STOP AT NOTHING
Response to Correspondence
Writing a longer piece, with some lead time in the publication schedule, about any figure at the mercy of fast-moving events is always a nail-biting affair. Opposition leaders are particularly perishable, unfortunately, and – researching Stop at Nothing over Christmas and in the first months of this year – I was seized periodically with the fear that Malcolm Turnbull would be on the scrapheap before any of the work saw the light of day. But the one figure who realistically could have upended Turnbull’s leadership at any time, Peter Costello, chose once more not to batter down the door of the leadership, but instead to depart Australian politics as its greatest untested hypothetical.
The parliamentary sitting week of his announcement, which began on 15 June, in fact became a microcosm of Turnbullology. On the Monday, Peter Costello announced that he would not recontest the seat of Higgins. In Question Time that day, Malcolm Turnbull’s elation was obvious. Even as he summoned a hasty elegy for his departing rival, he was unable to contain that million-dollar grin. Turnbull, I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, was like a nervous assassin turning up to find that his victim had died overnight of natural causes.
We now know that he also believed himself, on that Monday, to be sitting on a story with the potential to cause intense difficulty for the prime minister and the treasurer – first-hand evidence from a senior treasury official to the effect that the offices of both men had been running political interference on the operation of a car-industry rescue scheme.
On the Wednesday night, a confident Turnbull sought out the prime minister’s staffer Andrew Charlton at the Press Gallery Midwinter Ball, warning him somewhat grandly that he should remember the importance of telling the truth, and delivering some heavy-handed hints about “documentary evidence” that would trip Charlton up should he choose to ignore the advice.
On Friday, the frail and nervous-looking treasury officer Godwin Grech, looking for all the world as though he was in some peril from the watchful senior bureaucrat seated immediately to his left, testified to a Senate inquiry that he had received an email from Charlton asking him specifically to assist the Queensland car dealer John Grant, a friend of the prime minister’s who had moreover given the prime minister a second-hand ute.
Now, as prime ministerial corruption goes, this is pretty thin gruel; Grant in the end received no public aid and the ute involved was proved to be well into its teens and a rust-bucket besides. But, as every Australian knows, a free car is a free car, and when Malcolm Turnbull strode forth on Friday afternoon to demand that the prime minister explain himself or resign, he was at his prosecutorial best.
History, with its customary remorselessness, will record 15–22 June as a bad week for Turnbull, for all that it must have felt like a good one at the time. The email was a fraud, and Godwin Grech a false prophet; Malcolm Turnbull, having staged several secret meetings with Grech, turned out to be his unwitting dupe.
It’s the story of a week in politics. But the story of that week is something else, too; it’s a portrait in miniature of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.
The longer politicians work in politics, the more they learn about its orthodoxies, its shortcuts and its pitfalls. But they don’t change, not really; and in the leader of the Opposition that week we saw patterns that had developed decades earlier in Malcolm Turnbull, schoolboy, student, journalist, lawyer, businessman and entrepreneur. In the miraculous evaporation of his rival Peter Costello, we catch a glimpse of Turnbull’s lucky streak. In his meetings with Grech, we see the Turnbull taste for adventure and intrigue.
The common wisdom now is that the Opposition leader should have outsourced the clandestine meetings with Grech to an expendable minion, but Turnbull has always done his own stunts. During the Spycatcher trial, Turnbull the barrister rang the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock directly to demand that he do a better job of monstering Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet secretary.
When Turnbull decided to leak the documents that would bury his old mentor Kerry Packer’s bid for Fairfax in the early 1990s, he did so personally and with all the trappings of high drama, calling the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s man to a North Sydney street and whispering dramatically during the handover that he feared for his life.
Does this or does this not sound like the same person?
Turnbull the impatient aggressor of the business world was clearly in evidence on the Friday of that fateful week: seeing an opportunity against the prime minister, he gambled everything he had on it. Had Grech’s evidence proved reliable, this investment of political capital would have paid handsome returns. As it is, Turnbull took quite a bath.
Largely, the disaster of the OzCar affair is attributable to a savage reversal of the Turnbull luck: who could have expected a career public servant to behave quite as bizarrely as Godwin Grech did? But the quantum of the damage was increased by the recklessness of Turnbull’s wager.
Since then, we have seen a lot of Turnbull the lawyer – first trying to extricate a workable prosecution against Wayne Swan from the rubble of the case against Rudd, and more recently mounting a technical defence of his own conduct with a point-by-point destruction of his former collaborator Godwin Grech.
If you had any lingering doubts about the difference between John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull, all you have to do is try to picture Howard handling the OzCar affair in the same manner.
David Penberthy, writing on his website The Punch, supplies a previously unrevealed anecdote in which John Howard remonstrates with Turnbull about his defence of the photographer Bill Henson. Meeting Turnbull at last year’s NRL grand final, Penberthy records, Howard playfully grabbed his shoulders and turned him towards the general admission stands, saying, “Look over there, Malcolm. Ninety-five per cent of those people think Bill Henson is a pervert.”
Howard was trying to assist Turnbull; he knows as well as anyone how lumpy a fit Malcolm Turnbull is with the contemporary party he created. And Turnbull continues to find himself torn between the two constituencies whose confidence he needs to win: there is the Coalition party room, and then there is the electorate at large. On the significant issue of climate change, one senses a constant tension between Turnbull’s own views and those of his colleagues; he has been forced to adjust his own pronouncements over the past year, at some cost to clarity, in an attempt to keep the peace.
Someone asked me recently if I would change anything about the essay, had I the chance to fiddle with it in retrospect. Actually, I don’t think I would change much at all. I still believe much the same of Turnbull as I did when I completed the manuscript. He is a fascinating, charming, strange, ruthless person, militantly unbullyable and yet at times seemingly quite exposed.
Who could have watched Australian Story’s profile of him without feeling something for the boy, deserted by his mother, who threw himself into a life of ambition, wondering, “If I work harder and do better, will she come back? Is it something about me that has caused her to leave?”
Turnbull read the essay at his Scone farm, the weekend after it was published. I know this, because he kept me informed of his progress with text messages. He alerted me to two errors, for which I must accept full responsibility.
The first is that, contrary to my account, he did not visit the Playboy mansion to negotiate an Australian publishing deal on behalf of Kerry Packer. Actually, he travelled only as far as Playboy’s offices in Chicago; imagining Turnbull in dressing gown and pipe strolling the bunny-strewn grounds of the mansion, I got carried away with this story and failed to check the exact detail with him, which I regret.
Another error is that the essay names 1989 as the year in which Turnbull, Packer and several co-conspirators launched an exploratory bid for the Sunday Times in London. This is my typographical error; in fact, it happened in 1979. As several correspondents aside from Turnbull have pointed out, the Sunday Times was well and truly in Rupert Murdoch’s hands by then, and has remained there ever since.
These errors notwithstanding, Malcolm Turnbull has been gracious about the essay. Asked about it at a function shortly after publication, Turnbull remarked drily: “I’m sure it will bring many people a good deal of pleasure.” In conversation a week or two after his reading of it, he told me that the only parts that irked him were the things that he regretted telling me; a handsome response, really, as being the subject of an extended profile is never easy for a politician, and Malcolm Turnbull is as sensitive to criticism as any of them.
He isn’t always gracious, of course, and we had our moments over the writing of the essay, but I appreciate his cooperation, knowing that the offering of it could not have been an uncomplicated thing.
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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