Biography, Oscar Wilde once quipped, lends death a new terror. For public figures today, however, the spectre of the biographical eye often arrives much sooner, sometimes long before a career has begun to approach its peak. The results of these, what we might call biographies-in-progress, are often vaguely disappointing if not annoying to subject and reader alike. When a reporter asked John Lennon, then in his twenties, what the highlight of his life was, he wryly replied that he hoped it hadn’t happened yet. A biography-in-progress also carries many dangers for a public figure, particularly a politician on the rise. Following the publication of Annabel Crabb’s splendid Quarterly Essay, Malcolm Turnbull would undoubtedly agree. As a biographer Crabb is something of a smiling assassin, delivering devastating blows in amusingly deft prose, underscoring her reputation as one of the nation’s most astute and entertaining political commentators. At the end of the essay the reader (or this reader at least) feels that they know too much about its subject. Crabb’s portrait of a man who, for all his ostensible charm and undoubted intelligence, will ultimately either fight or forget, is not a flattering one. We get the sense that Turnbull prefers to fight but that he has also, apparently, done a lot of forgetting.
Crabb also uses her exposé of Turnbull to reflect on the evolving composition of the Liberal Party and in this context she drew upon research I undertook into the “Class of ’96”, the cohort of new conservative politicians carried into the House of Representatives on the wave of support for John Howard in that year. Using a methodology known in academic circles as prosopography, I compared the sociological characteristics of the group and, at the same time, examined their first speeches in parliament to see what they told us about their experiences, values and aspirations. My conclusion was that this group represented an important shift in the base of conservative politics; that they were very much the same sort of person who had helped to produce the landslide at the ballot box in 1996. They were “Howard’s Battlers”. In terms of motivation, it struck me that they had, in many cases, been politicised by the experience of Labor in office.
In concluding my piece I committed a sin that tempts all political historians sooner or later: prediction. Given that many of the “Class of ’96” had entered parliament on the back of a substantial swing (many had not been expected to win by the party hierarchy), I pondered whether the change in the Liberal Party that they represented would survive a swing back of the electoral pendulum. As Crabb has shown, on one level I was completely wrong: twenty-three of the thirty-six members of the “Class” have survived. Many enjoyed ministerial careers during the Howard years and some, such as Joe Hockey and Turnbull’s predecessor, Brendan Nelson, have occupied prominent positions on the right of politics. But what about the broader question of institutional change? Crabb’s essay prompts me to investigate this issue further.
Immediately of note is that since 1996 the parliamentary Liberal Party has continued to undergo a root and branch renewal with at least seven new members joining its ranks at every election: twenty-nine in total over the course of four elections. There is a need for a detailed study of these individuals, which space does not permit here. There is scope, however, to briefly examine a sample. Let’s focus on the seven new members, which included Malcolm Turnbull, elected in 2004. Let’s call them, rather predictably, the “Class of 2004”.
As Crabb notes, Turnbull is keen to suggest that he did not enjoy a privileged upbringing. The carefully told story of his father, a single parent, struggling to pay young Malcolm’s school fees is only spoiled by the fact that father’s avocation was real-estate broking – buying and selling hotels – and the school in question was Sydney Grammar, arguably one of Australia’s most exclusive. For Crabb, Turnbull’s artifice is part of his burning desire to be liked but it is also an indication of the importance of the “ordinary” in modern politics. Two hundred years ago privilege was a requirement for office; today it is almost an insuperable obstacle. A test of this will be the fate of Victoria’s Liberal Opposition leader, Ted Baillieu (known by the compelling sobriquet of “Ted the toff from Toorak”). Is Ted unelectable because of his undeniable upper-classness? It will also be instructive to follow the fortunes of the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, David Cameron. Unlike the decidedly ordinary John Major and his numerous short-term successors, Cameron’s blood is blue: he is a direct descendant of King William IV.
Like Turnbull, many in the Class of 2004 highlight their ordinariness (and implicit lack of privilege). Jason Wood’s alma mater is Ferntree Gully Tech in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges; Andrew Robb grew up in the predominantly working-class dormitory suburbs of Epping and Reservoir on Melbourne’s sprawling northern fringe; Louise Markus’s father was a stonemason who died young, leaving her mother to struggle to put her daughters through school; Michael Keenan’s mother was the daughter of a tram mechanic who had left school at fifteen; his parents ran a small clothing store in country New South Wales exposed to the vicissitudes of the economy. Others are keen to point out the ordinary aspects of their employment history. Andrew Laming was an ophthalmologist before entering parliament but he also lists being a rigger and a gymnasium manager; Michael Keenan was a ministerial adviser and has an MPhil in international relations, but his website also tells us that he worked at Hungry Jacks, Hoyts and various pubs.
There is an echo of Robert Menzies in these experiences – the patriarch of Australia’s most successful political party was born in the harsh 1890s in country Victoria to parents struggling to make a go of a general store. But from the outset Menzies himself was atypical of both the Liberal Party’s parliamentary representatives and its core constituency. The Liberal heartlands remain the more affluent suburbs, but the parliamentary party is increasingly comprised of individuals who have emerged from the broad, ill-defined social strata that characterise middle Australia. In this sense, stripped of his carefully concocted biographical non sequitur, Turnbull is something of a throwback; like David Cameron in Britain, an authentic child of conservative politics.
Crabb has noted that many Liberal insiders are suspicious of Turnbull. Despite his pretensions of ordinariness, many of the Class of 2004 are simply not like him, but is their suspicion also fuelled by the fact that they do not think like him? First speeches give the public a rare opportunity to listen to their representatives relatively free from the restraints of political partisanship. What do we learn about the Class of 2004 when we consider their speeches both separately and in aggregate? Unfortunately, the task involves wading through overly long lists of thanks – meaningless to all but those thanked. In some cases, it also means trying to ignore the pretentious-cum-comical quests for an apposite quotation: among this group, one speaker misattributed some profound words to Edmund Burke, another appallingly misquoted inspiring words by Robert Kennedy.
Nevertheless, an investigation of the speeches is revealing. As Crabb notes, Turnbull is a self-confessed pragmatist, rejecting ideology as an impediment to good government. His first speech was, however, sprinkled with genuflections towards core Liberal principles: the importance of a “culture of initiative and enterprise”; the value of “marriage and families”; the efficacy of “savings and self-reliance”; and the “three Ps: population, participation in the workforce and productivity.”
Turnbull’s classmates were similarly well-versed in Liberal slogans. As in 1996, “family” was mentioned often in 2004, as were “opportunity and freedom,” the “rights of the individual,” “education, personal responsibility and self-belief” and “reducing high personal income-tax rates.” For the Class of ’96, the state was the key problem, a view which also had its advocates in 2004. Michael Keenan, for example, argued that “society should be free to evolve at its own pace without legislators using their considerable powers to try to make it in their own image,” while Dennis Jensen championed “the right of people to succeed in their business, unencumbered by government red tape and restrictions.”
What was notably absent from all these speeches were attacks on the previous Labor government. Jensen railed against “greedy” state governments that “blithely ignore simple fairness in enforcing speed limits,” and Keenan explained that he joined the Liberal Party after he visited Eastern Europe (and experienced its “deadening” Cold War art and architecture), but nowhere were Paul Keating or Bob Hawke mentioned. Laming argued that the language of “downsizing, redundancies, bankruptcies and lay-offs” of the “early nineties” had fuelled his interest in politics, but this was the closest we got to a reference to the Labor years. Even by 2004, it seems Howard’s success had lost the party one of its most powerful motivations of a decade earlier. A week is a long time in politics; eight years a very long time.
In critical areas, however, it is clear that Malcolm Turnbull’s interests and ideas are unlike those of his classmates. Terrorism and the Iraq War featured heavily in the speeches but not in Turnbull’s. Like the Class of ’96, none of the 2004 intake mentioned the Queen; only Turnbull, predictably, given that he had been the long-term head of the Australian Republican Movement, mentioned the “R” word. Turnbull was the only one to speak about the environment and to embrace the challenge of climate change (apart from Jensen, who insisted that global warming was a fallacy: the polar ice caps are, apparently, not melting).
Malcolm Turnbull may well have feet of clay, skilfully laid bare by Annabel Crabb in her biography-in-progress; but on the basis of his first words in parliament at least, he undoubtedly was the dux of his class.
Paul Pickering is convenor of graduate studies in the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University. He publishes on nineteenth- and twentieth-century social and political history.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 35, Radical Hope.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY