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

Apr 28, 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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