STOP AT NOTHING
I did not know until very recently that Annabel Crabb was working on a 30,000-word essay about Malcolm Turnbull for Quarterly Essay. Had I known, I would immediately have called her up and said: “Listen, Crabby, whatever you do, don’t mention The Cat.”
She would have known exactly what I was talking about. It has long been whispered that Malcolm Turnbull is hypersensitive about a widely circulated rumour that he once strangled an ex-girlfriend’s cat (and, for good measure, dumped the carcass on her doorstep).
Journalists across the land understand that Turnbull will go for the editor, the publisher and indeed the entire empire of any newspaper that dares mention The Cat, even in jest. He will extract vast sums for defamation. He will insist upon a written apology. He will personally take the reporter’s scalp, scrape it clean and use it as a soup bowl.
So, no, if you want to get anything like a good conversation going with Turnbull, you don’t mention The Cat.
But Crabb is a brave woman and, like Turnbull himself, she’s not short on personal charm. She clearly understood there was no way to write a proper piece about Turnbull – a piece that captured the flawed brilliance of the member for Wentworth as beautifully as the one she’s written – without mentioning The Cat, if only because his response would tell us so much about the man.
If, for example, Turnbull said that well, yes, actually, the story is true, well then, he’d be a beast.
If, on the other hand, he got all huffy and puffy and started waving writs around, we’d be able to see that he’s a humourless, self-important bully, and therefore not fit to lead the country.
So she took a deep breath and she asked him about it … and he laughed. He laughed and he said: “It’s all completely untrue!” and he went on to explain that yes, there was a cat, and he thinks the cat got run over by a car, and yes, he used to get quite upset when people suggested that he might have had something to do with it because he’s an animal lover (dogs, actually) who would never deliberately hurt an innocent cat, not even one owned by a girl who dumped him.
Now, in his response to Crabb’s questions about The Cat, Turnbull was able to show that he is at once sentimental and passionate, and yet matured in matters of love and life. He can now see the funny side.
But in raising The Cat with Turnbull, Crabb also manages to illuminate what may well be the most important aspect of Turnbull’s personality. He does not like to lose.
You see, before The Cat got run over, Turnbull apparently spent some time writing to the animal. By many accounts, his letters were infused with longing, as he beseeched The Cat to intervene with its mistress on his behalf. Depending on how you look at it, that is either deeply romantic or lock-up-your-bunnies nutty … and in the end, it wasn’t effective.
Turnbull didn’t win the girl’s heart – but by God he tried. Now, there isn’t much that Turnbull has wanted in life that he hasn’t been able to get, including hundreds of millions of dollars, and the powerful and beautiful Lucy Hughes (now Lucy Turnbull) to be his wife.
How does he do it? In part because of what’s been shown above. When he wants something, he wants it badly, and he is happy to invest all he has in making it his. Then, too, he’s usually smarter than the people he’s pitted against. He’s also got a devastating personal charm and when he turns it on, he owns the room.
Crabb tells the story about the time he was asked to speak to a group of Russian Jews. He approached what might have been a difficult assignment by telling jokes about Odessa v Bondi as a bathing destination – in Russian – and before the address was over, they were his.
Turnbull is also indefatigable. Crabb says he “never gives in … he will argue and wheedle and storm and bully” and nag, coax, bluster and persist, and usually it works. He sees the same obstacles that other people see, only he doesn’t see them as obstacles, and he doesn’t read the rules in the same way, either.
Take Turnbull’s decision to enter federal politics. He lives in the seat of Wentworth. It’s the richest seat in the nation. When Kerry Packer was alive, he lived in Wentworth. It’s a seat that covers such suburbs as Bellevue Hill, Vaucluse and Point Piper. It doesn’t quite qualify as “blue-ribbon” Liberal, in part because it also takes in ratty Bondi and scruffy Surry Hills, but it’s been Liberal for a long time and, given that he lives there, Turnbull thought it would be the perfect seat for his entry into parliament.
One problem: Wentworth already had a sitting Liberal member, Peter King, who didn’t want to move.
Now, faced with a conundrum of this type, an aspiring politician might do one of two things: he might wait for the sitting member to retire (or agree to be retired); or he might scout around for another suitable seat. Turnbull appears to have considered these options for half a minute and then decided that no, he’d rather have Wentworth straightaway, and so had King dispatched.
How did he do it? Well, like many of the business dealings that have made Turnbull so fabulously rich, it was, technically speaking, all above board and completely by the book … and yet, were Bellevue Hill the Wild West, we’d say Turnbull strolled up to King in the main street, shot a hole in his forehead, and continued on his way to Canberra.
The next thing that Turnbull wanted was a ministry, preferably in the Howard cabinet, and so he got that; and then, when John Howard lost his seat at the last election, Turnbull decided he should be the next leader of the Liberal Party.
Now, some might describe this as somewhat audacious for a relatively new member not only of federal parliament but of the Liberal Party itself, but Turnbull wouldn’t be one of them. Crabb writes that Turnbull was utterly gob-smacked – truly, he was confused and bemused and amazed – when the party gave the reins to Brendan Nelson instead. Still, it wasn’t long before he’d upset that apple cart, too, and taken the leadership, too.
Now Turnbull wants to be prime minister, and here’s the thing: were the prime ministership one of those things that a person could just seize, like a victory in the boardroom, or indeed the courtroom, it would be Turnbull’s. He’d simply play longer, harder, faster, smarter and dirtier than anyone else. He’d rely on his wit, and his mental strength, his guile – and what Crabb rightly calls his shamelessness – and he would win.
Politics isn’t business, however. Politics requires a different set of skills. It requires leaders who, by definition, are able to get people to follow them.
Does Turnbull know how to gather a crowd? His campaign for the “Yes” vote during the referendum on an Australian republic suggests that yes, he does indeed know how to get the public’s attention.
So then, does Turnbull know how to lead? That’s more complicated. If you’re offering to lead, people will want to know something about where you’re going, and they’re generally comforted by a path that is both well lit and clearly defined. Turnbull’s vision of the Republic of Australia wasn’t either of those things, and his vision for Australia under his prime ministership isn’t those things either, not yet anyway.
Not that any of that really matters right now. Old hands will tell you that anything can happen in politics and probably will but chances are Turnbull won’t win the next election, if only because Labor won’t lose it.
That being the case, the only question that really matters is: can Turnbull survive the loss? Personally, of course he can. He lost the debate about the republic. It hurt like hell, and Turnbull said some things that showed precisely how passionately he was invested (specifically, that John Howard would be remembered as the prime minister who broke the nation’s heart), but after a few days he dusted off and got back to work, probably stronger for it.
His bigger problem, surely, will be surviving as Liberal leader after losing the next election. The Liberal Party isn’t traditionally skittish but there is a chance that when Turnbull loses, the party will dump him in favour of poor old Joe Hockey, and if it does, well, that will be an outcome partly of Turnbull’s own making. As Crabb says in her essay, Turnbull took the leadership when he did – which is to say, at least a full term too early – because his Achilles heel, or one of them, is that’s he’s impatient. It was there and he wanted it badly. He couldn’t wait and so, for better or worse, it’s his.
This is a reply to Annabel Crabbs Quarterly Essay, Stop at Nothing: The life and adventures of Malcolm Turnbull. To read the full essay, login, subscribe, or buy the book.
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