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QUARTERLY ESSAY 34 Stop at Nothing

 

Correspondence

Geoffrey Cousins

Annabel Crabb’s insightful essay on Malcolm Turnbull is revealing, in more ways than one. Through the voices of others it reveals his generosity, which is an admirable quality and should be taken at face value and without cynicism. But strangely, it is through his own voice that a lack of political ideas and, more worryingly, any sense of personal ethics emerges. This is most telling in his account of the Tourang saga, an episode he appears to be proud of.

According to Turnbull, he gave documents relating to Kerry Packer’s involvement in the Tourang consortium’s bid for Fairfax to Peter Westerway, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s chairman. These notes were delivered to Westerway by Turnbull near the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli on Sunday, 24 November 1991 (Crabb gives this date incorrectly as 25 November). They had been compiled by Trevor Kennedy, who happens to live a few hundred metres from the site of this after-dusk assignation – a fact unknown to, or unmentioned by, Crabb.

Why did Turnbull do this? Was he concerned that some great injustice needed to be righted? Was he striding into the public hearing to correct this? Well, no – on both counts. He tells Crabb what the motivation was that drove him to his secret meeting, only revealed now, nearly two decades after the event: “I regarded what Kerry was doing as absolutely … it was not only stupid but it was contrary to everyone’s interests.” So, we were hanging in the breeze for the word “wrong” to spring forth, but instead we receive “contrary to everyone’s interests.” In other words, it jeopardised the deal – and Malcolm’s fee, and his directorship.

Ah yes, the directorship. This is a point Crabb misses, and there aren’t many of those. At the time of this incident, Turnbull was still a director of Tourang and hence had a fiduciary duty to the company. Did he inform the other directors of his intended action, or seek their approval? Not at all. Was he acting in the company’s interest? Or did he have some higher motivation? This point is relevant, since there may be circumstances where a director could justifiably act in this way.

Here the question of “moral intent” is critical. It is the question that arises for a whistle-blower of any kind: is the public interest being served above the limited interests of a single corporation?

Again Turnbull proudly answers this question for us. He says about Packer: “… he was taking the view that because he was bigger and richer than me, he could run me into the ground. So I rang [him] and I had a major row with him. I said, ‘If you want to do this, this is it. This is the end. There is no stepping back from this. This is war.’ I told him I’d get him thrown out of the deal. I never make threats I don’t carry out.”

So was Turnbull a bona fide whistle-blower intent on serving the public interest? Hardly. Revenge and personal motives of the basest kind are the justifications that spring from his lips, coupled with an over-blown sense of melodrama.

In this latter respect our hero continues his Walter Mitty musings. “Kerry was, um, Kerry got a bit out of control at that time. He told me he’d kill me, yeah. I didn’t think he was completely serious, but I didn’t think he was entirely joking either. Look, he could be pretty scary.”

Could he indeed, Malcolm? How frightening for you. But what arrant nonsense. I was on Kerry Packer’s boards for years, did business with him for decades, had a few famous fights with him. He wasn’t that hard to stand up to if you had a reasonable degree of intestinal fortitude – and several did. And as for the threat to ‘kill’ someone, I heard it many times and it is ludicrous to suggest it implied murder. You’ll hear it any Saturday at a school football match.

Not only is this story of exceptional bravery related to Crabb, Turnbull even embroiders it a little in spinning his yarn to Westerway. According to Westerway, Malcolm tells him that he, his wife and family were all at risk. Goodness. The mythical revolver hidden in the Packer desk is about to work overtime. Since the beast now lies dead, the brave warrior can step from the darkened streets of Kirribilli into the light of the Quarterly Essay, expecting praise from all – and completely shocked that anyone would listen to his tale and discover in it distinct traces of self-delusion and cowardice.

When I challenged him on his lack of political courage over the Gunns pulp mill issue, his response in the various phone calls he made to me was completely self-obsessed. At no time in any of these conversations did he raise the merits of the argument against the mill; indeed in one he said, “I suspect I don’t like it any more than you do.” And then he caught himself and added, as if he were still a journalist rather than a minister of the crown, “I assume this is off the record.” Well, from that point on it was, although why a minister should ask for a discussion with a citizen over a public issue to be kept confidential is a reasonable question.

Turnbull’s preoccupation in these calls was with his political future, nothing more. “You’re killing me,” he said. “Why are you doing this?” My reply was, and is, because he happened to be the minister responsible for the environment. Contrary to gossip spread by his camp followers, I had no argument with him prior to this and have had none since. 

As Crabb reports, Good Weekend in 1988 quoted him as saying: “No one is going to bully me.” He then says of me in 2007: “I will not respond to bullying from Mr Cousins, or bullying from any other person who tries to bully me.” But respond he did. Foolishly, with the political judgment of a rank amateur, he described me as “a rich bully.” It was manna from Heaven.

I was saying nothing on the issue that hadn’t been said before. I was simply a different voice and an unexpected one. An experienced politician would have politely replied: “If Mr Cousins has any thoughts to put, we look forward to his written submission,” and swatted me away like an annoying blowfly. But instead he raised two of his weak points – his noted wealth and his reputation for bullying.

The reason Malcolm Turnbull struggles in these situations to invent the right response is also revealed in Crabb’s essay: “I am not an ideological person. I am a practical person. I come with a long experience in business.” This, apparently, is supposed to reassure the Australian people that he has the right political ideas – a long experience in business. He goes on: “My interest is in things that work … I’m not interested in ideological wars. I’m interested in getting real results for the people of Australia and I am very – I am very, very well aware … of how Australians think.”

If this last comment were true, which by all published evidence it appears not to be, since the polls show Australians to be mainly indifferent to his efforts thus far, the question is, how are we to know what he thinks? As he confesses, there is no ideology, there is no “narrative” as Keating liked to call it, just “real results.” Whether these results are for him or for us will emerge after we elect him prime minister.

Are Australians this gullible? They are not. They see a man whose vision is of him, not of them. They see no depth, just a shallow pond full of mosquito larvae, each of which is ready to hatch and take flight at any given moment, their only purpose being to sting an opponent, either annoyingly, or with a dose of malaria … whatever it takes. Is this what we deserve as a prime minister? Surely the Coalition can produce someone of more substance. And even if that proves difficult, someone of better judgment.

I wrote most of this before the recent “Utegate” debacle, but there it was again – a complete lack of political judgment. The world of merchant banking calls you back, Malcolm. The opportunities may not be quite what they were for the average operator but, in that world at least, you’re no average operator.

 

Geoffrey Cousins is a businessman and author. He is a member of the Telstra board, a former consultant to Prime Minister John Howard, and a prominent anti-pulp-mill activist.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 34, Stop at Nothing. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 35, Radical Hope.


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