News Satire People Food Other

Malcolm Turnbull: Still Fighting Fit

By Em Allen on September 2, 2012 in

Photo: Andrew Goldie

During the month The Beast caught up with Malcolm Turnbull, one of the very few Australian politicians that has a grip on reality…

It’s been five years since we last spoke to you on the record, how have you been?
Good, good. Still fighting fit.

Since we last time spoke, the Coalition has lost two elections you’ve held the leadership and lost the leadership, and it looks like you’re going to smash the opposition in the next election; do you wish you were still at the helm rather than Tony?
Not really. I honestly don’t think about it that much. I just focus on what I’m doing at the moment. Tony is doing a good job and that’s reflected in the polls. There’s certainly no wish to create any grief for Tony by talking about the leadership.

Are you still enjoying political life?
Yeah, very much so.

Is there anything you miss about your former life, pre politics?
Yeah, I do. I enjoy business very much. I think you’re much more autonomous in business than you are in politics and I miss that. Not in a grieving sort of way or in a serious way, because I’m very happy with what I’m doing. You don’t want to do the same thing all your life.

In saying that, how long are you giving yourself in politics?
That’s up to the good burgers of Wentworth. I’m certainly running again, so if they elect me I’ll be doing it for another three years. I can’t see myself getting out of parliament any time soon but no one’s there forever.

When you lost the Liberal leadership, how close were you to throwing in the towel and walking away?
Pretty close. I said I was not going to run again and then I realised that was a big mistake and so I did a back flip. It’s my only political back flip I think to date.

What was it that made you decide to stick with it?
It was a very finely balanced decision and I was extremely undecided about it. I guess in large part it was one of those decisions where you only realise you’ve made the wrong decision after you’ve made it, and fortunately it was something I could retrieve. I was really blown away by the thousands of people who contacted me and urged me not to resign and that was very influential in my decision.

Was it a dent to the confidence when you lost the leadership?
Yes, it certainly was. It does knock you around a little bit, those setbacks, but you have to recover and bounce back from them and I did.

How did your wife and family feel about your decision?
They’re very supportive and they’re happy if I’m doing what makes me happy.

When we last spoke you said you wouldn’t push for a Republic again until the Queen dropped off her perch. Are you a little disappointed that she’s still kicking around?
No, I wish her a very long life but I don’t think a Republican referendum will be successful until after the end of her reign.

So you don’t think we’re getting any closer with everyone probably despising the British a little bit more now due to their dominance over Australia in the Olympics?
I don’t think anyone’s despising the British. I think there’s a lot of admiration for the great Olympic Games they’ve put on and their incredibly good performance.

Do you buy into the argument that the Government is to blame for our poor performance at the Olympics?
Even though I’m in the Opposition I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t think Julia Gillard’s responsible for us not winning enough gold medals. I’m sure there are a few people who do think that though. The only thing I would say is that I’m sure we can do better but bear in mind that every year the Olympic Games gets more competitive, every year there are more countries, more of the developing countries become affluent enough and have the resources to be able to put into sports and so you’re getting more competition all the time. I think we’ve just got to recognise that every Olympics it gets harder and harder. You’ve got to work hard.

Gay marriage – should it really be such a big issue? Isn’t it time that we just moved forward and accepted that being gay is a normal part of life for some people and they should be afforded the same rights as any other Australian?
Well I think so, yeah.

That opinion conflicts with party policy though doesn’t it?
Well the party’s policy at present is to not support gay marriage and the party’s policy regrettably also is not to allow conscience vote on the issue. I, you know, in a number of the State parliaments I think we’ve had conscience votes on similar issues and we’ve had conscience votes on similar issues relating to marriage in the Federal Parliament but I think it’s a change that will come in time, it’s just a question of when.

Can you quickly explain for our readers what a conscience vote actually is?
Well, the Liberal Party is different from Labor in the sense that we don’t expel people if they vote against the party line. So anyone can cross the floor. We respect individual members’ right to vote on their conscience. However, when I say a conscience vote what I really mean is a free vote and where you’ve got a free vote then anyone can cross the floor including members of the executive, that is to say of the front bench. So if there was a gay marriage bill and I wanted to vote for it I could cross the floor and stay in the Liberal Party but I’d have to resign from the front bench and I just don’t think that is in anyone’s interests for me to do that at the present time.

Surely allowing gay marriage is inevitable, isn’t it?
I think nothing’s inevitable but I think it probably is pretty close to being inevitable. It’s just a reality that we’ve got to come to grips with.

The religious argument seems to come into it a bit. How relevant do you think religion is in today’s society in Australia?
I think it’s more relevant for some people than others. Australians aren’t great churchgoers compared to Americans for instance. Most marriages are not celebrated by priests or ministers of religion; most marriages are celebrated by civil celebrants. So while the churches are entitled to have their opinion, they don’t have a veto over who can get married under the Australian Marriage Act.

Are you a religious man?
I certainly believe in God but I’m not a God botherer. I go to church from time to time, and not as regularly as I should, but I actually I enjoy the liturgy of the mass. I’m a Catholic, but I’m certainly not pious. The Catholic Church is a very good church for sinners. I’m one of the sinners.

Should religion influence major decisions in Parliament?
Well, yes and no. I think for most decisions in Parliament, religion doesn’t really have a view on them. I mean, it’s pretty hard to find much guidance in the scriptures about, how the NBN should be rolled out or what tax should be levied on corporations, and so on and so forth. I think we’ve got the ability to reason. If you’re religious you believe God has given us great intellect and we should use those intellects to come up with the right answers.

Sorry to harp on about leadership, but do you still harbour aspirations of becoming prime minister of Australia?
Honestly, I don’t discuss leadership issues. I really don’t.

Is it something that you’d like to be though, Prime Minister of Australia?
It’s something I’d really like not to keep going on and on about because everyone asks me the same question because they’re trying to create some friction between me and Abbott.

I think everyone just wants you to be Prime Minister…
That’s kind of them and I’m grateful for that. If people do want that I’m grateful. I’d say as long as you’re in the House of Representatives you’re in with a chance but some people have got a better chance than others.

Assuming you guys win the next election and Tony Abbott is PM, what cabinet position would you like most in an Abbott Government?
It doesn’t really matter what I’d like. I’ve got no reason to doubt that I will be responsible for communications and broadband. That’s my role.

What do you think of the current progress being made with the NBN?
Well, they’ve made very little progress. As far as we know, they’ve got less than 5,000 people connected to the fibre network so far.

What have they spent thus far?
Lots – some billions.

If you got into government what are you going to do to rectify things? What’s the solution? Is there a solution?
Well there is a solution. What we will do is we will complete the build of the NBN and we will do it sooner and we’ll do it cheaper and it will be more affordable. In large part the reason we’ll do it that way is because we won’t do fibre to every house, we will bring the fibre further into the field and hook it up to the legacy copper so that the length of the copper is short enough to enable you to run very high speeds – 50, 80 megabits per second – more than sufficient for domestic purposes. The bulk of the cost of this network is in the last mile, as it were, and it’s all in the civil works, not in the gear. It’s just in the labour. So we would save an enormous amount of money.

Do you think because Labor is full of union guys with minimal business experience they just don’t understand the value of money?
There’s a remarkable lack of business expertise or experience in the cabinet. I don’t think there’s anyone there with the possible exception of Peter Garrett who has ever run a business, assuming you could say Midnight Oil was a business. I think that is a big part of their problem but it’s hard to explain. When they got elected in 2007 they said that the Commonwealth would not invest in any major infrastructure project without a rigorous cost benefit analysis being conducted first and that made sense, but here they are, they’ve refused to do a cost benefit analysis on the NBN and it’s the biggest infrastructure project in the country’s history.

Here’s a question from one of our readers: You’ve canvassed yourself as a progressive, taking untraditional, unconservative positions – which is why you lost the leadership – so why is Malcolm Turnbull a member of the Liberal Party?
I’ve never been a member of any other party. I’ve always been in the Liberal Party, that’s to say when I’ve been a member of a political party, and I think the difference is that I believe in free enterprise and I believe my core political values are essentially Liberal ones.

Would you ever start your own political party?

Too much work?
Well, let’s just say I’m not planning to start a new political party.

Is there room for a new political party in Australia?
I don’t think it’s ever been easier to start a new political party. With social media in particular and the Internet your ability to communicate to large numbers of people at what is a relatively low cost has never been greater. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we do see new parties starting up but I’m not planning to start one.

In light of Julia Gillard becoming PM twice without really winning an election, do you think our democracy is fundamentally flawed?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s fundamentally flawed. We’ve got a hung parliament, we’ve had hung parliaments before and we may well have them in the future. I think our democracy’s working pretty well, frankly.

What would you list as your biggest achievement over the last five years?
We’ve obviously been in Opposition but I think our biggest achievement has been stopping the Labor Party from doing even crazier things than they otherwise would have done. We stopped them setting up ‘Rudd Bank’, which was a crazy idea for a new government bank to lend money to struggling property developers and projects. They would have lost billions on that. We also mounted a rational case for spending less money in the stimulus. Ultimately we didn’t succeed in getting them to cut the level of the stimulus but I think history has proven that we were right when you look at all the billions that were wasted on pink batts and school halls. And I think equally with the NBN; we’ve put together a cogent, sensible alternative but there’s not much we can do to implement that unless we get into government.

Do you think we would have been better off going into recession for a couple of quarters and still having all that surplus saved up rather than blowing the whole lot just to avoid a recession?
I don’t think the stimulus actually made a very big impact. The only part of the stimulus that I think really had much benefit was probably the cash handout. The pink batts were a disaster as we know and with the school halls, by the time the money started being spent on them the economy was already recovering. The cash handouts had some impact, I grant you that, but they could have gone about it in a very different way and we proposed what I think would have been a much more effective stimulus spending less than half the money.

Nearly everyone that I know that got that $900 either went to Bali or spent it on bags of coke…
I guess that was really the worst sort of stimulus.

You’ve never indulged yourself?

What is the likelihood of China invading Australia? Do we need to worry about it?
Do you think you’re at risk sitting here at Bronte Beach? Do you think the Chinese might be just about to storm up the sand, do you? The answer is no. China have actually shown no signs of being territorial expansionists at all. They’ve obviously got some disputes with their neighbours about some islands in the South China Sea but in terms of territorial expansion there’s really no sign of that. In fact, quite the contrary. So I don’t see China as a military threat to Australia. Having said that, you’ve got to hedge against all contingencies and possibilities, so that’s undoubtedly what our army and navy and air force plan to do. You’ve got to bear in mind that situations can change and people that you don’t see as a threat could become a threat. But do I lose any sleep at night thinking that we’re about to go to war with China? No, I don’t.

Without mining is the Australian economy stuffed?
Without mining the Australian economy would be growing at a much lower rate and may well actually not be growing at all at the moment, so I think mining’s been enormously important.

Are people paying enough to take minerals out of the ground and sell them elsewhere?
Well, I think the answer is that is really a matter for the States. One of the great mistakes of the Rudd and now Gillard mining tax is that royalties are a State responsibility and there are enormous problems with the Federal Government getting into that area from a constitutional point of view. I think the States have jacked up royalties somewhat and I really think it is appropriately dealt with by them.

What’s the future for Australia beyond the mining boom?
For us to be successful going forward, and this is whether there’s a mining boom or not, we have to be much smarter and more innovative. We’ve got to recognise that in a converging world everything is much more competitive. You’ve got developing countries that are acquiring the skills and the education to be able to do a lot of the things that we’ve done and to do so competitively and often cheaper than us. Technology and the Internet are making a lot of industries and jobs trade exposed that previously hadn’t been. So how do you maintain Australia as a high wage, developed economy with a high standard of living? The answer is you just have to get smarter and smarter and smarter and so you’ve got to continue to invest in skills, in education and you’ve got to encourage a culture that is genuinely innovative. That is absolutely critical.

Some people are of the opinion that the biggest problem with Australia is that there are too many people. In your opinion, what is the ideal population for Australia?
Look, I think the ideal population is the one that can be supported sustainably and I’ve got no doubt Australia could have a substantially higher population than we have today. But you’ve got to build the infrastructure and the services to support it. The great mistakes state governments have made, particularly here in NSW, this is mostly the Carr Government including successors, is allowing continued growth in the outer suburbs but not building the public transport and the other social services to support them. Here in the Eastern Suburbs, this is the most densely settled part of Australia. People don’t complain about overpopulation or congestion here very much.

You don’t reckon?
Not that much because they’ve got good public transport. I mean the most densely settled part of Australia is Potts Point and Kings Cross. What people complain about there is violence and so forth but they don’t say it’s too congested because they can get to work, they can get around on public transport and they’ve got that amenity. Where you get the really serious problems is if you look at suburbs of the big cities where they’ve got a lot more development. They’ve poured in more apartment blocks so they’ve got denser population but they haven’t done anything to provide additional transport.

Do you reckon Craig Thomson was pumping hookers or do you believe his alibi?
I don’t think many people have found his defence very persuasive but I think it’s a matter ultimately for the legal system.

In an ideal world what does the future hold for Malcolm Turnbull?
Well, hopefully a long and healthy and productive life, and I’ll look forward to getting back into government soon, which I hope we will. I look forward to sorting out the NBN. I think it’s important that all Australians have access to very fast broadband but we’ve got to deliver it in a timely way and also cost effectively.