Malcom Turnbull Speaks His Mind

A revealing interview on the climate crisis and more with the former Prime Minister of Australia

Vanessa Schipani
Vanessa Schipani

Vanessa Schipani is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at Penn and prior to the PhD was a journalist for over 10 years, including for

Malcom Turnbull knows how to manage his time. Seeing as he’s a former Prime Minister of Australia, this should come as no surprise. For the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media’s (PCSSM) inaugural event on September 13, Turnbull visited the Perry World House to have a conversation with Michael Mann, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Directors of the PCSSM and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, respectively.

Promptly at 5:15pm, in the middle of the concluding announcements of the event, Turnbull walked off stage, gracefully apologizing that he had another meeting starting then. Some might take this as rude or inconsiderate. I found it admirable because it exhibited a certain bluntness, a certain disregard for formalities that I share, which is a trait rare among politicians. I’m not the first to observe these characteristics in Turnbull. According to a don at Oxford University, where Turnbull studied as a Rhodes Scholar, Turnbull was “always going to enter life’s rooms without knocking.” I suppose that goes for his exits as well.

Much like his time management, his answers to my questions exhibited a certain bluntness. We spoke about his many careers prior to becoming a politician as well as his views on Australian party politics, helping developing countries respond to climate change and holding the media accountable when they promote falsehoods. His exit from our conversation, like his exit from the stage, was quick and yet courteous. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve had a lot of different careers. You were a lawyer, an investment banker, a journalist. I’m curious to know why none of those careers stuck.

I started off as a journalist when I was at the University of Sydney. When I was at law school, I had had a full-time job as a journalist covering the state parliament for a few outlets, for a television station, a radio station and a weekly newspaper. Then when I went to study in the UK at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, I had a job at The Sunday Times. I was the sort of student that professors despair of because I was always skiving off to do a story. When I was working at The Sunday Times, the editor was the late Harold Evans. Harry was a legend in those days. This is back in 1978. I remember him trying to persuade me not to continue my legal studies and instead focus on journalism. He said, if you continue studying law, you could end up becoming a lawyer, or worse still, a judge, or even worse – a politician. At least I didn’t become a judge. I enjoyed my journalistic days.

Did you always know you wanted to get into politics?

Yes, it was always an interest of mine. Indeed, shortly after I got back from Oxford in the early 1980s, there was a Liberal Party preselection for a seat in Wentworth, the district in Australia where we lived. I ran just for the hell of it and nearly won it. I was very relieved when I didn’t. I always stayed interested in politics, but I didn’t run again for federal Parliament until 2004.

You’re a member of the Liberal Party in Australia, which is actually center right. But you take what many would consider quite left leaning positions on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and climate change. To an American, this might seem strange. Why have you decided to call this party home?

It’s true that the center of American political gravity is very much to the right of where it sits in Australia. Having said that, the Liberal Party has moved very much to the right more recently. My leadership was brought down twice by the right wing of the party who always found me too progressive, especially too interested in taking action on global warming.

The Liberal Party was founded after the Second World War by Robert Menzies, who was Prime Minister for a very long time in Australia, from 1949 to 1966. He called it the Liberal Party deliberately because he didn’t want it to be seen as solely a conservative party. So, there’s always been this tension in the Liberal Party between what you could call conservative elements and small-L liberal elements. I was definitely from the small-L liberal side of the congregation.

Ultimately, I joined the Liberal Party because I was very much a classical, small-L liberal. I guess I’m just naturally inclined towards the free enterprise, liberal view of the world. But look, if I was 25 years of age today and I was picking a party to join, I don’t know that I would join the Liberal Party, unless I wanted to change it, because it has swung too far to the right. And that’s why so many of its hitherto safest electorates have recently been won by small-L liberal independents, who are all women, all progressive on social issues and all strongly in favor of taking action on global warming.

Speaking of global warming, during the event at the Perry World House, you made a point about emissions from developing countries. You mentioned that developing countries shouldn’t be able to continue using fossil fuels, despite the fact that developed countries have historically benefited from doing so. The climate problem is too dire, you said. But some – in particular, developing countries themselves – might argue this isn’t fair. Is there a way around this moral problem?

Let’s start with a fundamental point: If India, for example, were to reach the same level of emissions per capita as the United States or Australia, the planet will be doomed. So, what we need to do is to make sure the rich world is providing the technology to enable the clean energy transition to occur across the globe. The good news is that generating electricity with wind and solar competes with the price of burning coal.

If you think about it, with renewables you don’t need a gigantic national grid. You can have a solar farm and batteries in a rural community, and that community can be energy independent. They can use that solar power to connect themselves to the internet and satellites. So, there’s a lot of liberating aspects to the distributed nature of renewables. Mitigation-wise then, the moral problem is solved by sharing technology, particularly with poorer countries, by providing funding to support the transition to clean energy.

In terms of adaptation, you’ve got some gigantic issues. It is perfectly reasonable for a country like Bangladesh, let alone the Pacific Islands, to say we want the rich world – the people who put all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – to support us as we adapt to the consequences. Now, that might mean for coral atolls that will be submerged that we provide resettlement opportunities. It might mean that they move to New Zealand or Australia. In a place like Bangladesh, the challenges are just gigantic. Clearly, there are areas where people are going to have to retreat from, and we need to provide support for that.

The bottom line is, we in the rich world have got to recognize the mistakes that have been made, some of them in a negligent fashion, some of them because people didn’t know any better. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all on the same planet, and we have to act that way.

I also wanted to ask you about your response to a question during the event by a member of the audience, Michael Weisberg, who’s a professor at Penn and on the internal advisory board for the PCSSM. I should also mention he’s my PhD advisor, which is probably why I liked his question. He asked you about how we should respond when members of the media promote falsehoods, pointing specifically to the Rupert Murdoch media empire, which includes Fox News. You said that we should hold the media accountable, but you simultaneously said you’re no fan of censorship. Can we hold the media accountable without censoring them at all? It seems like there’s a tension there. 

The difficulty with censorship is that defining the right parameters for what speech you do not allow is very hard. If outlets are publishing information that is encouraging people to commit acts of violence or self-harm or giving them demonstrably false information about drugs, for example, I think most societies would feel restrictions on that are legitimate. Otherwise, people will generally say it should be left to the defamation laws.

Just putting the algorithm problem of social media to one side, the challenging thing we’ve got at the moment is that the so-called ‘mainstream media’ see themselves as operating partisan political platforms in which they seem to take no responsibility for peddling falsehoods – Fox News being the classic case. One example is the big lie that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen. That lie had real consequences. This is where you’ve got to ask yourself – is there something wrong if mainstream media platforms are actually disinformation operations that are sowing discord and division and spreading lies to undermine trust in the legitimacy of government?

To be clear, I don’t think we should censor this kind of speech. But we need the shareholders of the cable companies that broadcast news services that tell lies to take action. Advertisers should take action, too. We’ve had some successful advertiser boycotts of really maliciously misogynistic, destructive broadcasters – shock jocks, as we call them in Australia. People have got to take them on. It’s one thing to say the government’s no good or the president is hopeless or Congress is full of lazy people –express all of those opinions. But peddling lies has done enormous damage to the United States. So, business has got to be prepared to stand up and be counted.

So you think holding the media accountable shouldn’t involve censorship, especially from the government, but we need to use economic tools to stifle media organizations that promote falsehoods?

That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

But the algorithm problem in social media and the problem with the mainstream media are connected in a way – misinformation sells. So, that makes me wonder whether the economic tools you speak of are enough to solve this problem. Many scholars, including Victor Pickard in Penn’s Annenberg School of Communication, are worried about deeper problems with profit-driven journalism. His solution is greater government funding for journalism. What’s your take on public funding for the media?

I don’t agree that ‘for profit’ media is inconsistent with integrity in reporting. And government funding does not necessarily drive independent journalism – in fact, quite the reverse. The BBC and ABC are the exceptions. It’s a complex problem. Clearly, in licensed media the government can impose a fairness doctrine as used to be the case in the U.S. But so little media nowadays uses or needs to use licensed spectrum. So, I still think the answers include holding publishers to account by calling them out and pressuring business not to advertise with publishers who publish disinformation.

I’d like to ask you specifically about Rupert Murdoch. During the event and elsewhere, you said Murdoch, as a single individual, has done more damage to American politics than any other individual. That is a bold claim. Why Murdoch?

I challenge you – which individual has contributed more to distrust of the government in America than Murdoch? Who has done more? Which outlet has done more damage to America than Fox? I can’t think of one.

If you’re talking about one person, left leaning individuals might say Donald Trump and right leaning people might say Barack Obama. What about them?

Everyone’s got their favorite villain, but I think the point about Murdoch is he uses Fox News as a platform with utter recklessness. I don’t think Murdoch for one second believed the election was stolen. I’ve known Rupert Murdoch for nearly 50 years and the fanaticist, he is not. Not that it would make it any better if he believed it, but it suited his political and commercial purposes to amplify and promote those falsehoods. I should mention that he is being held to account for them in the voting machine companies’ defamation litigation. But apart from that, he’s not really been held to account at all.

One last question: You were the head of Australia’s Office of Water Resources and the Minister for the Environment and Water in the 2000s, during the Millennium drought. That was one of the worst droughts on record in Australia?

Yes it was bad, really bad. But it varied throughout the country. Australia is a giant country. Where our farms are in the upper Hunter Valley, the more recent drought from 2017 to 2019 was worse than the Millennium drought, but there’d be other parts where the reverse was the case.

I imagine that you were introduced to climate change before the 2000s?

I was, definitely. Hey, Vanessa I’m going to have to jump because I’ve got a hard stop at 10:30. What I recommend is you check out my recent memoir. There’s a whole chapter on water resources. It’s been great chatting, and I’m sorry I’ve got to jump. Good luck with your PhD.

No problem! Thank you so much. Bye.
Photo Credit: Eddy Marenco