June 2020

Arts & Letters

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

By Robert Manne

Malcolm Turnbull in 2016. © Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Malcolm Turnbull is one of the most talented Australians of his generation. As a Rhodes Scholar, he completed a demanding postgraduate law degree while also trying his hand at journalism. At the young age of 28, he became Kerry Packer’s principal lawyer, which was for him a truly terrifying experience. When the Thatcher government tried to prevent the publication of a book written by Peter Wright, a former spy who had settled in Tasmania, Turnbull took on the case and defeated a formidable legal team led by the cabinet secretary and head of the British civil service, Sir Robert Armstrong, who was cross-examined by Turnbull for a full eight days. Armstrong’s claim that he had not lied but had perhaps been “economical with the truth” entered the political lexicon of the pre-post-truth era. Even beyond Australia, Turnbull’s legal reputation was established. Turnbull now decided to make some real money as a merchant banker. Once again, he succeeded. He and wife, Lucy, bought a Sydney Harbour mansion close by his worshipped “blokey” late father’s modest suburban home. By now the only unconquered field of interest was politics. What happened, and why his political career, unlike his earlier triumphal march, ended in failure, is the principal subject of his unfailingly intelligent and absorbing, self-exonerating and self-revealing, rather grandly titled autobiography, A Bigger Picture.

Turnbull’s first serious political involvement was his leadership of the Australian Republican Movement, from 1993 to 2000. Here he encountered the most important antagonist in his political life, Tony Abbott, who, according to Turnbull, injected a brutal toughness but also an effectiveness into the hitherto rather genteel Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Turnbull now learnt how his political enemies were going to portray him: as “a filthy rich merchant banker, out of touch with real Australians”. When the republican referendum was defeated decisively, Turnbull claimed that John Howard had “broken the nation’s heart”. This was a curious claim. The referendum result had certainly broken Turnbull’s heart and the hearts of many inner-city republicans. However, the majority of Australians had voted against the republic, and in very large numbers in the poorer outer suburbs and the country. Turnbull seems to have had almost no imaginative understanding of these Australians, which offers the first clue to his ultimate political failure. For Turnbull, “L’Australie, c’est moi.” He did nothing to advance the republican cause during his decade and a half in the federal parliament. His alibi is that republicans must wait until Queen Elizabeth dies. This makes no political sense. If republicans wait until the death of Queen Elizabeth, by the time they have regained the necessary momentum, either the old and loveable King Charles III or the young and loveable King William V will have had several years to win the hearts of Australians. 

After his leadership of the republican campaign, Turnbull received invitations, including from Paul Keating, to join the Labor Party. Because of his entrepreneurial passion, he thought (probably correctly) that neither he nor the party would be “comfortable”. His political mission was to defeat the Liberal Party’s “reactionary right-wing” and return it to the supposedly “liberal foundations” under Robert Menzies. Once elected as the member for Wentworth in the House of Representatives, Turnbull worked loyally for the Howard government. He is proud that he was able to lead Howard to 11th-hour support for a market-based emissions trading system. 

In September 2008, one day after the Lehman Brothers collapse that triggered the global financial crisis, on his second bid Turnbull won the leadership of the Liberal Party from Brendan Nelson, whom he had convinced to retain Howard’s emissions trading system. Turnbull supported Kevin Rudd’s first stimulus package ($10 billion) but not his second ($42 billion). Both at the time and now in A Bigger Picture, Turnbull’s claim was that Rudd’s “spendathon” demonstrated once again that Labor was incapable of responsible financial management. A Bigger Picture was obviously completed before the current pandemic era. (The coronavirus is mentioned once in the book’s 660 dense pages.) Since the Morrison government’s more than $200 billion COVID-19 stimulus, this argument has been washed away by history, hopefully permanently. 

Turnbull was willing to work with Rudd on his version of an emissions trading scheme. Foolishly, according to Turnbull, while negotiating with the Opposition, Rudd could not resist the temptation of taking full political advantage of the Coalition’s deep climate-policy divisions. In the midst of this, “disaster struck”. Turnbull was taken in by an anti-Rudd email that a Treasury official, Godwin Grech, had concocted. Not long after, Abbott staged a successful coup over Turnbull’s willingness to support Rudd’s climate legislation after having negotiated certain concessions. Turnbull tells us in A Bigger Picture that he had learnt his lesson. He needed to be more pragmatic. Politics was indeed “the art of the possible”; results were what mattered. Perhaps he learnt this lesson too well. Perhaps it was the wrong lesson.

Turnbull reveals – I believe for the first time – that after his removal as leader of the Opposition he fell into a depression so dark that thoughts of death would not leave him. For a man as proud as Turnbull, writing about this with honesty must have taken courage. He seeks to understand the cause of this near-suicidal depression. Was it because he had lost confidence in his political judgement? Or was it because his fragile and grandiose ego could not cope with both the Godwin Grech humiliation and the subsequent loss of power? Turnbull is unsure. His mind was, as he puts it, “unfathomable even to its owner”. When Rudd agreed to postpone his climate legislation, Turnbull was astonished. This was Rudd’s “death knell”. In April 2010, Turnbull announced he was leaving parliament but within a matter of hours had changed his mind. Instead, his responsibility was to try to “moderate” the Liberal Party’s rightward lurch. Under Abbott he now settled into his role as shadow minister and then as minister in charge of the broadband network. As he often tells us in A Bigger Picture, he is never happier than when solving technical problems. Of course, he was waiting for the unravelling of the Abbott government. 

When he was Kerry Packer’s lawyer, he was told by the head of the Nine Network, Sam Chisholm: “Malcolm, one thing we have in common is that we’re both often wrong, but never in doubt.” Clearly, despite the Grech affair, Turnbull’s overwhelming self-confidence returned. In A Bigger Picture, Turnbull lets us know that he is “a very positive person … not a hater”; “a builder not a wrecker”; someone who is “ever self-critical”; during times of crisis “calm, cool and objective”; and possessed of the most important of all the political virtues, “character”. He also lets us know that it was his ill-fortune to be surrounded by political self-­promoters and pygmies. Abbott was a “hater” and a “wrecker”. Peter Costello was a “coward”. Rudd was hopeless at managing interpersonal relations. Bill Shorten was a man without convictions. Scott Morrison was “duplicitous”. Peter Dutton was intellectually “limited”, “self-delusional” and “narcissistic”. “Bronwyn Bishop’s self-importance and vanity was, even by political standards, off the charts.” In the end, someone he thought of as a close personal friend, Mathias Cormann, proved himself to be two-faced and “Machiavellian”. And so on. All this helps explain Turnbull’s ultimate political failure. Others no doubt noticed his extremely high opinion of himself and his extremely low opinion of others. 

Unsurprisingly, we learn in A Bigger Picture that, above all others, it is Abbott who Turnbull most despised. As prime minister, Abbott was dominated by his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, in a pathetic manner Turnbull had never before observed. As Arthur Sinodinos, a member of the then prime minister’s office, told him: “[S]he yells at Abbott, treats him with contempt, walks out of meetings and sulks and Abbott has to beg her to return.” According to Turnbull, the couple tried to run government from the prime minister’s office, increasingly bypassing cabinet. Abbott was driven by his hatreds. Economically, he was an ignoramus who had never outgrown his interventionist Santamarian roots. Abbott’s parental leave policy, eventually abandoned, was, according to Turnbull, “a unique idea – a means tested benefit where the people with the most means get the most benefit”. Abbott’s escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric aided the terrorists. To Turnbull’s disgust, late in his prime ministership Abbott advised Muslim leaders to speak of Islam as a religion of peace “more often, and mean it”. One piece of Abbott’s anti-terrorist legislation concerned metadata. It became obvious in his media appearances that he had no idea what metadata was. Turnbull offered to explain it. Abbott “flew into a rage and started to threaten me: ‘Don’t you come between me and national security’.” 

As Abbott’s reputation sank, Turnbull noticed that the number of flags at his media appearances rose. The record was 10. When Turnbull texted Craig Laundy about Abbott’s decision to knight Prince Philip, Laundy thought he was joking. Abbott’s supporters were by now becoming increasingly unhinged. Alan Jones screamed at Turnbull: “Don’t you know, everybody hates you? … You don’t love [Tony] as I do.” Turnbull felt he needed “to take a shower some days to wash off the indignity … of being part of such a shambles”. When it came, Turnbull’s inevitable coup against Abbott – 54 votes to 44 – was pleasingly “elegant”. He promised that his government would be “positive, rational, appealing to people’s hopes rather than their fears”. To his later regret, one of the reasons Turnbull gave for challenging Abbott was his government’s loss of 30 Newspolls in a row. 

The Liberal Party’s right wing was now led by an openly revengeful Abbott. How could Turnbull prevent the forces that in 2009 had brought him down when leader of the Opposition over climate policy now repeat the dose and destroy the Turnbull government? Turnbull had a simple solution. His diary entry of January 31, 2015, reads: “A few people – Scott, Greg Hunt, Macca – have raised the ETS [Emissions Trading System] question. I have said to them that in my view we should not change our climate policy at this time. Not that I think it is a good one, but that there has just been too much chopping and changing and we need things to settle. Let direct action work … Pity it ever got through the Senate but now that it’s there … we have to stick with it for a few years anyway.” Turnbull had crossed the floor of the House of Representatives for the only time in his life over Abbott’s direct-action climate policy. Now, before becoming prime minister, without anguish or a fight, or even detailed argument, he had capitulated to the Liberal Party’s denialist right wing on climate policy. Yet, both before and after becoming prime minister, Turnbull made it clear that he regards climate change as the most important challenge humankind has ever had to face. 

In opening A Bigger Picture, I was looking forward to Turnbull’s discussion of his secret compact with the National Party before assuming power, which I had long assumed was critical to the future and the failure of his government. It is dealt with in a perfunctory few lines. The Nationals “wanted an assurance on key issues – same-sex marriage and climate policy in particular … I agreed we’d stick to the policy to have a plebiscite on same-sex marriage and wouldn’t change our existing climate policy before the election … I had little choice.” It is not even clear whether Turnbull’s pledge to the Nationals on climate policy continued after the 2016 election. As I argued in an earlier article for The Monthly (“Malcolm Turnbull: A Brief Lament”), Turnbull not only continued with the risible direct-action policy but began to repeat the arguments and mimic the language of the denialists. In Adelaide he argued that the supposedly extremist mid-century emissions targets of the Labor Party represented a victory of “ideology” over the Coalition’s practicality and common sense. And in Brisbane he argued that coal would continue to be part of Australia’s energy mix “for many, many, many decades to come”. When a smirking Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into the parliament, Turnbull did not discipline him. In A Bigger Picture all he says is that this was not Morrison’s “finest hour”. On this rhetorical and symbolic betrayal of what Turnbull would like us to believe once was and still is the political cause overwhelming all others, A Bigger Picture is silent. 

As prime minister, Turnbull’s first great challenge and failure was the 2016 election. His government limped back into power without a majority in the House of Representatives. Turnbull attributes his failure primarily to Labor’s capacity to outspend the Coalition even after he and Lucy donated $1.75 million to the campaign and, even more, to Labor’s mendacious, endlessly repeated, and possibly criminal, “Mediscare” campaign, which held that if the Turnbull government was returned to power Medicare would be sold. The success of this big lie, he tells us, shook him to “the core”. He does not, in my view, understand the deeper reason for the failure of his campaign. 

Turnbull’s message to Australians, his “bigger picture”, went like this: “We are living in the most exciting moment in history. Australia is the world’s most successful democracy and most successful multicultural society. With enterprise, agility and innovation we can seize the opportunities the world is offering us and become even more successful and prosperous. Everyone will benefit from the jobs and growth that will follow.” As two other elections in 2016 have both revealed – the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidential victory – among the contemporary Anglo-democracies, the single most significant divide is no longer between the middle class and the working class, but between what I call “cosmopolitans” and “parochials”: those who embrace and benefit from the giddy pace of change in every sphere of life, and those who are globalisation’s economic “losers”, or who are even just attached to traditional values and cherished old ways of life. Turnbull recorded in his diary Andrew Robb’s claim that Turnbull’s campaign was “boring”. (Turnbull cannot resist adding, “unlike him”.) But it was not only that. It might have appealed to the cosmopolitans. It gained no traction with the parochials. The same can be said about his prime ministership in general, which equalled and then exceeded Abbott’s loss of 30 consecutive Newspolls. With his reluctance to call for a royal commission on the banks, and with his proposal to reduce the taxation of the wealthiest corporations – where Turnbull believes that his policies were right but the politics wrong – the prime minister truly earned for himself Credlin’s name for him, “Mr Harbourside Mansion”. Turnbull tells us that he regarded the “daggy dad” demeanour of Scott Morrison, after Morrison became prime minister, as “cringeworthy”. Perhaps, however the parochials would prefer a daggy dad to a silvertail. We arrive here at the critical weakness of Turnbull’s political career: his tone-deafness to the anxieties of those people for whom globalisation represented not a promise but a threat; his fatal belief that “L’Australie, c’est moi”.

Following the election, Turnbull began thinking about new climate policies. “In my boat-shed over the summer of 2016–17”, as he rather romantically describes it, Turnbull “puzzled over energy storage”. The scheme he dreamt up was for hydropower developments to provide the clean-energy reliability that wind or solar could not. One of his ideas was a vast new Snowy River plant he called Snowy 2.0. Another was to develop new hydropower in Tasmania that would provide a “battery” for Australia. These ambitions would take several “years in construction” before providing any electricity. More proximate was a proposal of the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, for a clean energy target. 

As his new climate policies began to be discussed, the Turnbull-hating, coal-fired climate denialists rallied. In the parliament there was a sizeable battalion led by Abbott. They received important support from Alan Jones and Ray Hadley at Sydney’s 2GB, and from News Corp – the state tabloids, The Australian and Sky News – which, according to Turnbull, operated more like a political party than a newspaper and television business. Behind them was the coal lobby, about whom, very disappointingly, Turnbull has almost nothing to say. Turnbull describes one meeting he held with the denialist parliamentarians. They argued for a new coal-fired power station. “What coal price are you assuming? They didn’t know. How much coal will the new plant use for each megawatt hour? Again, they didn’t know.” And so on. Turnbull explained that coal was no longer competitive with clean energy. Bridget McKenzie, the then deputy leader of the National Party, stayed on as the men left. “You can’t argue with them, PM. It’s religion,” she told him. 

In response to Turnbull’s Snowy 2.0, Abbott suggested a new dirty brown-coal Hazelwood 2.0, an idea so crazy that, according to Turnbull, “it beggared belief”. To appease the climate denialists, Turnbull agreed to a feasibility study into a coal-fired power station in Queensland. Following the withdrawal of the clean energy target, against which the denialists had successfully “waged war”, Turnbull sponsored a new idea, the national energy guarantee – in which energy and climate policy came together – which won the support of state governments and the federal Labor Party. Over the NEG, a dozen Coalition members threatened to cross the floor. 

The longest chapter of A Bigger Picture concerns the leadership challenge mounted by those Turnbull calls “the insurgents”: Abbott and Credlin, Jones and Hadley, the coal-fired power denialists in parliament, and, in its entirety, News Corp. Their candidate was Peter Dutton. Turnbull believes their strategy was for Dutton to remove him and then lose the 2019 election, following which Abbott would lead the Coalition back to power in 2022. The coup happened with remarkable speed. Turnbull knew he had lost his prime ministership when the Liberal Party parliamentarians voted in favour of the leadership spill he had brought on. And in the ballot for the leadership, after Julie Bishop polled very poorly and was eliminated, Scott Morrison defeated Dutton. Turnbull is convinced that during the insurgency Morrison pretended to support Turnbull while privately encouraging his followers to vote against him in the spill. Turnbull believed that Mathias Cormann was a political supporter and a personal friend, only to discover that he was counting the numbers for Dutton. After he lost office, Turnbull wrote to Cormann: “Mathias, at a time when strength and loyalty were called for, you were weak and treacherous. You should be ashamed of yourself.” The last word was from George Brandis: “Malcolm, you trusted the wrong people. You mistook a cordial working relationship for political loyalty … You are not the first political leader to have been cut down by their Praetorian Guard, but you made it so much easier by recruiting your Praetorian Guard from your natural enemies and political rivals. Politics, at least at times of crisis, isn’t a transactional business. It is a tribal one and in the end the tribes always revert to type.” Turnbull had hoped to revive the liberal tradition within the Liberal Party. He had failed. 

The final chapter contains another explanation for the Turnbull failure. In the entire 660 pages of A Bigger Picture it seems to me the single most revealing incident. As the insurgency against him as prime minister gathered strength, Turnbull phoned Rupert Murdoch. He told Murdoch that the insurgency was giving Labor “the biggest electoral gift they could ever have … This has been a News Corp guerrilla campaign against me. Paul Kelly would agree with everything I’ve said to you. It’s madness.” In his usual lackadaisical manner, Murdoch pointed out that he was retired. He would talk to Lachlan. According to Turnbull, on that same day he spoke to Kerry Stokes, a supporter. Stokes told Turnbull he had recently met with Murdoch. Murdoch had told him, “We have to get rid of Malcolm.” An American citizen who owned the principal tabloid newspapers in every state except Western Australia, the only general national newspaper, and a mini–Fox News television channel, was believed by Turnbull to be, and indeed truly was, the most powerful player in the challenge to his prime ministership. Without News Corp, the insurgency would never have been mounted. If News Corp had turned against the insurgency it would have collapsed. I have been writing about Australia’s Murdoch problem for the past decade. Through bitter experience, two highly intelligent former prime ministers – Rudd and now Turnbull – have come to understand the damage that the Murdoch media empire in Australia is capable of inflicting on our democracy. In both cases, alas, too late. 

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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