Democracy Needs To Be Nourished With Facts, Says Former Australian Prime Minister

April 20, 2023 By Mandira Banerjee, Mandira Banerjee,

Speaking at the University of Virginia on Wednesday, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said democracy is very fragile and must be nourished just like the friendship between Australia and the United States.

To restore the equilibrium in politics in this viral age, Turnbull said that one has to flood the zone with facts.

Case in point: the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “Jan. 6 could not have happened if millions of people did not believe that the election had been stolen,” he said, adding it’s important to challenge the false narratives that are essentially radicalizing people.

Lucy Turnbull, who served as first woman Lord Mayor of Sydney and inaugural chief commissioner of Greater Sydney Commission from 2015 to 2020, said that democracy has been franchising newer groups and it must continue to do so as it evolves.

“When you engage with people and work with grassroots, you can counter the misinformation and catch their imagination,” she said.

UVA President Jim Ryan welcomed the Turnbulls to Grounds.

“We have a lot to learn from the Turnbulls’ leadership in Australia,” Ryan said. “While serving as prime minister of Australia and Lord Mayor of Sydney, they each promoted a vision of inclusiveness and justice for all. At the same time, they pushed for smart industrial and trade policy, environmental sustainability, and human rights.”


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Lucy and Malcolm Turnbull joined Vice Provost Steve Mull for a discussion about the future of democracy and related topics in the Rotunda Dome Room.
Lucy and Malcolm Turnbull joined Vice Provost Steve Mull for a discussion about the future of democracy and related topics in the Rotunda Dome Room. (Photo by Amanda Maglione)

In a conversation titled “Democratic Leadership in a Populist Age,” the Turnbulls also touched on migration, free trade, indigenous rights and diversity. Speaking about governing and creating a new plan for a city as diverse as Sydney, Lucy Turnbull said one of her projects was to increase the number of women in the workforce, an idea organized around women’s safety.

“But that idea is not exclusionary, because in order to have a place safe for women, it also has to be safe for children, and it also has to feel safe for minorities,” she said. “So, in fact it is the opposite of exclusionary.”

Malcolm Turnbull also commented on the recent Dominion Voting Systems case and mentioned that while evidence shows key figures at Fox News didn’t believe conspiracies about the election, they continued to tell and amplify lies. “People are entitled to their own opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts,” he said. “If we don’t push back on lies, well get into a situation where the creation of false narratives is going to put democracy at risk.”

He also highlighted the role of universities like UVA and entities like the Miller Center and the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation, or CAPRI, to be champions for the truth. “You need honest brokers, whether they are universities or think tanks, actually getting the facts out there, because you can’t rely on the mainstream media and social media to do that,” he said.

Kyle Touse, a UVA alumnus who was the policy director for the House Rules Committee on Capitol Hill in 2014 to 2015 and worked on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, asked the former prime minister about why the trade deal didn’t work for the U.S. Turnbull said the Trans-Pacific Partnership wasn’t all about trade, but also about strategy and national security. The 12-country partnership, from which the U.S. withdrew after Trump’s election, is still working with new applications from the United Kingdom, Taiwan and China to join the coalition.

It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia
It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia

“You shouldn’t consider it effort wasted,” Malcolm Turnbull said.

This fall, 25 Australian students are on Grounds studying in a broad range of fields, from engineering to public policy. Australia is also a key study-abroad partner, where more than 100 UVA students have traveled this academic year.

“The visit of Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull to Grounds is just the latest evidence of the special relationship that has existed between UVA and Australia going back many years,” said Stephen Mull, UVA’s vice provost for global affairs, who moderated the conversation with the Turnbulls.

Events like Wednesday’s conversation, which Mull’s office hosted in partnership with the Miller Center, the Karsh Institute of Democracy and CAPRI, give students and faculty an opportunity to be a part of global conversations on Grounds, he noted.

During their visit, Lucy and Malcolm Turnbull also met with UVA faculty and toured Monticello.

Media Contact

Mandira Banerjee

Global Affairs Communications Officer