Interview with Gideon Rachman on the Rachman Review

March 21, 2024
Podcasts
Transcripts

Gideon Rachman: Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times. This week’s podcast is about the threat to democracy in the western world. My guest is Malcolm Turnbull, who was prime minister of Australia between 2015 and 2018. Turnbull is a member of the Liberal party, which is a centre-right grouping. But as Australian prime minister, he clashed with president Donald Trump. He’s also a vocal critic of Rupert Murdoch. In the private sector, Turnbull has also produced a series of podcasts on defending democracy. So how big is the threat to western democracy?

Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t mince his words when discussing Donald Trump. As prime minister of Australia, he had to try and work with him and the experience obviously left its scars.

Malcolm Turnbull: The best way I can describe Trump and Putin — and it was palpable, this impression — was like a 12-year-old boy who turns up to high school and meets, on the first day, the captain of the football team. And he’s in awe. You know, my hero, my hero has arrived.

Gideon Rachman: The prospect that Trump will return to the White House raises some pretty profound questions for countries such as Australia and Britain that look to the US as their most important partner and as the leader of the western alliance. Some politicians on the right in Britain, including former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, have already all but endorsed Trump. Australian Conservatives have so far been much more cautious. So when I sat down with Malcolm Turnbull in his office in Sydney, I began our conversation by asking him how the Australian right would react if Trump won the US election.

Malcolm Turnbull: We will have to live with and deal with whoever the Americans elect as president. But it’s just simply disingenuous to suggest that there aren’t real consequences with the election of Trump part two. I mean, Trump was a chaotic, disruptive, destabilising force in international affairs during the four years of his first presidency. He undermined alliances and relationships in the west. He snuggled up to dictators and tyrants. I’ve seen it with Vladimir Putin. He’s in awe of Putin, there’s no question about that. He is fascinated with authoritarian leaders. You saw that it is bromance, self-described bromance with Kim Jong Un. He was similarly fascinated with Xi Jinping. He and the Republican right greatly adulate Viktor Orbán in Hungary. So this is not the American democratic values and ideals that we grew up with. It’s a different world.

Gideon Rachman: So where does that leave Australia and I in, like, the UK. What would you suggest we do if Trump wins?

 

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, the fundamental thing is we have to be more resilient and we have to be more self-reliant. I mean, America under Trump is less reliable. To pretend that that’s not the case is just self-delusion. And in a sense, Trump wants to be seen to be less reliable. He would say, this is how I get the Europeans to spend more money on their own defence. But, you know, where could a Trump Mark II lead us to? Most people feel he will sell Ukraine out. He will compel Ukraine to do a deal with Russia — presumably to give up the Donbas region and Crimea formally. And in effect, force them, simply by refusing to continue to provide military and financial support, force them to a negotiated deal. Now, whether that will be enough for Putin, who knows? Putin would see through Trump very easily. He knows exactly what he’s dealing with. How does he deal with China? Can he be relied on? The answer is that there is great uncertainty over that.

If you go back to 2016, when he was elected, I recall very vividly there was a meeting of Apec in Lima and the leaders of the Apec countries there. And the only topic on the agenda was: what next? There was a hope, indeed an expectation, that Trump would be institutionalised, that all of the crazy rhetoric on the campaign trail would be forgotten and the system would wrap its arms around him and he would become normalised. Well, of course, that was not the case. Quite the reverse happened. In some respects, he was wilder in office than he had been on the campaign trail. And I think he’s threatening to be even wilder again. So what the countries do, they will need, if they are smart, to be self-reliant. That may mean that they hedge closer to the authoritarian states in order to cut deals with them. You could see people in eastern Europe doing that, at one strategy, potentially. Another is to acquire nuclear weapons. Japan, of course, has a unique catastrophic history with nuclear weapons. But faced with China, faced with an uncertainty about whether America’s guarantee of protection is always gonna be available, you could see the arguments for . . . 

Gideon Rachman: And Australia, is that a debate here?

Malcolm Turnbull: No, it’s not, and I don’t think we would have the capacity to get there even if we wanted to. But Japan certainly could. I mean, Japan has got the technological capability to build their own nuclear weapons relatively quickly.

Gideon Rachman: I’ve heard six weeks.

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, I’ve heard six months. But either way, it’s not a very long time. But you can say that. And so if you start to get nuclear proliferation as people seek to be more independent, because the problem is if Trump is saying you’re on your own, the one thing people know is that if you’ve got nuclear weapons, you won’t be invaded. I mean, does anyone imagine the regime in North Korea would still be there if they didn’t have nukes?

Gideon Rachman: True. There’s a lot of debate about what caused people to turn to Trump-like figures. And there’s so many different factors. But something you’ve been quite outspoken about is what you regard as the malign influence of Rupert Murdoch. And you’ve also called for a commission inquiry into Murdoch’s influence on the press. Now he’s an Australian. I don’t know, he may not be anymore. I think he has the US passport

Malcolm Turnbull: No, he gave up his Australian citizenship in the days when you couldn’t have dual citizenship, and he needed to be an American citizen to buy American TV stations. I think we’re right back in the ‘80s, a long time ago.

Gideon Rachman: He owns a huge chunk of the Australian media.

Malcolm Turnbull: He does.

Gideon Rachman: So give me a sense of what you think the malign influence of Murdoch has been.

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, let’s look at the US in particular. Murdoch’s Fox News basically brought to America anger-tainment. It essentially had a business model that was based on making people angry, driving division, driving emotion. You know, it arose, if you like, out of rightwing talkback radio, the concepts of that. But it has become the dominant player in American politics and overwhelmingly the dominant player on the right wing of American politics. So you’ve seen America has become much more polarised, much more filled with hatred, animosity. Trump has been one of the great beneficiaries of that. Trump could not have existed without Fox. The relationship has been in recent last few years, you know, somewhat turbulent. But Fox endorsed Trump in 2016, even though Murdoch absolutely believed Trump was totally unfit to be president. He and his then-wife, sat with Lucy and me in our flat in New York, and he described why Trump was totally unfit because he knew him, obviously been in New York for a long time. But he supported Trump and he supported him because for Rupert, power is like a drug. I’ve known the guy for nearly 50 years. He’s not as ideological as people say. I think his son Lachlan is quite ideological. But for Rupert, it’s about power. And so he had the opportunity to get behind someone who, despite all of his shortcomings and inadequacies — from Murdoch’s point of view — nonetheless would be beholden to him in the White House. And again, having been with Trump and Murdoch, I have never seen a politician as deferential to Rupert Murdoch as Trump was at that time.

Gideon Rachman: And there’s quite a lot of deference from politicians . . . 

Malcolm Turnbull: That is. Yes, indeed. So I’ve seen quite a bit of it over the years. So, you know, Rupert got his man in the White House who would always take his call. And that’s what Murdoch got out of it. Obviously, Fox has been a fantastically successful business, but it has changed America. Now, that business model, of course, has been exported, and we see it in Australia with what’s called Sky News here. You know, the Australian Sky News, which is wholly owned by Murdoch. You see it to a similar extent, but obviously in a different way in the newspapers. Best word I can use for it is anger-tainment, and it is creating a more divided and more polarised society. Now it’s had a terrible impact in the United States. I mean, few would argue with the proposition that the United States is more divided and more angry than it’s been in its history, at least since the civil war. You know, house divided cannot stand. We know that. So these are huge threats.

Gideon Rachman: In Australia, I mean, you’ve had very turbulent politics. Three prime ministers on your side, but also massive turbulence on the Labour side.

Malcolm Turnbull: I think we’ve had a lot of coups that are more like palace coups than, you know, a result of huge disruptions in the society. I think what we’ve got going for us in Australia — and we’ve had them going for us for 100 years — are three really good things. One is compulsory voting. So everyone over the age of 18 has to be on the electoral roll. We think about 97 per cent of those people are, and they have to vote. Otherwise, you get fined $100. And so about 93 per cent or thereabouts do vote. So that’s important. So political parties don’t have to run off to the extreme to get the vote out as they do in America.

The second thing we’ve had for 100 years is preferential voting, what the Americans call ranked-choice voting. And that enables third parties and independents to come through the middle. Now, you’ve got a very good example of that in the last election here in 2022. The Liberal party, with a large L, the centre-right party, was seen as having swung too far to the right by a lot of its supporters after my defenestration. And in a number of these very safe Liberal seats, including my own of Wentworth, small independents ran. They were invariably progressive on climate, on social issues, and there were women. And what happened was that the incumbent Liberal MP, their primary vote, so their first-preference vote, went from something over 50 per cent down to about 40 per cent. The independents’ primary vote was about 30 per cent. And then you had Labour and the Greens and other independents with smaller votes. Because in a preferential voting system, your second and third preferences are distributed until somebody has an absolute majority, the Labour and Greens’ preferences went overwhelmingly to the independent, who then won the seat. And that happened in six electorates. Now, from the Liberal party’s point of view, that’s not good news. But from the democracy’s point of view, that’s a good example of how a party that’s swung too far to the right, whose party members, the branches, whatever, have become too rightwing, that party has been taught a lesson and basically been sent a message from the electorate saying unless you attack back to the centre, you’re not gonna get our support.

Now, if you look at the US, for example, if you take Liz Cheney in Wyoming, if there had been ranked-choice voting in Wyoming at a general election and she had run as an independent Republican, I think it’s pretty clear she would have won on Democrat preferences. So the official, you know, MAGA Republican might have got the plurality, but everybody else would have preferenced Liz Cheney. In the US, the two US states where they do have ranked-choice voting at the federal level — Maine and Alaska — both have Republican senators who are much more to the centre. So, you know, ranked-choice is very valuable.

The third thing we have here, which is critically important, is we have an independent electoral commission — a national federal electoral commission — and we have had for many, many years, generations. And it determines the boundaries of districts. So there’s no gerrymandering. There’s no politician or parliamentary committee that can draw the boundaries of the electorate. So all of that means that our electoral system tends to bring the political debate into the centre. And that, I think, offsets the tendency of the anger-tainment media, particularly Rupert’s, to try to push people off to the extreme. So electoral systems do matter.

Gideon Rachman: You do, however, have, I think, very interesting politics. You’ve just had this debate about the Voice — which I think many people outside Australia won’t be familiar with — but my attempt to a summary would be it was an effort to give Aboriginals a formal place in the constitutional set-up. It failed. In retrospect, what do you make of that whole exercise?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, look, it’s got a long history. Our constitution was a colonial document, was drafted in the 1890s, and it did not recognise, other than in frankly denigratory terms or discriminatory terms, Aboriginal Australians. And there has been a widely accepted consensus that we need to have indigenous recognition in our constitution. The challenge was the form of it. There became a move from about 2016, initiated really by the Aboriginal leadership, in particular, very charismatic gentleman called Noel Pearson, to argue that the constitution should be amended to provide that there would be a voice, an Aboriginal voice, there would be a representative assembly composed solely by indigenous Australians. And the purpose of this Voice was to provide advice on matters affecting indigenous Australians, which of course, is essentially all matters, to the parliament and the government. When this was raised with me as prime minister with my government, we did not support it. We had two objections to it. The most important one was we thought it had zero chance of being successful in a referendum. And secondly, we felt that it was important that in our constitution, the goal should be — particularly for me as a Republican — that every office under our constitution should be open to any Australian citizen, regardless of how long their family lived here. The debate proceeded. The Labour party was elected. They were committed to putting it up for a referendum. I supported it. In the . . . 

Gideon Rachman: (Inaudible) rest of the government.

Malcolm Turnbull: I had, because I took the view that once the decision had been made to put it up in a referendum, I thought less harm would be done by it being passed and by being defeated. It was roundly defeated, even though it had the support of the government and quite a few people on the non-Labour side of politics. But the arguments against it were very powerful. They weren’t racist documents, but the powerful argument against this was an egalitarian one. So in my view, it was a big mistake to try to put it in the constitution, not least because you didn’t need to change the constitution to set up an assembly of this kind. There have been indigenous-only consultative bodies before, and we could certainly have set one up again. And I think a better course of action would have been to set it up, get it running for a few years, and then when people knew what it was and what it looked like and what it did, then consider whether you wanted to entrench it in the constitution, because at least then people would know what they were voting for.

Gideon Rachman: You’ve been associated with a couple of honourable lost causes, if you like. The other one that you supported for a long time was the Republic, which is slightly surprising from somebody on the centre-right. I guess from the distance it is, anyway. Why do you think Australia has not opted to become a Republic and to cut the ties with the British monarchy?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, the Republic is a very different issue. Let me say a little bit about our referendum process. Under our constitution, to change it, you need to have a bill to amend the constitution passed by parliament. And then it has to be approved by a national majority, and a majority in four out of the six states. Now, because we have compulsory voting, the no case is advantaged by the fact that a lot of people who don’t have any interest in the issue, don’t know about it, haven’t bothered to read about it, are dragged along to the polling booths and said, you’ve got to vote: yes or no. And of course, if you don’t know, you’re more likely to vote no. So compulsory voting, which I strongly support, is for referendums very helpful to the no case. Now, with the Republic referendum in 1999, what brought that undone was the fact that the Republicans split relatively late in the day. Because a president in an Australian republic would be essentially a ceremonial figurehead like the queen or the governor-general, the mode of appointment was: a president of the same powers as the governor-general, chosen by a joint sitting of parliament with a two-thirds majority on the motion of the prime minister, seconded by the leader of the opposition. So, in other words, a bipartisan choice.

However, they developed this movement to say we should directly elect the president. And the direct electionists — a classic case of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good — campaigned against the Republic on the basis that they were saying, don’t worry, we’ll knock the sovereign. In a couple of years’ time, we’ll have another referendum with that preferred model. Well, that was 25 years ago. I think it can certainly come back, particularly now that the queen has passed away. But I think the way to do it is to settle the mode of appointment issue first. So I think the Republic can come back. I mean, the advantage of the Republic vis-à-vis the Voice is that with the Republic, your argument is: any Australian should be able to be president. So the Republican cause is very egalitarian. On the other hand, the Voice was very easily able to be represented as giving special rights to one group of Australians as opposed to another.

Gideon Rachman: So to conclude, there seemed also to be a certain small-c conservatism in Australia, because this is, you know, famously the lucky country. And 25 years on, while you’re being here, I must say, I keep bumping into Europeans and Americans who say, God, this place is great. You know, it’s stable. It’s prosperous.

Malcolm Turnbull: There is no doubt there is an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument. That’s the sort of traditional conservative argument against any change. But I mean, I think the Australians are actually very outward-looking, much more so than Americans. And all of us have got front-row ringside seats to that horror show in their politics. This is one of the reasons why I think if you had a plebiscite — which just focused on parliamentary appointment in a bipartisan way versus direct election — I think a lot of people who were initially attracted to direct election would then say, if we have a directly elected president, even if the constitution says the president’s powers are very limited, isn’t there the risk that a populist would run for it? You know, get it and use it as a bully pulpit. Whereas if you have a different mode of appointment, you won’t.

Gideon Rachman: Just to conclude, to bring us back to where we started, we’re talking about Australia’s rather blessed situation. We haven’t had a recession, I think, since the early 1990s. How vulnerable do you think Australians now feel in the world in which America is much less reliable, China is much more powerful?

Malcolm Turnbull: Look, Australians are increasingly anxious about the state of the world. Of course, the media, with the honourable exception of the Financial Times, of course, often does accentuate these things. If it bleeds, it leads. But, you know, frankly, the world is much less stable. You have revisionist authoritarian powers in Russia and China who are seeking to change the world order, the rules-based order for all of its deficiencies and flaws and contradictions. You also have a very turbulent America, and the prospect of Donald Trump is genuinely frightening to many people. I mean, just think about this. I mean, you have a Republican party, the alternative party of government in the United States, many of whose members are openly supportive of Vladimir Putin. And some of his most influential voices, including Tucker Carlson, are very openly supportive of Vladimir Putin. You have a Republican party, many of whose members do not want to give any further financial or military support to Ukraine, the only consequence of which would be a victory for Vladimir Putin. Is that the America — in effect, helping the Russians conquer a neighbouring democracy — is that really the America that we thought we were growing up with? And yet that is the view of a large percentage of the Republican party. And certainly, every American ally has got to be anxious today. We always felt in this country that whether it was a Democrat or Republican administration, American policy in this part of the world would be more or less consistent. In a world where Trump Mark II is a real possibility, I don’t think you can responsibly make that assumption any longer. Do you?

Gideon Rachman: No. Probably not.

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, there you go.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman: That was Malcolm Turnbull, former prime minister of Australia, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for listening and please join us again next week.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

To listen to the episode click here: Malcolm Turnbull on US and Australian politics (ft.com)

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