The Turnbull Government Doesn’t Understand That Politics Is About Values

Written by:
10 March 2017
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Francis Fukuyama, Tony Blair and George Christensen all know something that Scott Morrison and the rest of Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet have not yet realised. Politics is now primarily about values – not economics.

When cultural values were agreed upon between the major political parties and shared throughout the community, politicians could afford to spend much of the time discussing economics. It’s not that values have ever been less important than economics – because they haven’t – it’s just that there was no need for politicians to talk about values because those values weren’t being challenged or debated. Until quite recently communities in western liberal democracies had assumed their values were settled and secure.


Precisely what those values were is the subject of debate, but their broad contours can be discerned. A commitment to the country in which you lived, as expressed for example by singing the national anthem was one. Another value was gender equality, expressed for example by men shaking hands with women. Another was that all people should be equal in the eyes of the law, and treated equally regardless of background. Those values of culture and society can be given any number of names including “traditional values”, “liberal democratic values”, or even “the values of Western Civilisation”. Of course whether those values are worth defending is now hotly contested. In an interview on ABC Radio Canberra last week, Professor Simon Rice, from the Australian National University, said that freedom of speech, something which until recently would have been assumed to be a core liberal democratic value, is only a concern to “white middle-class comfortable people”.

Cultural relativism, mass migration, and the development of transnational political governance are all challenging those values. Voters around the world are increasingly looking to politicians who are at least trying to understand what is occurring. Whether those politicians can do anything about what’s happening is almost beside the point. Voters want someone to listen to them and acknowledge their concerns.


Which is why what federal treasurer Scott Morrison said about freedom of speech a few days ago was so jarring. He said that he didn’t even want to talk about freedom of speech in Australia and potential reforms of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act because “this issue doesn’t create one job, doesn’t open one business, doesn’t give anyone one extra hour. It doesn’t make housing more affordable or energy more affordable”. Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said freedom of speech “will not build an extra road”. But building roads and restoring freedom of speech are not incompatible.

When Turnbull and Morrison do get the opportunity to fight on their favoured terrain of economics they fluff their lines. It took them more than a fortnight to decide what to say about the impact on employment of the decision of the Fair Work Commission to cut penalty rates.

What Turnbull and Morrison don’t understand is that if they don’t want to speak about values, voters will look for someone who does. George Christensen, the Liberal National Party MP from northern Queensland, is happy to talk about values and strongly supports reforming Section 18C.


Tony Blair in The New York Times last Friday analysed – somewhat ironically given his government’s decade-long attempt to dismantle traditional British society – the new politics of values and culture.

“Politics is being reshaped, and this phenomenon is the same whether it is in the United States or in Europe [or in Australia] … This is a revolution that is partly economic, but mainly cultural … The causes of this movement are the scale, scope and speed of change. This is occurring economically as jobs are displaced and communities fractured, culturally as the force of globalisation moves the rest of the world closer and blurs the old boundaries of nation, race and culture.”

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama made a similar point in an interview last week. He is utterly disdainful of Donald Trump and “his utter lack of qualification for the job, be it preparation, character or temperament …”, nevertheless Fukuyama correctly comprehends what got Trump elected president.

For Fukuyama “It’s not only economics that drives a people – identity and culture matter, too! There is currently a minuscule elite that consider themselves as global citizens, where geography and culture don’t seem to matter. If this elite thinks that the rest of the world thinks like them, they’re wrong.”

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