Annabel Crabb has given us a ripping yarn in Stop at Nothing, with an extraordinary hero (or perhaps anti-hero) who is clearly larger than life, stranger than fiction and scarier than Godzilla. We know that the Liberal Party stands above all for the individual, but in electing Malcolm Turnbull as its leader it may just have taken individualism a bridge too far, as Kevin Rudd would no doubt put it.
Crabb is absolutely right to identify two different Turnbulls: Good Malcolm and Bad Malcolm. Good Malcolm can indeed be terrific company, clever, amusing, erudite and above all charming; like other successful politicians (John Gorton and Paul Keating come especially to mind) he has the ability to disarm and win over even the most hardened of sceptics. But it is Bad Malcolm who tends to dominate, and he is the one that those who have experienced both tend to remember. In the process, they dismiss Good Malcolm as a front and a fraud, a mask that the real Malcolm (Bad Malcolm) dons at his convenience but can discard just as easily.
There was an excellent example of this during the so-called Constitutional Convention of 1998, which I covered as a journalist. This, it will be recalled, was the body set up ostensibly to determine whether Australia should become a republic and if so, what model should be put to the people at a referendum. In fact it was rigged by Prime Minister John Howard, who was in charge of the invitation list, to produce an outcome that could be easily defeated.
The alternative, locked in by a promise of the former Liberal leader Alexander Downer, was a plebiscite on the general question of a republic: yes or no? This would probably succeed, a result unthinkable to Howard, an ardent monarchist who announced during the course of the convention that Australia would become a republic over his dead body. Peter Costello, a minimalist republican, was heard to murmur that that would indeed be a bonus.
Anyway, Turnbull went to the convention as the undisputed leader of the republican cause, espousing what became known as a moderate model: a republic in which the president was elected by the federal parliament. While he maintained a semblance of control he was Good Malcolm, persuasive, affable and optimistic. However, as Howard intended, the republicans quickly split into factions, some favouring a minimalist model, which involved no more than changing the name of the governor-general to that of president, and a larger and more vocal group demanding direct election by the people.
Turnbull’s supporters remained the largest single bloc of republicans but they were well short of a majority on the floor of the convention; nonetheless Howard announced that it was their proposition that would be put to the people. His proclamation came at the end of three days of brawling among the republicans, with the monarchists meanwhile playing a somewhat smug spoiling role. As the chaos around him intensified, Turnbull grew more stubborn; it became clear that he now regarded the direct-election republicans as the real enemy, and he refused all pleas from his own supporters to compromise or even negotiate. It was Bad Malcolm at his destructive worst.
In the end the republicans had splintered into irreconcilable subsets with no hope of uniting in a winnable referendum campaign – exactly as Howard had planned. The convention concluded in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, but there was one motion that would have been received with near unanimity. Had anyone summoned up the courage to move “that in the opinion of this convention, Malcolm Turnbull is an unmitigated arsehole,” it would have been passed by acclamation.
This, of course, is Turnbull’s problem; while he can attract admiration and at times genuine support, he has a real knack of alienating those around him. It is a knack which has made life much easier than it should be for his many opponents, both inside and outside the Liberal Party.
The other big problem for Turnbull, which Crabb identifies but fails to resolve, is that it is impossible to work out why he wants to become prime minister or what he will do when and if he makes it. Crabb is, I think, too kind to John Howard in saying that he always had a burning conviction for industrial reform; it is true that he held a lifelong hatred for the union movement, but for most of his career Howard seems to have been motivated mainly by a blind ambition to get back at those who had kicked sand in his face earlier in his struggles: it was all about getting on top and staying there.
But at least Howard held a more or less coherent conservative ideology, and he knew who his enemies were. There was an element of what Turnbull’s old friend and ex-partner Neville Wran replied when I asked him why he wanted to be premier of New South Wales: “To keep the other bastards out,” he snarled. But Turnbull has no deep-seated antagonism for the other bastards; indeed he once flirted with joining them and remains close to many – far too close, according to his Liberal detractors.
He has no grand reform agenda, or if he has, it is a well-guarded secret. He certainly does not have to prove himself, either to his peer group or anyone else; as Crabb’s account makes clear, he has already achieved enough for half a dozen normal lifetimes. It is hard not to conclude that he simply likes the idea of a challenge; he wants the top job just because it is there. And of course, having set his goal, he will stop at nothing to achieve it: Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, PM. And then, who knows? His government would, at best, be a magical mystery tour.
And after a while, he would need a new challenge, but what’s left? Given that Turbull’s ego has now joined the Great Wall of China as the only human construct visible from the moon, let me suggest a new campaign: Turnbull for Pope! That just might provide Annabel Crabb with a fitting climax to her excellent adventure.
Mungo MacCallum has been a political journalist for more than four decades. His books include Mungo: The Man Who Laughs (2001), Run Johnny Run: The Story of the 2004 Election and Poll Dancing: The Story of the 2007 Election.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 35, Radical Hope.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY