Soaring am­bi­tion and a streak of hubris

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louis Nowra

The past seven years have been an in­cred­i­ble saga of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity fea­tur­ing three prime min­is­ters of ex­tra­or­di­nary in­com­pe­tence. Kevin Rudd was a nar­cis­sist driven by such a sense of vengeance that he made Ja­cobean re­venge plays seem tame. Ju­lia Gil­lard, tired of be­ing Rudd’s un­der­study, wrenched power from him only to suf­fer a case of ter­mi­nal stage fright. And Tony Ab­bott, in­stead of ma­tur­ing in his role as prime min­is­ter, re­gressed. His vo­cab­u­lary be­came more child­ish, with its talk of good­ies and bad­dies, and all of this was un­der­pinned by a Manichean view of the world.

No won­der Mal­colm Turn­bull came as a re­lief. At his first ap­pear­ance as Prime Min­is­ter he im­me­di­ately brought a sense of calm­ness and ra­tio­nal­ity to our po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Yet his as­cen­sion to the lead­er­ship of the Lib­eral Party was not a sur­prise to any­one who has been even vaguely in­ter­ested in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics. Since he was a teenager he made no se­cret of his de­sire to be­come prime min­is­ter. Not for noth­ing is Paddy Man­ning’s bi­og­ra­phy of Turn­bull ti­tled Born to Rule.

Yet Turn­bull’s beginnings, as Man­ning de­scribes well, were in­aus­pi­cious. His mother, Carol Lans­bury, was an ac­tress and ra­dio drama­tist who mar­ried her god­fa­ther, who was 40 years older. Her hus­band was to die six months af­ter the wed­ding and she soon hooked up with Bruce Turn­bull, a Bondi life­saver, sports­man and bud­ding ho­tel bro­ker. Their son was born in 1954 and was a hand­ful, or as his mother said, ‘‘a bun­dle of de­monic en­ergy’’. The mar­riage was un­happy and when Mal­colm was nine, Carol took up with an aca­demic and fol­lowed him to New Zealand, not be­fore tak­ing all the fur­ni­ture and even the cat.

Mal­colm lived with his fa­ther in dreary flats sur­rounded by pen­sion­ers and el­derly wid­ows. Later he was sent to Sydney Gram­mar as a boarder. He had few friends and seemed al­most like an or­phan. He was in­tel­li­gent, a bril­liant de­bater, a nar­cis­sist of the higher or­der, ar­ro­gant and dis­liked by his fel­low stu­dents. There was lit­tle that was boy­ish about him and many peo­ple, in­clud­ing his prin­ci­pal, thought he was ‘‘born mid­dle-aged’’.

Man­ning of­fers many ex­am­ples of Turn­bull’s con­de­scend­ing at­ti­tudes and yet it’s tempt­ing to spec­u­late that his in­cred­i­ble self­be­lief was rooted in his early aware­ness that he could de­pend on no one but him­self to sur­vive and pros­per. It’s no won­der he has al­ways found it hard to be a team player and that, since his school days, a com­mon crit­i­cism is that ev­ery­thing he’s done has been to be to ad­vance his own cause.

He stud­ied law at Sydney Univer­sity but fo­cused on jour­nal­ism in his early 20s, writ­ing for The Bul­letin. Al­though he thought highly of him­self as a jour­nal­ist (as he did of ev­ery­thing he at­tempted) the prose style was pompous — though he was al­ways good for a con­tro­versy.

Turn­bull’s close friends were quin­tes­sen­tial La­bor men such as Neville Wran and Bob Carr. He made it clear to them and oth­ers that he wanted to be prime min­is­ter by 40. The La­bor Party wooed him for years, but in 1981 he ran for pre­s­e­lec­tion as a Lib­eral can­di­date and failed, so he turned his at­ten­tion to law.

He may have been ris­ing in the world but there was a Jekyll and Hyde qual­ity to him. He could be charm­ing but also had a ter­ri­fy­ing ca­pac­ity for rage, kick­ing down doors and sav­agely abus­ing peo­ple. It comes as no sur­prise that one nick­name was ‘‘the Ay­a­tol­lah’’.

Man­ning makes it clear just how much the death of Turn­bull’s fa­ther in a plane crash dev­as­tated him, but it also made him fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent be­cause his fa­ther had died a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire. He never had to worry about money again, but he craved fame and suc­cess. This came at the age of 29 when he de­fended Kerry Packer against base­less al­le­ga­tions in a royal com­mis­sion that the me­dia baron was linked to an un­solved mur­der, drug im­por­ta­tion and tax fraud.

Af­ter that he be­came known through­out Aus­tralia for the Spy­catcher af­fair. He de­fended Peter Wright, a for­mer M15 agent who wrote a book al­leg­ing Roger Hollis, the head of Bri­tain’s do­mes­tic coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence be­tween 1956 and 1965, had been a Soviet spy. Spy­catcher was to be pub­lished in Aus­tralia but the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment sought to stop this, cit­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns. Mar­garet Thatcher’s gov­ern­ment was rep­re­sented by in­ept and con­de­scend­ing English toffs who un­der­es­ti­mated the colo­nial Turn­bull.

They even went as far as tap­ping his phone. But the me­dia-savvy and cock­sure Turn­bull won a cel­e­brated vic­tory and, as he was to say, ‘‘I have al­ways been a repub­li­can, but the Spy­catcher af­fair rad­i­calised me.’’

Turn­bull may have wanted to en­ter pol­i­tics but he was more fo­cused on be­com­ing wealthy. He started a clean­ing busi­ness with Wran and be­came a merchant banker. He may have earned a for­tune but Man­ning de­tails many a fail­ure along the way. Even so his bad habits hadn’t changed: he’s ac­cused of never giv­ing credit where it was due, be­ing un­gra­cious to­wards those who helped him, liti­gious to a patho­log­i­cal de­gree, and hav­ing lit­tle em­pa­thy for those less for­tu­nate. One of his worst traits was that un­der pres­sure he lashed out at those around him, es­pe­cially his in­fe­ri­ors.

He once said, ‘‘There may be an unattrac­tive side to my per­son­al­ity, but I do not like los­ing. I live to win.’’ The trou­ble was that he didn’t re­alise the pub­lic thought he was rich, elit­ist and pa­tro­n­is­ing. He may have had his money and heart be­hind the repub­li­can cause, but there’s no doubt his ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence in the 1999 ref­er­en­dum was a fac­tor in its de­feat.

His pro­gres­sive views made him an ideal La­bor can­di­date, but he be­lieved there were those in the party who would block any chance he had of be­com­ing PM be­cause he was rich, so he joined the Lib­er­als and, af­ter spend­ing a for­tune on his cam­paign, be­came the mem­ber for the Sydney seat of Went­worth.

He ar­rived late in pol­i­tics and was in a rush to re­alise his am­bi­tion. He was ob­nox­ious and Machi­avel­lian in his deal­ings with the leader of the op­po­si­tion, Bren­dan Nel­son, and over­threw him in 2008.

It wasn’t long be­fore he made a fool of him­self. A strange Trea­sury of­fi­cial, God­win Grech, con­vinced Turn­bull that Rudd and Wayne Swan had made shady deals with car deal­ers. The proof turned out to be a fake email. His ea­ger­ness to gain power, his re­fusal to lis­ten to oth­ers, and his ar­ro­gance and in­abil­ity to read hu­man beings had brought him un­done.

He re­tired to the back­benches but this fi­asco was the making of him. He rein­vented him­self, lost a lot of weight, be­came a Catholic and, ac­cord­ing to his wife Lucy, be­gan to calm down.

He made sure he was the one sen­si­ble politi­cian in both par­ties to try to rein in the moral panic about Bill Hen­son’s pho­to­graphs be­ing the work of a pe­dophile. It was an act of courage at a time when me­dia shock-jocks and cow­ardly politi­cians rev­elled in their philis­tine at­ti­tudes.

Yet, as Man­ning de­scribes in foren­sic de­tail, Turn­bull’s five years over­see­ing the NBN were a dis­as­ter. It was slow, hideously ex­pen­sive and ob­so­lete. De­spite this he still had dreams of be­com­ing PM and this time, with un­char­ac­ter­is­tic pa­tience, he stalked the bum­bling Ab­bott and achieved his goal late this year.

Man­ning be­gan his bi­og­ra­phy in Fe­bru­ary and fin­ished it in Oc­to­ber. The rush shows. Some­times there is such a flurry of de­tails about Turn­bull’s projects that he dis­ap­pears for pages on end, and the story is dis­fig­ured, al­most on ev­ery page, by the un­sightly acne of cliches (peo­ple tear their hair out, they have a whale of a time and are soon back on the horse, hit­ting the ground run­ning, un­til the cows come home, when they’re not com­ing apart at the seams or chang­ing their spots).

Man­ning makes it clear the dif­fi­cul­ties a pro­gres­sive such as Turn­bull has ahead of him, not so much with the pub­lic or op­po­si­tion but the con­ser­va­tive agenda Ab­bott be­queathed him. So for now he has to stay harsh on border pro­tec­tion, leave cli­mate change pol­icy as it is, op­pose a free vote on mar­riage equal­ity and avoid the repub­li­can de­bate.

Man­ning doesn’t spec­u­late too much on Turn­bull’s psy­chol­ogy, but be­lieves he has mel­lowed and learned from his fail­ures. Yet if Turn­bull has to fear any­one, it is him­self. De­spite hints of a new-found hu­mil­ity, the spec­tre of hubris still haunts him.



is a nov­el­ist, play­wright and


Mal­colm Turn­bull with his fa­ther Bruce at his grad­u­a­tion at the Univer­sity of Sydney

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