Profile: Tom Switzer

How does a staunch conservative marry his twin lives as an irreverent journalist and dispassionate academic? Michael Koziol talks to Tom Switzer, research associate at the United States Studies Centre and editor of the Spectator Australia.

Tom Switzer, editor of the Spectator Australia. Tom Switzer, editor of the Spectator Australia.
Tom Switzer, editor of the Spectator Australia.

I don’t know which hat Tom Switzer will be wearing as I walk to meet him at the Nag’s Head pub, in Glebe, for our lunch. For my own amusement I hope it’s his freewheeling, colourful editor’s cap, though I fear that when the notepad comes out and the recorder turns on, the more careful, considered academic’s hat might be chosen.

By day Switzer is a tutor, researcher, and lecturer in American history and politics at the University of Sydney, in the Department of History and the United States Studies Centre. But by night he edits one of the country’s most fiercely conservative publications, the Spectator Australia, an offshoot of its British parent.

Happily, it seems I’ve got Mr Hyde on this occasion.

“I’m Dr Jekyll when I’m at university, but then when I’m Spectator editor I’m a raving right-wing lunatic,” he says with a wry smile and a hearty laugh.

Switzer’s politics are deeply conservative, but his positions are thoughtful, not reactionary. He opposes gay marriage because he believes it is the government’s duty to encourage children to be brought up with a mother and a father. He wants stronger borders because it is the only way the Australian electorate will support high-level immigration.

For such an overtly political guy, it is strange to think Switzer was absent from the political scene on this campus in the early 1990s. At high school and in his first year of university he was a track-and-field star, having trained with Melinda Gainsford-Taylor and excelling in middle-distance runs.

“It was conceivable I might have represented Australia in some sort of international event, but I don’t think I was capable of going to the Olympics,” he says.

But a bad back injury and the tutelage of Neville Mainey combined to change his primary interest from athletics to American history. He “became a bit of a nerd overnight” and would devour back issues of the Washington Post and National Review at Fisher library.

The big political issues on campus were the republic, Gulf War I, and the ‘recession we had to have’, encased in “a lot of scepticism about economic rationalism”. But Switzer’s interests were squarely across the Pacific: American diplomatic history foremost among them.

Upon graduating, he worked in Washington D.C. for three years at the American Enterprise Institute, before returning to Australia in 1998 to start a family.

Switzer seems assured that our politics are worlds apart, but I’m less convinced. For one, it seems to me that for a man who once said on the ABC’s Q&A that “manmade climate change…is a bit like the Da Vinci Code”, his views have – to use Barack Obama’s terminology – evolved.

“I’m in no position to really question climate change orthodoxy. I do believe that carbon emissions play a role in warming the planet,” Switzer says. He admits to being “cheeky” in the past on this question.

“But there is great scope for debate among scientists about the extent to which carbon emissions are responsible,” he says. “This is not a very popular thing to say on campus, but Al Gore’s moment has come and gone.”

By that he means that the political capital in acting on climate change, which Kevin Rudd rode to power in 2007, no longer exists. “It’s no longer a political issue. It doesn’t help parties to support a price on carbon.”

Switzer implores those on his side of the fence to question the economics of carbon pricing, not the science. He says de-carbonising the Australian economy sans a global consensus is “just not worth it”.

“Even the government recognises that now, because they’ve completely bastardised their own policy”. No longer is the carbon tax message one of fighting climate change, it is purely one of assuring voters they will be compensated.

“What’s to stop Joe Six-Pack from the western suburbs of Sydney going and spending their compensation on their higher electricity bills?” Switzer asks. He turns, as he so often does, to the words of his favourite writers, citing Mark Latham’s argument that to seriously de-carbonise the economy would mean taxing consumers and industry, and refusing to give it back in handouts.

Switzer has previously told me he believes Latham to be the best columnist in the country, for both his incision and his precise, witty writing. Latham has increasingly taken to journalism since leaving politics: he writes for the Spectator and the Australian Financial Review, where Switzer was the opinion page editor in the late 1990s.

His praise for Latham is hard-earned: other than his late friend and mentor Paddy McGuiness, Switzer rates very few Australian journalists.

“I could name 10 American and 10 British journalists I really admire,” he says. “I could not put any Australian journalists in their camp.” The best writers in the world are British, he says, for their flair, wit, and use of language.

He is decidedly pessimistic about the future of print media, however.

“When Murdoch dies, that’ll be the end of print journalism in Australia and in England. America is already dying.”

As a newspaper man, this projected death saddens Switzer immensely, but he too is guilty of ditching the print medium in favour of free content online.

“I hate to acknowledge this, but I very rarely buy hard copies now,” he says. “When you’ve got children at home and deadlines to meet, it’s just great getting it all on your phone.”

If that’s the attitude of the man who edited the Australian’s opinion pages for seven years, newspapers have a lot to worry about.

Switzer left the Australian in 2008 to work for then federal opposition leader Brendan Nelson, who was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull in September of that year and quit politics the year after. Switzer then joined the Liberal Party and nominated for Nelson’s seat of Bradfield, but lost pre-selection to the more moderate candidate Paul Fletcher.

“I was disappointed, but I didn’t have to stay away from sharp instruments for too long,” Switzer tells me. He was recently approached by pre-selectors for Craig Thomson’s seat of Dobell, on the NSW Central Coast, a prospect he “took seriously, but ultimately it didn’t last long”.

Switzer does countenance a future political career but “not in the short or medium term”.

“I’m at a stage where I’m very happy with my life and family and university life. I don’t want to bust my butt on the backbench for the next 10 years.”

He is said to have an ongoing feud with rising moderate star Alex Hawke, but described him only as “a smart guy”. A more savage assessment is reserved for Turnbull, who he calls “the George W. Bush of Australian politics”.

“Remember that famous quote that Bush used? ‘I don’t do nuance’. [Turnbull] never did nuance. Part of being a political leader is that you’ve got to be prepared to compromise.”

Switzer says the former leader “sold out his party” by so fervently supporting the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme.

“He does a very impressive job of appealing to a demographic that neither Abbott nor John Howard has ever been capable of appealing to – that is, the inner city metropolitan crowd. [But] he was a complete failure with those groups in western Sydney and a lot of those sunbelt seats in Queensland. He was a debacle. When he was opposition leader, the polls were of Gillard-esque proportions.

“There was precious little evidence of seriousness and competence.”

Ouch. Hello Mr Hyde.

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