Keynote Address - Harvard Club of Washington DC, Washington DC 2022

May 6, 2022

Speech to the Harvard Club of Washington DC


The Honourable Malcolm Turnbull AC

29th Prime Minister of Australia


In less than three weeks Australians vote in parliamentary elections - all of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives and 40 of the 76  seats in the Senate are up for election. The next government will be formed by whomever is able to secure the support, at least in votes of confidence and supply,  of a majority of the members of the House.


While that contest is of vital importance to Australians, in many ways the most consequential political struggles, for all of us who believe in democracy, are being fought in this country, and in particular in this city of Washington.


The United States is not the largest democracy in the world, that of course is India, but it is the most consequential. If democracy were to fail here, if the attempted coup on January 6 2021 had been successful, the impact would be felt right around the world - every democracy would be diminished and every dictator, and wannabe dictator, made stronger.


The two leading authoritarian regimes, those of China and Russia, both contend that the United States and its western partners are decadent, decaying not just because of profound internal divisions but because there is no longer a common commitment or trust in the institutions of democracy. 


Chinese leaders for years have pointed to the inefficiencies of democracy, to the elevation of apparently unqualified people to the highest office - a community organiser followed by a reality TV star, whom they compare to their legions of engineers and other technocrats all with years of experience in government.


As the Governor of Liaoning said to me more nearly thirty years ago in Shenyang “Just because the majority of the people want to do something, doesn't mean it is right.” 


To which we would always reply that parliamentary democracy is the worst form of government, until you compare it to the alternatives.  


Let us remind ourselves, that if we love freedom, if we prefer democracy to tyranny, we will have to defend it. We have repair it when it is found wanting, we will have to make it work when it is dysfunctional, and we will have to call out those who are seeking to undermine it.


Talking with people in this city - in the administration, in the media, on the Hill - there is remarkable agreement on what has gone wrong. Hyper partisan mainstream media, particularly Fox News, has legitimised the type of crazy fact free, conspiracy laden content that used to be preserve of social media alone. One congressman said to me last week “Fox is the toxic background music to everything we do.” 


Increasingly people are living in a media echo-system that confirms their prejudices, fires up their anxieties and creates an environment in which they can, for example, sincerely believe that Joe Biden stole the last Presidential election or that the government is controlled by a cabal of child abusers.


We are seeing more and more examples of right wing media working with right wing populist politics in a symbiotic political ecosystem - Fox News and the Republican Party being the best known example.


While Russian missiles were raining down on apartment buildings and schools in Ukraine, Fox News personalities were busy promoting pro-Kremlin talking points1.  Tucker Carlson went further and passionately defended President Putin. 


A few years ago, many of us would have shrugged, evoked Voltaire, and reassured ourselves that truth will prevail in the marketplace of ideas. We are learning that merely elevating truthful content will not be enough to change our current course. 


We are drowning in lies. 


Many of you may have seen the New York Times’ excellent features on Mr Carlson whose top rating show on Fox News embodies so much of what is damaging American democracy. But I wonder how many of the New York Times readers were familiar with the full gamut of his extravagant conspiracy theories before they read about in the Times?


Twenty years ago, most media for commercial reasons sought to acquire the broadest possible audience. The cost of production was high and you needed a lot of eyeballs to justify the prices you charged your advertisers. As a consequence most of us relied upon the same outlets for news and information which, while it may have leaned left or right in its opinion pages, more or less covered the news as it happened.


Today the cost of producing and distributing news and information is lower than ever - any smart phone has more recording and broadcasting capability than a 1990s television news crew. 


The Internet, and not just social media, has made narrowcasting very profitable. Social media has meant that much, if not most, of the content viewed online is not curated by an editor or director - a tweet, a facebook post or a tiktok generated by any user can potentially reach millions, if not billions.


And so the consequence of all of this is that we are increasingly living in almost hermetically sealed information bubbles - far from creating a digital commons where citizens can debate and share opinions, we are seeing digital echo chambers some of which are untethered to reality.


If lying and disinformation are at the heart of it, surely the truth is the antidote. But what if many people actually want to be lied to? How else can you explain why only 21% of registered republicans believe Biden was legitimately elected?2  Or what if they have become so persuaded that everyone in authority is a liar and nobody can be trusted, that they no longer care?


Australia has not been immune to this. Rupert Murdoch has the largest voice in Australia’s media. His outlets, to différing extents, have gone down the same populist partisan track as Fox News. Sky News Australia is the local Murdoch owned subscription television service and has essentially the same model as Fox. 


You may recall that during the massive bushfires two years ago the Murdoch media were claiming, in Australia and here in the US, that the fires were not a consequence of global warming, but rather of arsonists…This was quickly debunked by the head of the NSW firefighting agency and in fact less than 1% of the land burnt could be attributed to arson.3


Now, while both here and in Australia we struggle with solutions to these problems of media misinformation which are consistent with freedom of speech, I thought it would be useful for me to talk about some of the less well known  features of Australian  democracy that add stability and to some extent offset the increasingly crazy media landscape.


The right to vote


Australians do trust their electoral system.4 Just a few weeks ago Australia recorded the biggest single day of enrolments in its history, 96% of the eligible population is enrolled to vote.5 


It is fundamental to our conception of democracy that everyone over the age of 18 should be on the electoral roll and that they should vote. More importantly we do everything we can to make it easy to vote. There are two weeks of pre poll voting, postal voting is widely available and polling day itself is on a Saturday so that most people do not have to take time off work. 


Compulsory voting


Australia is also one of only 19 nations to make it compulsory to enrol and to vote.6


We are genuinely appalled that so many people in the American political system regard it as legitimate to try to game the system to prevent one group of people or another from exercising their democratic right to vote.


I might note that Australians are prone to vote even if it is not compulsory. In 2017 my government held a nation wide voluntary postal ballot on the question of legalising same sex marriage. The participation rate was just under 80% and the Yes vote was 62%.




In Australia the responsibility for drawing federal electorate boundaries lies with the federal government and that is the responsibility of an independent electoral commission. As a consequence, while candidates and parties may complain (and formally appeal) over redistricting decisions, there are no claims of gerrymandering.7


Preferential Voting


Another feature of our electoral system is what we call preferential, or ranked choice, voting. So if there are ten candidates a voter will number boxes next to their names 1 -10. If no candidate achieves a simple majority of first preference votes, the last ranking candidate’s preferences are distributed until one candidate has a majority of all votes cast. 


This means nobody’s vote is wasted and that the winner will not simply be somebody who has a plurality of votes - more than anyone else - but someone who has been chosen by a majority of voters (albeit in some cases as a second or third choice).


To give you an example - imagine an electorate with 4 candidates who respectively get 35%, 30%, 25% and 10% of the primary votes. In a first past the post system the candidate with 35% will win. But in our system, to make it simple, if all of the preferences from the third and fourth finishing candidates went to the second, she would win with 65% of what we call the two party preferred vote. 


These electoral rules have some very important consequences.


Everyone gets a say - the most fundamental point.


When political parties can draw their own boundaries they almost invariably make their safe seats safer reducing the number of contestable districts.8 The consequence of super safe districts is that the election that matters is the primary and so candidates will take extreme positions that appeal to the most partisan in their respective parties.


The combination of independently drawn boundaries and compulsory voting means that more electorates are contestable and because everyone has to vote there is no need to take extreme positions to fire up your political base and get them to turn out. This contributes to a more relaxed atmosphere on polling day - complete with the traditional sausage sizzle. 


Equally a contestable electorate means that if a party does choose to endorse a candidate with extreme views they will be unlikely to hold the seat. So contestability is in everybody’s interests except the incumbents!


Big Tent Parties captured by extremes


In many countries, including Australia and the US, you have a big political party on the centre right and on the centre left. In our country the Labor Party, historically the political wing of the trade union movement, is the main party on the left, and my party, the Liberal Party, is the main one on the right - a misnomer you could say, but its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, was anxious to ensure that the party was not narrowly perceived as a conservative party, like its counterpart in the UK.


Historically these parties were big tents or broad churches with members with a wide range of views, and inevitably that meant that the left of the centre right party often overlapped with the right of the centre left party thus enabling the type of cooperation and compromise that all democratic systems depend on if they are to function effectively.


In recent times however, and especially in the Trump dominated GOP, a big tent party can be hijacked and those who don’t share the views of the dominant faction are either driven out or rendered irrelevant. 


Australia has not been immune to this trend, although not to the same degree as here. My own party called Liberal has in the past been a combination of both the liberal and conservative traditions, but since my deposition in 2018 it is fair to say that the liberal, or moderate, voices have been marginalised and their influence is much diminished and diminishing - especially on the toxically controversial issue of climate change where the political right, supported by Murdoch’s media, have opposed effective action for many years.


So what does a traditional voter for, say, the Liberal Party in Australia or the Republican Party in the US do if they think their party has moved too far to the right? They can vote for the other side - Labor in Australia, Democrats in the US - but that may be a bridge too far. To quote Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, “I don’t really know what the party stands for anymore…I think mentally I feel more like an independent than a Republican.”9


In Australia, the existence of preferential voting opens up another option and we are seeing it play out in this election. In a number of hitherto safe Liberal seats, residents have organised to support small “l” liberal independent candidates who are typically progressive on climate and social issues, but more conservative than Labor on economic issues.


If such an independent can get enough primary votes to finish second behind the Liberal incumbent, and if that incumbent’s vote is reduced to around 40% or less then the independent will likely win on the preferences of Labor, the Greens and other independents.


In many respects this may be the most interesting part of the whole election, because if more of these “teal”10 independents win, it will mean the capture of the Liberal Party will be thwarted by direct, democratic action from voters. People power, you might say.


Of course the big parties’ arguments against independents is always the same - instability, chaos and so on. But in truth, many parliaments, including in Australia, have operated with stability and good effect with major parties requiring the support of independents or minor parties to pass legislation and, in fact, in our Senate that has almost always been the case. Formal coalitions are also very common - the Liberal Party has always been in coalition with the (rurally based) National Party for example.  Political instability invariably comes from internal ructions within the major, governing parties not from independents on the cross benches.


Imagine what it would mean here if traditional Republican voters were able to vote for an independent Republican who better represented their values than Mr Trump’s pick and who could go on to win a district on Democrat preferences.  By direct democratic action, voters could ensure they have, in this case, the centre right representatives that best share the values and political agendas of the majority of the electorate. 

In other words, even if the members of a political party cannot escape from the thrall of the dominant faction, their traditional supporters in the electorate can do so by voting for an independent who has a real chance of success.


To conclude, there are clear solutions to the electoral problems I have discussed - and while it is easy to throw reform in this area into the too hard basket, I cannot emphasise enough that just as disaster follows neglecting repair and maintenance of industrial systems, so too does neglect imperil the continuance of our democratic institutions. If January 6 did anything it should have banished complacency.








[7] Of course in any parliamentary system it is possible, but rare, for a party to win a majority, even a large majority, of seats with a minority of votes - if my seats are won with majorities of 50% plus one, and yours with majorities of 60% plus won, I will win more seats with the same number of total votes

[8] “Over the last decade, nearly 90 percent of congressional races held in states where legislators drew the district lines resulted in easy victories — margins of 10 percentage points or greater — for one party or the other, according to a POLITICO analysis. The rate of competitive races was almost twice as high in states where courts or commissions drew the districts.”


[10] In Australia the traditional colour of the Liberal Party is blue, that of the Labor Party red - many of these independents have chosen teal - a bluey green - to distinguish themselves

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