Malcolm Turnbull is standing in the business aisle of a Qantas flight, fiddling with his mobile. We’ve just touched down in Sydney and are halfway through a discussion about military butlers, or “batmen,” on which topic his assistant Nick Berry – a former army man – has offered certain insights. Within seconds of the seatbelt light blinking off, Turnbull is out of his seat and Googling. He is trying to look up the etymology of the word “batman,” but his gadget won’t work fast enough for him to find the answer before the queue of passengers behind him – polite, for the time being – builds into one of those quietly angry mobs you see from time to time on freshly landed planes.
“It must be French,” Turnbull mutters, to no-one in particular.
Then he snaps back into the real world and notices a gentleman hovering tentatively at his right armpit. Accurately gauging his concern, Turnbull retrieves a suitcase from the overhead locker for the man and throws in a dazzling smile. The man looks utterly delighted.
Turnbull tends to switch on and off. You can be in an absorbing exchange with him and then notice that he has gone quiet, his conversational contribution reduced to the occasional sonorous “Mmmmm.” Then you realise that he’s twiddling away at the mobile, or he’s jammed the Bluetooth earpiece in his ear and is vetting phone messages.
Turnbull’s fascination for gadgetry is boundless. He was an early enthusiast for information technology, and made a bundle when he and his buddy Trevor Kennedy sold their stake in OzEmail a decade ago. He is addicted to his mobile, emails at all hours and is signed up to Facebook and Twitter. He is constantly rifling through and making additions to his own electronic diary, to the consternation of his staff.
Turnbull can switch with deceptive ease between real communication and electronic communication. In the flight lounge in Hobart several hours earlier, I had plumped down in a seat next to him and asked if he would like a cup of tea – I was fetching one for myself.
Knitting his eyebrows and staring straight ahead, he replied sternly: “Well, I can’t see how that could possibly work.” Scanning his face for clues (perhaps he was a coffee man?) I noticed the flash of the busy Bluetooth device clipped to his ear, realised my error and stole away.
Real-life conversations with Malcolm Turnbull, however, are worth sticking around for. In Canberra, you are considered well-read if you’ve consumed everything on offer about Australian politics. If you’ve read about American and British politics as well, you are thought something of a don; knowledge of European politics implies the definite possibility that you might fancy yourself. Many, like John Howard, are voracious readers but restrict their consumption largely to their own professional field, with occasional excursions to the history shelves. Howard’s ideal novel, one always suspected, would concern the policy adventures of a deeply principled, perhaps slightly built prime minister with a thing for cricket and an eagle-eyed wife.
Turnbull, however, has a taste for poetry and literature, and a tendency to veer away from politics at any and every conversational opportunity. When he called journalists together in December last year for Christmas drinks, we gathered in the Opposition party room under the framed photographs of his predecessors. Under such photos, most Christmases, do Opposition leaders deliver up a banal series of festive remarks along the lines that Christmas is the time for a brief ceasefire between the Opposition and the fourth estate, haw-haw.
Turnbull, who had by then been the leader of the Liberal Party for six weeks, eyed the photos briefly (tufty-browed Howard, soulful Brendan Nelson) and instead told a raucous story about Kerry Packer.
This one involved Packer hastily sticking a portrait of his father, Sir Frank, above his desk as a prop for an utterly fraudulent display of filial tears designed to extract more cash from Alan Bond for Channel Nine.
Once the Bond team was in his office and a figure mentioned for the sale, Packer commenced to gaze moistly at his father’s portrait.
“When I look at my father and wonder what he’d think of my selling Nine … well, I don’t think he’d want me to do it,” sniffled the mogul. When the Bond team was gone – having agreed to a fabulous price – Packer spun to face Turnbull and winked.
“Now, son – how’d that go?” he asked.
Turnbull confided to us that, deep down, he remained a journalist at heart. It was his first job. And he offered one piece of advice to the press gallery: “Don’t be dull.”
Turnbull himself has wasted very little of his life being dull, which is why conversations with him tend to be interesting. His life before politics has done several things for him. First, it’s made him very rich. Second, it’s made him some enemies. Third, it’s given him an inexhaustible supply of dinner-party anecdotes.
“Malcolm is a colossal name-dropper,” says one former cabinet colleague. “He won’t just offer an opinion on economic policy – he’ll always preface it with something like ‘As I was saying to Tim Geithner the other day …’”
Name-dropper, yes. But to be fair, he has excellent material. “Six Degrees of Malcolm Turnbull,” in which any famous person in the world can be connected to Turnbull within six steps, would be a feasible party game. John F. Kennedy? Okay: from Kennedy we make an easy leap to his showbiz friend Frank Sinatra, and thence to Sinatra’s fellow rat-packer Humphrey Bogart. Who starred in Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman, who was leading lady in Gaslight, which was also the screen debut in 1944 for a very young Angela Lansbury, whose cousin Coral ten years later gave birth to her first and only child, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.
Mick Jagger? That’s even easier. Jagger is a one-time guest of Brixton Prison, having been briefly incarcerated there in 1967 after police busted him with a modest quantity of illicit mood-enhancement pills. Another former Brixton prisoner is Malcolm Turnbull’s great-great-uncle, the former British Labour leader George Lansbury. Lansbury, as Labour mayor of Poplar in 1921, did six weeks in Brixton as a penalty for redistributing council tax income to the needy rather than funnelling it to London; this heroic gesture produced the term “Poplarism” and transformed Lansbury into a folk hero.
Incidentally, Brixton wasn’t the first stretch of stir for Turnbull’s ancestor: George Lansbury was sent to Pentonville in 1913 for his impassioned speeches in defence of the Suffragettes and was only released after embarking upon a hunger strike.
He once shocked the House of Commons by shaking his fist in the face of Herbert Asquith, the Liberal British prime minister, who – just in case you’re still playing “Six Degrees” – is the great-grandfather of the Hollywood actress Helena Bonham Carter.
Lansbury emigrated briefly to Australia in 1884 with his wife and three children, but was so horrified by the harsh conditions that he herded his family back to Britain and commenced a political campaign against the British authorities for distributing misleading propaganda to potential emigrants.
Lansbury’s staunch pacifism (he remains the only major-party leader in Britain to have responded to the threat of war by calling for immediate, full disarmament) cost him dearly within the Labour Party and he eventually stood down as leader in 1935.
“Lansbury has been going about dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom,” sneered his Labour colleague Ernest Bevin, who had precipitated Lansbury’s resignation by denouncing him. “I set fire to the faggots.”
For all his popularity and strength of principle, Lansbury never led the Labour Party to an election. The socialist writer Beatrice Webb, evaluating Lansbury’s life and work, was driven regretfully to the conclusion that while he was a “great heart,” he suffered from being an “emotional non-thinker.” As so often happens in politics, the times did not suit him.
Malcolm Turnbull’s life is full of recurrent themes, little refrains or trails of coincidence that add an extra sparkle to his unlikely biography. How apposite, for example, that Turnbull’s great-great-uncle too should have found himself in a time of worldwide financial strife, leading a party with which he was out of step.
At times, the Turnbull life-story seems almost to have the silvery impermanence of cinema, and you suspect that somewhere behind it all is a haggard old-time Hollywood screenwriter, artfully inserting plot twists and complex little synchronicities for the benefit of the audience. The screenwriter (let’s call him Irv) has relied, for the fundamentals, on a classic rags-to-riches theme.
Smart boy, not much dough, abandoned by his mother at eight, left alone a lot as a kid, sent to boarding school, loving but absent father, forced to rely on own brilliance. Brisk university life, period of feckless womanising, moonlights as brilliant young journalist, snapped up by grumpy tycoon. Rhodes scholar, famed barrister, fabulous clever wife, adorable family, filthy-rich banker, substantial philanthropist, stormed into parliament, breezed into cabinet, seized the Liberal leadership … and that’s as far as we’ve got.
Don’t think that this is a mere fairy story, either; Irv’s clearly worked with Orson Welles, for there’s plenty of darkness too. Our hero is flawed: he is impatient and mercurial, and his life is littered with people who cannot forgive him his victories, feeling them ill-gotten. It’s as though he has a poisoned sword. The wounds he has inflicted on others don’t seem to go away; they tend to canker and are nursed bitterly by the injured, sometimes for years and years. Perhaps he’s not a gracious winner; perhaps it’s that. He certainly does not like to lose.
It was George Lansbury’s outrage at the injustice of life in Australia that drove him into politics a century ago. His great-great-nephew took a more circuitous, if more spectacular, path. Unlike most practitioners, Malcolm Turnbull was not made famous by politics. He was famous already, having reaped abundant headlines as Kerry Packer’s Boy Friday, as the cheeky advocate of the Spycatcher case, and as the captain of the doomed ship HMAS Australian Republic.
Turnbull was not, like some of his colleagues or indeed his own ancestor, driven to enter politics because of some galvanising injustice that nagged and fretted at him. He did not storm into politics to strike a blow for small business against Paul Keating, as many new Liberal MPs did in 1996. Quite the reverse; the mid-1990s found Malcolm Turnbull discussing, with various Labor figures including Keating, the prospect of his recruitment as a Labor parliamentarian. “Initiated by Keating!” protests Turnbull, who says he refused the approach. “Initiated by Turnbull!” insists Graham Richardson, who wrote that Turnbull asked him in 1993 for a Senate spot but legged it on being told about the tender delights of grass-roots ALP membership. When Turnbull finally did enter politics, it was to join a long-established Liberal incumbent, John Howard.
So what is he doing in politics? This is a question that has occupied colleagues and staffers in countless happy hours of speculation since his arrival in Canberra. Unlike John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull does not seem to be haunted by nameless inner cravings for major structural reform; the teenage Turnbull, one imagines, went to bed dreaming of one day becoming prime minister, while Howard’s night-time reveries were complicated affairs in which he single-handedly dismantled Australia’s system of centralised wage-fixing.
Turnbull was driven into politics partly by aptitude and ambition, partly by a sense of public service and partly, one suspects, by the gravitational pull of fate. “A force of nature” is how Tim Costello once described him, and this is a variation on an oft-repeated theme among colleagues, many of whom, from the moment of his nomination for the seat of Wentworth, have viewed Turnbull as a sort of galloping inevitability – something to be got through, like puberty or chickenpox.
Malcolm Turnbull’s greatest moments to date have been as an advocate: a champion with a brief. Given a case to defend, be it Kerry Packer’s innocence of the Goanna allegations before the Costigan Royal Commission, or Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher, he is a giant-killer. Packer, with whom Turnbull had a relationship of intimate volatility, used him best of all. He directed Turnbull into negotiations where the young man’s aggressiveness, and single-mindedness in pursuit of an outcome, were used to devastating effect. John Howard did something similar, in unleashing Turnbull on the rotten clubhouse of vested interests that is water management in Australia. In circumstances – like the republic referendum – where he is required to chart a direction for others to follow, Turnbull’s results tend to be poorer.
As Opposition leader, Turnbull has flung himself daily at the decisions and pronouncements of the prime minister, and with a lawyer’s zeal lays out the risks and flaws in the government’s management of the financial crisis. He is eloquent and intelligent in his delivery. But nothing seems to be shifting in his favour; not the published polls, nor the parties’ private research, which finds that people think Turnbull is negative, a carper.
Voters are not like jurors; they don’t make a balanced decision on the basis of everything put before them. They look for a story, and Turnbull – at the moment – isn’t giving them one. “He has a lawyer’s intellect,” says one former employee. “I have never seen anybody able to absorb information in the way that he does. But you never hear him talking about what the conceptual, thematic link is.”
Paul Keating, that savage verbal caricaturist, said, “I fancy Malcolm is like the big red bunger. You light him up, there’s a bit of a fizz, then nothing. Nothing.”
How would Australia be different if he were prime minister? What are his most closely held policy convictions? I asked dozens of Malcolm Turnbull’s political colleagues this question, asking them to name three. Many of them had to pause before responding.
“You’ll have to excuse me. I’m eating some chocolate,” was the best initial response, from a Liberal on the other end of a phone line.
But most made, as their first answer, mention in some way or other of the word “freedom.” Chief among these was Turnbull himself: “I believe passionately in a free society, in government enabling people to do their best rather than telling them what’s best. It’s really a question of making sure that people have the maximum choice, that we have as much competition as possible and that we eliminate obstacles to starting a business and managing a business.”
To this central tenet, Turnbull adds some specific policy interests, saying that “when I am prime minister, we will return to one of my policy fascinations, which is water and water management.” He also says he wants Australia to repair its spotty record on innovation, describing the country’s relative dearth of intellectual-property-based industries as “one of our greatest failures, for a highly educated country.” Lastly, he mentions tax reform: “We’ve got to reward innovation more. Because the difficulty now is that people with innovative skills just go somewhere else.”
Tax reform, or more precisely Turnbull’s backbench championing of a 40 per cent top tax rate soon after he entered politics, is one of the reasons for the hostile relationship between Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello. Turnbull’s campaign set the then treasurer’s teeth on edge, and relations have not improved since.
John Howard’s assessment of Turnbull’s central policy convictions is as follows: “He does believe in market-centred economics. He does believe in as small a role for government as is appropriate given the circumstances – I think he is quite genuine about that. And he does have a real understanding about the financial system. There aren’t too many people who really understand it, and he’s one of them. Peter Costello did, and I did, and I can’t think of too many others. He is a stronger believer, he rests more … I think he genuinely does buy the scientific arguments about the climate, more so than I did. His instincts in what one might call family issues I think are quite conservative. He’s sort of quite a family-man type person. Our views on things like gay marriage are not that different, and he had an atypical electorate. He empathised with the gay community, which is fine. They are the three things that have always hit me.”
Brendan Nelson plumps for: “Creating an environment that’s conducive to business. The Jewish issues: Israel, and the Jewish community. And the third thing I’ve heard him talk about is strong views in support of the gay community. Things that are important to his electorate.”
“He’s very much what I would call a sort of British liberal,” offers Alexander Downer. “He’s sort of a ‘live and let be’ sort of person. John Howard was much more conservative in that respect. He was more of the view that the state had a special role to play in protecting people from themselves.” Downer also mentions the liberal market model and climate change as central policy interests for Turnbull.
“Malcolm is an optimist,” says George Brandis. “As he often says, he’s in the Liberal Party because he thinks it’s all about encouraging people to be the best they can be, not telling them what to be. One of the things I find striking about Malcolm is that he is essentially not a cynical person.”
This is an extract from Annabel Crabb's Quarterly Essay, Stop at Nothing: The life and adventures of Malcolm Turnbull. To read the full essay subscribe or buy the book.
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