NICHOLAS WHITLAM. Malcolm Turnbull, A Bigger Picture (Hardy Grant Books, 2020)

When Malcolm Turnbull was dumped as Prime Minister he joined his namesake Captain William Bligh in having been twice removed by his subordinates. Turnbull spends much of this book telling us who betrayed him on both occasions, but he gets the reasons for their insubordination wrong.

He has always been good at personal PR. After Malcolm was dumped as Leader of the Opposition in 2009, he worked up a narrative that he had lost the job because of policy differences over climate change; it was certainly the subject of dispute in the Opposition, but the fundamental reason he had to go was because his colleagues were sick of him. Contemporary sources confirm this.  Now, in this book and in countless interviews, we learn that, again, his downfall was because he was standing firm on developing a rational climate change policy – this time as Prime Minister – and that loony right-wingers opposed this. True. But that’s not why his colleagues removed him; they removed him because they’d given up on him as a winner.

Turnbull takes this further. He now says that these same right-wingers wanted him off the scene because he was set to win the 2019 election. Yet in the book he has Kerry Stokes quoting Rupert Murdoch: “We have to get rid of Malcolm…He can’t win, he can’t beat Shorten.” You can’t have it both ways.

Malcolm can exercise considerable charm. ABC viewers will have seen this on the Q&A program, where he enjoyed a residency for several years. Charm is not, however, part of his DNA. Turnbull uses it as part of a transaction. He is inconsistent and, as his colleagues have found out over the years, he is inauthentic. He lacks sincerity and is untrustworthy; according to the book, this last quality is one he shared with many of his parliamentary peers. He is wily but not wise.

The truth is that he is very difficult to work with. People only find this out when they have to do so. He had four chiefs of staff as PM. Why has he lost so many supporters over the years? It’s because he lacks empathy. Some, perhaps many, of those people who have worked with him have come to dislike him.

The best parts of the book are when he talks of his family. The book id dedicated to his wife, Lucy. He paints his father, Bruce Turnbull, as something of a secular saint and a great single father. There is one amusing anecdote involving Bruce Gyngell and Bruce’s running mates – but we could have done with more of this, because his father was a particular Eastern Suburbs knock-about type, more Bondi or Maroubra than Vaucluse, and there must be more. Malcolm doesn’t pull his punches with his mother, Coral. She simply left him, and Bruce; and Bruce kept this from him for years. Lucy, of course, is a constant presence. No-one doubts his love for her and how important she has been in his life. He does not need to sugar coat it with the sort of guff we heard on TV this week – “I have always had a stronger sense of Lucy and me than I do of me”, and “When I was a kid, I used to sometimes think of who I would marry…”. In the book itself, he does bring us into some intimate – even touching – moments with his children and grandchildren, particularly with his daughter Daisy.

“A Bigger Picture” is not an easy read. As a student Malcolm taught himself to touch type at great speed. It is a most impressive skill, but it does not serve him well in the book. He has allowed himself to go on too much, and could have done with a tough editor.   And he’s been indiscrete. Surely he could have kept the private views of Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove to himself, and no doubt former President Barrack Obama would not be happy with the disclosure of their private conversations. These add spice and interest, of course, as do his recollections of his conversations with Scott Morrison, Peter Costello and Tony Shepherd. Many of them ring true. The tone is sometimes unnecessarily self-righteous. He can be condescending and, notwithstanding excellent advice from his father on the subject, he belittles colleagues. He is sanctimonious too; Malcolm writes about his “office bonking” ban, but people who knew him as a young man find this hypocritical. As most readers would hope, the book is littered with names dropped and stories of his engagement with the rich and famous: Kerry Packer, of course, plus Robert Maxwell, Robert Holmes à Court and Alan Bond, and his political pals David Cameron, John Key and the yet-to-be-indicted Benjamin Netanyahu.

There are omissions, of course, which is one of the good reasons for writing an autobiography or memoir. Yet this would have been the opportunity to disclose the contents of his written agreement with the Nationals when he became PM; what did he agree to on climate change and same-sex marriage? He writes at length about the Tourang bid for Fairfax, yet he has always been coy about the documents he handed over to Peter Westaway that cold Kirribilli night – and is silent on the subject in this book. He writes of Lucy’s role as Lord Mayor and how she succeeded Frank Sartor, but he does not disclose his and Kerry Packer’s important role in financing Sartor’s campaign. He writes about their dogs and of Coral’s love of cats, but we learn nothing about his torrid correspondence with Nessie the cat. Does he have a deep religious faith? Why did he convert to Catholicism?

To be fair, Malcolm does include some pretty savage condemnations of himself and his roles in various matters; such as Justice Hunt’s calling his activity in the Goanna affair an abuse of process and an attempt “to poison the fountain of justice”, and during the republic debates, Tony Abbott’s characterisation of him as “arrogant, rude and obnoxious – a filthy rich merchant banker, out of touch with real Australians, he is the Gordon Gekko of Australian politics”. Perhaps he wears these statements as badges of honour.

I worked with Malcolm for three years. (He might have it that I worked for him.) We set up the investment bank Whitlam Turnbull together; just like Turnbull McWilliam, the law firm he had established with his great friend Bruce McWilliam, there was good reason for the firm’s name not to list us in alphabetical order. Neville Wran was the chairman, and we had enormous success. Malcolm has convinced himself that he brought in most of the business; he says so in this book.

Investment bankers fall into two broad categories, those who are relationship-driven and those who are transaction-driven. The two best I ever came across were an American PhD in anthropology and a British gent who would always question the merits of a prospective transaction, making sure it was the right thing for his client to do; they were relationship-driven. They were trusted advisors, a posture I preferred. Malcolm was decidedly in the second category. Trump-like, it was all about winning: go for the jugular; do whatever it takes; if you see a head, kick it. And he was good at it.

Malcolm writes “Nick Whitlam became unhappy. Neville and I never understood why.” Not true. Neville knew. Everyone in the firm knew. It was because of his unwillingness to work as a team, his unwillingness to think beyond the transaction at hand, gross rudeness to subordinates, his inconsiderateness and his discourtesy, and a single-minded inclination to resolve conflicts by intimidation and confrontation. Neville stayed with him when we split; he was always closer to Malcolm than to me. We had some very talented people at Whitlam Turnbull. Most left the firm when I did. Dr Kerry Schott bailed out immediately, as did a young Rhodes Scholar whose parting shot was: “I know, Malcolm, you think that you are the smartest person in the room here at Whitlam Turnbull; let me include you into a secret: you are alone in that belief.”

Malcolm Turnbull came to public life with a trinity of public policy positions: the need for Australia to become a republic, the need to address climate change, and the right of same-sex couples to marry. Each subject is covered extensively in the book. What went wrong? Something happened after he lost the leadership in 2009. For his comeback he went on a strict diet and lost weight. This was the fit, new Malcolm. A New Age Malcolm.

He was a different person as PM to the solicitor, investment banker and Leader of the Opposition. Either he made a deliberate decision to be a different person or he became one via some psychological metamorphosis. Whatever the process, it didn’t work. He did nothing on the republic, failed to get anything done on climate change – indeed it seems he was obliged to do nothing in his 2015 agreement with the Nationals – and he only got same-sex marriage up after an unnecessary plebiscite that delayed the parliamentary vote and caused great anguish and hurt to the very people most affected by the reform. He goes to great lengths to justify these failures in this book, but his arguments are unconvincing. True reformers find solutions to problems. They proselytise; they campaign. Not the New Malcolm. If it didn’t get traction, he moved on (rather like Rudd). The New Malcolm seemed to have lost all fight.

He lists his achievements as reforming corporate and personal tax, legalising same-sex marriage, establishing Snowy Hydro 2.0, the Melbourne airport rail link, starting Western Sydney airport, keeping the TPP alive, standing up to Donald Trump, reforms to childcare and investment in the ADF. By his own lights, each was an achievement and a success. Malcolm tries hard to justify his NBN intervention, and also his quick rejection of an indigenous Voice to Parliament – which is strange and sad, given his and Lucy’s generous support for Aboriginal initiatives in Redfern. He has a good chapter on Gonski 2.0, where he did make serious progress. We read little about refugees, housing affordability, youth unemployment or (again strangely, given his genuine interest in the subject) innovation.

Few have the privilege to be Prime Minister. I expected Malcolm Turnbull to be a good and successful PM. After the horrors of his predecessor I even hoped for his success. He had been a success as a solicitor and as an investment banker. As Prime Minister, however, he was a failure.

© Nicholas Whitlam

 

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8 Responses to NICHOLAS WHITLAM. Malcolm Turnbull, A Bigger Picture (Hardy Grant Books, 2020)

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    After reading this review by Nicholas Whitlam I may read the book. May I add about the author as lawyer ? I hear a defamed client’s solicitor was phoned when he was the media publisher’s counsel. He said his client agreed the journalist was wrong and could we settle the legal proceedings by paying a modest sum to charity. The clients agreed. I hope no defamation case arises from this review that I enjoyed reading and find persuasive. If I read the book I will look for the vision for Australia that I hope will be in the style of the author’s book I read on the need for a republic. Now others have to act on that vision. I do not know of any other lawyers who reject the Uluru call for Voice, Truth and Treaty.

  2. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Having stated “We are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet. It’s the only planet we’ve got…. We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic. We know that extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency and while it is never possible to point to one drought or one storm or one flood and say that particular incident is caused by global warming, we know that these trends are entirely consistent with the climate change forecasts with the climate models that the scientists are relying on…. We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2015/sep/18/is-new-australian-prime-minister-malcolm-turnbull-already-a-climate-change-turncoat).
    Sadly he did not have the courage to resist the climate deniers. Had he tried to do so, even if he lost the PM position, he would have become a hero!

  3. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:

    There are many people who through no fault of their own, lack empathy in the sense of being able to read how other people feel or might feel. Yet many of those who lack empathy make important contributions to humanity, particularly scientists, mathematicians, technologists and engineers (and even lawyers, sometimes). However a lack of empathy is not a good basis to build wisdom about politics. Whitlam’s article contains his assertion that Turnbull “lacks empathy”. Perhaps this gives some insight into Malcolm Turnbull, and his truly insignificant contribution as Australian Prime Minister.

    Without any particular inside knowledge, one can see his political decision-making included:
    (i) He ran a political attack based on false accusations derived from Godwin Grech, the Treasury official at the centre of the ‘utegate’ scandal
    (ii) He displayed disastrous antipathy towards a proper NBN, and his promotion of FTTN using the unmaintained Telstra copper networks, has been now exposed as limiting Australians terribly in their use of the internet
    (iii) Upon his putative accession to PM, he failed to call the bluff of the Nationals and he signed up to an agreement which reportedly blocked any agenda to reduce the use of coal and fossil fuels
    (iv) Upon his accession to PM, he failed to “take-on” the extreme right wing rump coalescing around Tony Abbott
    (v) As PM, he defended in acrimonious terms his agenda to lower corporate taxes, despite good economic evidence that under our taxation system most of the benefits would flow offshore
    (vi) As PM, he rejected out of hand on spurious grounds the aspirations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart of the indigenous people.
    (vii) As PM, he oversaw further expansions in billions of dollars of expenditure on grandiose military hardware such as the submarines which reflect not a hard-headed recognition of what is really needed to defend Australia, but rather a mixture of acquiescence to the USA’s special pleading to fill funding gaps in their Pacific-based hardware and his Ministers’ hubris and grandiosity, as well as ignorance of military strategy.

    All of these run counter, in my opinion, to the mood of many thinking Australians about how their Prime Minister should decide and the strengths that person should display. For a leader to understand that mood requires empathic insight, not just focus groups.

    Former Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, whatever one thinks of some of his policies, had the personal strength to resign in the face of disagreements with his brawling colleagues about his proposed approaches. From the apparent political wilderness he started a new political party, the Liberal Party. Turnbull took the opposite course, namely to take U-turns or weak compromises. Notwithstanding his (sort-of) sartorially fashionable leather jackets on Q&A when most pollies were still wearing suits, his commitment to the causes of the educated urban middle-class – today’s “Forgotten People” as prospective Liberal voters – turned out to be empty.

  4. Avatar Ryan E says:

    Let the NBN be a millstone around his and Tony Abbotts neck. Let it taint their limited achievements. It will unfortunately remain as a reminder to all Australians of their extreme incompetence.

  5. Avatar Felix MacNeill says:

    Frankly, as communications minister and chief NBN butcher, he was a disaster.

  6. Avatar Lorraine Osborn says:

    Thank for posting this

  7. Avatar Phil Walton says:

    And with that article, Nicholas, you paint yourself exactly as Turnbull paints himself.
    You are both of the same cloth and I for one am sick of those who have had every advantage of being born into wealth and power carrying on their feuds in public.

    • Avatar David Athur says:

      What an unflattering response you post Mr Walton. I enjoyed this assassination immensely. I have been around as long as both these men and have maintained an interest in politics and current affairs, so I know their history very well. Perhaps you need to be a Sydneysider. I also know who I have greater respect for.

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