policy and personnel. Conservatives reject the argument, pointing out that for Menzies – himself a conservative on many issues – the rejection of the socialist panacea was the more important part of the descriptor.

The elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership in September 2015 raised the seemingly real prospect of an embrace of progressive politics within the Liberal Party. The opinion polls had long shown that Turnbull was the preferred Liberal leader amongst Labor and non-aligned voters. But such support is no guarantee that a Turnbull prime ministership would see a change in direction for Australia’s right-of-centre major party.

If members of the parliamentary Liberal Party are asked which faction they are aligned with – the moderates or conservatives – most will tell you with a straight face that there are no factions inside the Liberal Party. Shortly after he assumed the prime ministership, Turnbull uttered similar words to the New South Wales state council of the party, receiving laughter rather than applause for having done so.2

One of the few parliamentary Liberals who seriously thinks about the philosophical direction of the party, the leader in the Senate, George Brandis, claims: ‘It is now as commonplace to speak of the conservative and liberal (or moderate) wings of the Liberal Party as it is to speak of the socialist Left and Right factions of the ALP’.3 Speak of, perhaps. But in reality the party remains a conservative entity, and the moderate wing of the party is at best questionably progressive on most policy fronts. This increases the degree of difficulty Turnbull will have if he tries to shift the party’s philosophy too much or too quickly.

This chapter looks briefly at the history of progressive politics within the Liberal Party, to the extent that there is one, including the role of so-called ‘moderates’ within the state organisational divisions of the party. It also explains why the Liberal Party has always been more akin to a conservative party, rather than its name sake, finally examining the reasons it is unlikely Turnbull will live up to his progressive credentials. If this book is about finding a home for progressive politicking in Australia, within one of the mainstream parties, readers will get little comfort from the conclusions in this chapter.

Turnbull Observed

The elevation of Turnbull to the prime ministership raised tantalising possibilities for commentators and political scientists alike. Would he try and recast the Liberals as a more moderate political force? Could he improve the government’s working relationship with the Greens, thereby helping the Coalition achieve greater policy outcomes in the Senate? The change of leadership within the Greens parliamentary party opened the door to a decoupling of the traditional Greens– Labor alliance, if the Liberals could find a way to take advantage of the change. Would Liberals and Greens consider preference agreements if common policy grounds could be found? And if Turnbull narrowed differences with Labor on some policy scripts, even occasionally outflanking Labor on the ‘left’, how would the opposition react?

Those of us who have closely observed Turnbull’s political career – from the moment he booted out the moderate Peter King to win preselection for the Liberals in the seat of Went-worth in 2003, to his elevation to the Howard government’s front-bench, to the party’s leadership in opposition in late 2008 – have long wondered what kind of prime minister Turnbull would make. The tendency he showed to support progressive policy settings prior to commencing his political career (for example championing the Republic), or with his push for climate change action during his first stint as leader, is less likely to direct Turnbull’s approach as prime minister now. A carefully crafted pragmatic agenda is more likely. The wilderness years Turnbull endured between leadership stints (2008–15), of a similar nature and duration to that of Howard (1989–95), taught Turnbull that to be a ‘successful’ Liberal leader he needs to avoid issues that risk splitting the party. With Tony Abbott’s ongoing parliamentary presence, this tendency is all the more likely to dominate Turnbull’s approach in 2016, notwithstanding minor adjustments in philosophical direction under his leadership. While a strong result at this year’s election could see Turnbull start to ‘come out of his shell’, if an agenda to support such a shift isn’t laid out ahead of polling day political, problems may soon follow.

The Ties that Bind

For decades non-Labor political parties have been united as much by what they oppose as what issues bind them together. Opposing socialism brought together the Free Traders and the Protectionists in 1909, because the emerging Labor Party was seen as the greater of evils. A large part of the success of Menzies in founding the Liberal Party in 1944 prior to the end of the Second World War was to re-direct that focus, to proactively appeal to the so-called forgotten people. Menzies’ book, Afternoon Light, used similar rhetoric to re-focus the Liberal Party’s ideology after he retired. However, in office Menzies was the beneficiary of what Liberals opposed far more so than what they collectively represented. Liberals rejected communism and, with that, Labor’s brand of socialism. It was an easy political kill for Menzies during the heady days of the Cold War.

In 1972, after 23 years in opposition, Gough Whitlam tried to do too much in too little time as prime minister, shortening the life of his Labor government in the process. Three years later and Labor was out of power, suffering the largest defeat in federal political history. But the re-elected Liberal Party was back without having thought sufficiently about what its core values were. Opposition to socialism (and interventionist government) only got the party so far. Members were calling for a positive agenda to reflect the times. With Malcolm Fraser and much of his inner circle largely void of political ideas, a new agenda was proffered by the dries – a collection of radical free-market thinkers who wanted to reform the economy and in particular the industrial relations system. For their time this grouping were certainly economically progressive, even if the Liberal Party writ large was yet to embrace such thinking, and certainly remained a socially conservative collective.

While the economic philosophy of the dries wasn’t electorally popular, and support for it within the Liberal Party was spotty at best, it gave Howard the foundations for reforms he would go on to enact in government. Howard was a sympathetic ear to the dries during the Fraser years, even if as Treasurer he rarely championed their cause in cabinet. It ultimately gave the Howard prime ministership policy and ideological ballast, something the Fraser years didn’t have because the remnants of the Menzies era – dominant in the upper echelons of the ministry – were catapulted back into office before the party had learnt the lessons of defeat.

Abbott’s two years as Prime Minister suffered from the same lack of readiness for office Fraser’s government had. Inadequate renewal of personnel, a failure to step back from the political combat of previous years and evaluate the policy setting the party should keep and discard for the future. The single mindedness of Abbott’s pursuit of power was a different ethos to the traditional conservative reasoning behind seeking office. The question now is to what extent will a Turnbull led Liberal Party transform for the modern political era. At one level, the need to do so is diminished because of the lack of introspection Labor has undergone in recent times. Failure to reflect seems to be a bipartisan problem in the body politic.

Denying Progressives while also Keeping Labor out of Power

The Liberal Party, within our entrenched two party system, is organisationally unlikely to transform into ‘Labor-lite’, as conservatives disparagingly like to describe it, despite the window of opportunity for doing so given Labor’s reluctance to modernise. The conservatives within the Liberal Party, including the former prime minister, have flexed their collective political muscles at the start of the 2016 election year. A series of steps have already been embarked upon to prevent Turnbull from transforming the historical conservatism of the party, even if under new leadership the Coalition is successful at this year’s election.

Turnbull knows that the party membership at the organisational level are more conservative than he is. The parliamentary membership is largely careerist, but the conservative voices know that they can loudly announce their disagreements with government policy, especially from the backbench. This will temper any internal efforts to embrace progressive ideas, because the subsequent public debates will feed into a modern construct of ‘disunity’ and ‘tensions’, which can harm leaders via the impact these stories can have on opinion polls. Having removed Abbott on the pledge to make the party more competitive in the polls, Turnbull is now beholden to them. This will create a tension between the need to continue appealing to new voters, especially younger voters, and the reality that the base of support for the Liberal Party comes from an older demographic.4

The role of the National Party is also important when coming to understand Turnbull’s institutional limitations on modernising his party, another reason to doubt Turnbull’s capacity to shift the cultural lines within his party. We have seen in the same-sex marriage debate the more conservative leanings of the Nationals compared with the Liberal Party.5 Also in what action to take on climate change. Liberal governments generally rely on their coalition partner for a working majority, and even where they can govern in their own right the coalition is rarely broken. While a Liberal leader isn’t bound to limit his or her support for progressive policy setting within their own party because of the shared governing arrangements with the Nationals, government policy is impacted by Nationals. And close debates within the Liberal Party room are subject to informal influence by the Nationals.6

While a Turnbull leadership will be different to Abbott’s, or indeed Howard’s, the changes will need to be more incremental than substantial. Voters who seek genuine progressive agendas from their political leaders will likely be disappointed by Turnbull’s prime ministership. But this shouldn’t blind us to the ways in which he may change politicking, and indeed the subtle differences between a Turnbull agenda versus that of a more conservative alternative leader.

Abbott’s removal as Prime Minister wasn’t a rebellion against his philosophical positioning. Indeed it is questionable whether Abbott really moved the party onto a more conservative footing than it had been under John Howard’s leadership. Abbott was heavily criticised by his ‘base’ early on in his prime ministership, for the generous paid maternity leave proposal and his retreat from a commitment to amend the Racial Discrimination Act, for example. In the end Abbott’s base fell in behind him despite their reservations about his leadership. This was partly because of a cultural response to threats to a first term prime minister, and partly to block Turnbull, who going back to his time running the Australian Republican Movement has been a figure of disdain for many conservatives.

The support Turnbull was able to muster was cobbled together in response to deficiencies in Abbott’s leadership style, and the choice of Turnbull was simply because he was the most viable alternative candidate. His personal polling numbers, perceived political charisma and name recognition in the electorate put him ahead of alternatives such as Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison. The fact Turnbull had a more moderate pedigree than either of these candidates was a mere coincidence.

In fact, the votes within the parliamentary party, which shifted enough support for a successful challenge, came from MPs and Senators historically doubtful about Turnbull’s suitability to lead the Liberal Party. This will check any progressive political instincts Turnbull might have. Mitch Fifield was one of the three shadow parliamentary secretaries who got the ball rolling on the removal of Turnbull back in 2009 when he resigned his front-bench position.7 Scott Ryan is a powerful factional figure from Victoria who describes himself as a dry, and let me know in no uncertain terms the error in my book Battlelines describing him as a ‘moderate’. Both men accompanied Turnbull on his walk into the party room for the vote. Michaelia Cash, a minister from Western Australia, is a close ally of conservative factional leader Mathias Cormann, yet two weeks before the coup she went to see Julie Bishop to let her know Abbott had lost her support. Turnbull would do as a competent alternative was her message. And of course the spearhead of Turnbull’s strategic push to oust Abbott was Arthur Sinodinos, Howard’s long-time chief of staff, who could never be accused of being a dripping wet moderate. He also accompanied Turnbull on the walk into the party room.

The point of reeling off such names and circumstances surrounding Abbott’s demise isn’t to walk readers through the history of how Abbott came to be flung aside as PM, but simply to highlight that the September 2015 coup was no moderate push to oust a conservative leader. In fact sections of the conservative wing of the party long complained that when Abbott seized the leadership off of Turnbull he retained moderate faces in the inner circle – Christopher Pyne as manager in the House, Brandis in a leadership role in the Senate. These players remain in Turnbull’s inner circle now. Why would voters think that the elevation of Turnbull will suddenly see them begin championing progressive causes they never did under Abbott’s leadership?

The Liberal Party has always been more pragmatic than ideological, seeking to retain power as a guiding principle. It naturally shuns progressive goals, which may include difficult (and untested) reforms. This of itself is a conservative ethos – keep Labor away from the treasury benches. Howard extended that thinking to a need to keep progressives away from power altogether, thus ensuring only incremental policy development as society modernises – again a very conservative agenda. To the extent that Howard included senior figures from the moderate wing of the party in his cabinet, he gave them portfolios where they were charged with enacting conservative policy settings as part of his government. The most obvious examples include Philip Ruddock in immigration, Robert Hill as environment minister and Amanda Vanstone in education.8

Keeping radicals away from power and incompetent Labor ministers away from the levers of Treasury are worthy goals for traditional conservatives. But what does doing so offer progressives or liberal economic reformers? Or indeed social liberals? Even Howard, who was unashamedly socially conservative, would not have tolerated governing for its own sake (as was clearly apparent from his final-term push for further industrial relations reform in the shape of WorkChoices). While the conservatives undoubtedly entrenched their power base within the Liberal Party during the dominant and strong leadership of Howard, conservatism has become a common ideological choice amongst Liberals today because it fits with the pragmatic goal of winning elections. This being an election year expect Turnbull, despite his progressive tendencies, to be captured by the goal of securing re-election. He will join the careerists who see attaining and retaining power as a goal in and of itself.9

Turnbull as Prime Minister

While Abbott is no progressive, he was more reactionary than conservative on many policy fronts during his prime ministership. Some of that positioning is what Turnbull will seek to alter. At most the party will lose its reactionary edge, and reform as a traditional centre-right party. To the extent that Turnbull can mollify conservative tendencies within the Liberal Party, it is likely to only be on the margins. Generational renewal may assist with this process. But Turnbull won’t be able to transform the party into a progressive outfit as much as he may wish to. The early policy evidence highlights why not.

In just the first six months of the Turnbull government, this one time progressive public policy thinker has affirmed that he will not seek to re-embrace an Emission Trading Scheme; will stick to the plebiscite on same-sex marriage rather than give colleagues a free vote in the parliament; has refused to discuss a Republic until after the Queen passes away; and his rhetoric on radical Islam has gradually become less nuanced than his early commentary in this space. Where Turnbull once mocked Direct Action he now presides over its continued rollout, with suggestions that he may widen the funding envelope for the scheme. The opposition leader who took a softer approach to asylum boat arrivals in 2009 is continuing Operation Sovereign Borders in 2016, keeping one of the parliament’s hard right conservatives, Peter Dutton, in the immigration portfolio. While Turnbull claims that there has never been a more exciting time to be alive, it’s apparently not exciting enough (nor is the government prepared to be agile enough) to juggle a republic debate with the myriad other issues on the agenda.

At the same time a moderate push to dominate pre-selection showdowns in New South Wales, as already alluded to, has been crimped by prime ministerial intervention to avoid disagreements impacting on the government’s performance. And little has changed in terms of the government’s approach to social services – the portfolio has been handed to a rising star amongst conservatives, Western Australian Christian Porter.

We shouldn’t overstate Turnbull’s track record for progressive political outcomes. Turnbull, while progressive on some social issues when religion doesn’t get in the way, defines himself more as an economic reformer – a policy script that no longer divides progressive and conservative Liberals. But it’s not all despair for progressives on the Liberal side now that Turnbull has taken over the leadership. It’s just that the changes have been far more muted than some might have hoped for, especially nonpartisan observers.

There are more women on the front-bench, as there should have been years ago. The agenda now includes an embrace of innovative industries, even if the minister charged with carrying out these duties is one of the parliament’s most careerist representatives. While Turnbull, like Abbott before him, comes from the NSW division, the power sharing within the government has seen the Victorian division rise in stature. Victorian Liberals are a more progressive collective than their counterparts in NSW, WA or Queensland. This shift has more potential to alter the progressive approach of the Liberal Party than the rise of Turnbull to the leadership, although it must be acknowledged that Turnbull has facilitated this. On the economic front Turnbull has shown a willingness to discuss reforms to tax and federation structures. Such adjustments if they are pursued represent a form of progressive political thinking, albeit limited to the economic sphere.

Where disagreements emerge between differing Liberal Party ideological tendencies, they are more defined by what approach best suits the political situation of the day than any guiding principles of philosophy. It has been quickly forgotten that this was the case even when Malcolm Turnbull was arguing for putting a price on carbon. The approach was based on a belief that if the conservatives didn’t do this they would suffer severe electoral repercussions at the hands of Kevin Rudd and his advocacy for action to address the ‘greatest moral and economic challenge of our generation’. Turnbull wasn’t initially standing on pure principle: slowness to act on climate change had been one of the factors that harmed Howard in his quest to win a fifth straight election. Turnbull lost the support of his party when the small number of strong opponents to the emissions trading scheme was joined by a larger number of Liberals who started to question the strategic electoral value in backing Rudd’s plan. The pragmatic origins of Turnbull’s support for a progressive climate change approach is crucial to understanding why he is now likely to be more pragmatic than progressively ideological.


Ultimately, Turnbull will not want to risk a split within the Liberal Party on ideological grounds. This will temper his policy positioning, certainly in an election year. It will be interesting to see if Turnbull emboldens his progressive approach on the other side of an election, secure in the knowledge he has obtained something of a mandate in his own right. That is the hope of moderates within the parliamentary team, and indeed within the party organisation. Of course critics might point out that without having spelled out an agenda with progressive policy scripts any mandate would be thin – at best built on the assumed intentions of Turnbull the individual.

The patronage of power has become the primary goal for many players from both major parties. The trappings of office – the cars, the travel, the extra staff and the salaries – matter as much, if not more so, than do the opportunities for reform that incumbency affords. Indeed the pursuit of reform becomes something functionaries who feel strongly about retaining power are cautious about because ‘doing stuff’ entails risks. Such thinking is the enemy of progressive politicking within both major parties, and presumably will be the subject matter of other chapters in this collection. Turnbull is not immune from it, and his capacity to change the culture of a conservative Liberal Party is limited. In an election year Turnbull may prize the legitimacy of victory above the policy goals he desires to implement.


1    Robert Menzies, Afternoon Light: Some Memories of Men and Events, Cassell, Melbourne, 1967, 286.

2    Turnbull was claiming that the Liberal Party is not run by factions. In the months that followed an all-out factional brawl erupted as the preselection showdowns for the 2016 election were opened.

3    For a thorough understanding of Brandis’s assessment of the philosophical direction of the Liberal Party and the factional divides that exist, including this quote, see George Brandis, ‘John Howard and the Australian Liberal tradition,’ in Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead, ed. Peter van Onselen, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2008, 48–79.

4    For a detailed examination of the factors which led to Abbott’s demise, as well as some of the positioning that Turnbull and his supporters engaged in prior to challenging Abbott, see Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2015.

5    It should be noted that the meeting of the Coalition party room highlighted that a majority of BOTH party rooms were opposed to same-sex marriage. The margin was greater within the Nationals.

6    The merger of the parties in Queensland has heightened the applicability of this point.

7    The other two were Senators Mathias Cormann and Brett Mason. The three penned a resignation letter to Turnbull and released it to the media.

8    Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, John Winston Howard: The Biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2007.

9    For more information on the rise of the careerist politician, see Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, ‘Ruling, not governing’, in Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System, eds Julianne Schultz and Anne Tiernan, 2016, 105–116.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer