Going big picture with Malcolm Turnbull

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What really happened, who did who in, and why — these are the juicy, gossipy aspects of leadership struggles that make politicians’ recollections so tantalising. Like driving past a fender bender, you are tempted to slow down and survey the damage.

Malcolm Turnbull at conference (Chairmamn of the joint chiefs of staff/Flickr)

As the small-l Liberal who attempted unsuccessfully to stare down the right-wing of the Liberal Party, known to his enemies as ‘Mr Harbourside Mansion’ or as the best Labour Prime Minister to ever lead the Liberal Party (2015-2018), Malcolm Bligh Turnbull was a man who dreamed, spoke and spent big.

He will be remembered, as with most of us humans, for failing to achieve his goals, specifically in the realm of governing this country. That statement, however, is made in the context of recognising the huge personal and financial successes Turnbull achieved.

For the uninitiated, we are led through the sad human realities of the author’s childhood, Turnbull’s student days, his salad days as a highly successful lawyer and merchant banker, his flirtations with politics that led him to the top of the tree, and his love-hate relationships.

This hefty autobiography, A Bigger Picture, is essential reading for anyone looking back at the ‘Nineties,’ the ‘Noughties’ and the ‘2000 teens’ to try to work out exactly why we still have a lack of national leadership on climate change.

 

'Turnbull’s humour and venom make for interesting reading, as do his insider versions of events from recent history.'

 

Coming in at 698 pages, A Bigger Picture alternates between eviscerating, chronicling and acknowledging most of Turnbull’s former political allies and foes in a saga of wit, betrayal, lust, treachery, a thirst for power and a desire for change. It informs and entertains on an epic, if not biblical, scale.

The book comes with a cover photo of the plutocrat and former PM staring out of the darkness down the barrel of a camera. It’s a beautifully apt image considering the author’s brave admissions of depression and suicidal thoughts following his knifing as Leader of the Opposition.

There are large concepts that embody this book. Among them are the notion of healing from childhood and lifetime hurts and wrongs; the maturation of a nation that may have come to pass with a republic; the freedom that comes to live your life when you have cash to back your independence and actions; the pursuit of justice and the bunfights over what to include in human rights; the failure of Australian legislators to effectively combat climate change and water depletion.

These choice blossoms of thought are fertilised by the shite Turnbull dishes to enrich the book’s soil. We learn volumes — from the writer’s perspective — about the likes of Abbott, his minder Credlin, Rudd, Howard, Gillard, Morrison, Shorten, Joyce, Heffernan, Keating, Dutton, Cormann, Hockey, Pyne, Bishop (Julia), Hawke, Fraser, Whitlam, Ardern, Key, Lang, Wran — the list goes on.

The shrill responses in right wing circles suggests that many of the barbs have sunk home. The reality is that the man of principle espoused in these pages was never to fully emerge from his years of politics. That says much about the horse trading that enables the game of politics.

For those who don’t want to walk down the paths of pin the tale on the leader — those mortals who are thoroughly sick of the conga line of PMs, post-Howard — there is a broader, well known cast that Turnbull has brought to life in this memoir: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Xi Jinping, Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer, Bruce Gyngell, Geoffrey Robertson, Robert Hughes — Malcolm namedrops with aplomb and relevance, showing himself to be the most well-connected of players.

Turnbull’s humour and venom make for interesting reading, as do his insider versions of events from recent history.

When you live, albeit comfortably, in the rubble of failed efforts to fix things, then the best way forward is to set the record straight in the public sphere and market place. Revenge is a dish best served up with humour and the former PM doesn’t miss anyone on his way through the decades.

It’s fair to say that Malcolm is an intelligent and successful man who has his place in history; it is also fair to say he doesn’t mind letting us know about it.

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Malcolm Turnbull at conference (Chairmamn of the joint chiefs of staff/Flickr)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Malcolm Turnbull

 

 

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It has repeatedly been shown that many leading intellectuals create myths as a way to canonize themselves while still alive. Of the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the historian Paul Johnson wrote: “Rousseau’s ‘Confessions’, as Diderot and others who really knew him perceived at the time, are an elaborate exercise in deception, a veneer of candour concealing a bottomless morass of mendacity. [Lillian] Hellman’s memoirs conform to this cunning pattern.” The playwright Hellman was rich, with a New York mansion, a 130-acre farm, and had a housekeeper, butler, secretary and personal maid, while all the time pushing a pro-Soviet Union communist philosophy. Author Mary McCarthy said “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Who really knows Malcolm Turnbull? The Sunday Telegraph confirmed that he approached at least six senior ALP figures, including Bob Hawke, seeking their endorsement, and powerbroker Graham Richardson revealed in 2003 that Turnbull sought a safe Senate seat from him, a claim denied by Turnbull. In one review Turnbull was called “Adam Bandt in a better suit” fighting a “daily battle for truth, justice, and the Green way.”
Ross Howard | 22 May 2020


Barry, he was a perfectly good leader with a bunch of lean hungry fellows baying at his heels who thought they could do better. He was a succesful businessman, a good journalist, a lawyer and he had a Menzies like presence that the knife wielders lacked. I always liked him because of his desire to see Australia as a Republic and ditch that ridiculous class system that is rife in Britain so beloved by Howard and Abbott. However his vision both on the Monarchy and the environment was stymied by his rivals and by cabinet. Both the Gillard Rudd rivalry, the Abbott Turnbull rivalry followed by Dutton and Scomo will happen again. At least he wasnt a complete narcissist like Rudd.
Francis Armstrong | 23 May 2020


Yes, indeed, Ross and Barry; a sheep in sheep's clothing! One bit of 'shite' that Barry hints at is Malcolm's allegedly fig-leaf-lifting account of his meeting with Archbishop Comensoli about the Gonski school-funding reform proposals, a complex and critically important brief that neither he nor Comensoli had mastered and which yet again illustrates how incompetently the Church, like the Australian state, is led and conducts its educational affairs. While Catholic educational officialdom is well-steeped in the Gospel imperative to privilege the poor at the expense of the rich, evidently no one at the Catholic Education Office had the chance to 'accompany the Arch' to his private tete a tete with the PM, himself a strong advocate of the free market and equal opportunity but neither of whom had a handle on social reproduction and the role it plays to handicap teachers from extending the benefits of compensatory funding to those versed in BOTH the Gospels as well as the part education plays in improving the life chances of both the rich and the poor! Malcolm's own spiritual poverty, like Dives' and Gonski's, is evident in this account, as is Comensoli's incapacity to explain both the Catholic theological and educational positions.
Michael Furtado | 23 May 2020


'Failure of Australian legislators to -- combat climate change' is incorrect. The Abbott and Turnbull Governments, supported by the then Parliaments, signed Australia up to the Paris Accord and made commitment to reduce CO2 emissions. Climate change/global warming is a matter for all the World's nations to work on co-operatively. Australia's Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, in his report said correctly that whatever Australia did, whether above or below its commitment, could not change global warming one bit. Tell China to reduce its CO2 emissions!
Gerard Tonks | 23 May 2020


Once I knew the title of Turnbull's autobiography, I was concerned: is this the reason that the ABC, at least on RN, keeps exhorting listeners, albeit somewhat ungrammatically, to 'Think bigger"? Surely this couldn't be political party bias? Er, left wing if so? I remember with pleasure the Spycatcher success of a young and ambitious man, one to watch. This, with progress towards becoming a republic, and his refusal to lead a party which didn't embrace climate change, are truly memorable. Less about the man himself perhaps; more about standing by what he believed in, costly or not.
Julia | 23 May 2020


Barry G certainly got going with Malcom's big picture; he labels some of the content of the 698 pages, but where he sees some areas open to critical appraisal he rushes to say nothing preferring to adjusts the rose tinted lens and move on. As time passes it will be come increasingly evident that Malcom made two substantial errors in his career - he entered politics and then stayed too long - such that his final weeks in parliament became a vivid illustration of all that could not happen because of all that hadn't happened under his stewardship.
carey burke | 25 May 2020


“the maturation of a nation that may have come to pass with a republic….” Now that’s a laughably old-fashioned idea which one would expect from the conservatism in its own way of an aging liberal. The narrative that an adolescent must separate from its parents because it is young and progressive and they are stodgy doesn’t hold water when the parents are trendier than the adolescent. For anyone who hasn’t noticed, there’s an African-American in the royal family, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer is a Hindu, the previous chancellor was a Muslim, the Home Secretary is a Hindu with the XY chromosome, and the bishops confusing the intrinsic with the prudential in the Dominic Cummings affair include some with the XY chromosome, displaying an Anglican Church that is as hip and trendy as anything. Exactly how will being a republic make Australia cooler than its groovy parent?
roy chen yee | 27 May 2020


I breathed both a metaphoric and literal sigh of “at last” the day Malcolm Turnbull replaced Abbott as Prime Minister. Not normally a Coalition supporter, I hoped that Malcolm would follow the proverbial “small l Liberal” philosophy and move away from Abbott’s conservative views (to be polite). No more captain’s calls or knighthoods (would George Pell really have been the next?). I even thought, had Turnbull called an immediate election to gain a community mandate for his leadership, he would have romped in. It didn’t happen and we all saw how it all ended so badly for him. The conservatives (to be polite) had him by the body part where his heart and mind had to follow. Barry writes of Turnbull failing to achieve his goals. I suggest he just found the ideologies too hard to break through. Howard’s legacy. Even the big goal that he claimed as his own was not really his. His embrace of marriage equality did not really happen until after the community postal survey basically told him “do it now”. Not really a sign of brave leadership. Still, no ill-will towards him and I wish him well for the future. The rest of us can just move on.
Brett | 02 June 2020


Can we really see Britain as a ‘groovy parent’ ? Doddering old fool reliving old times might be a better metaphor. But arguments based on metaphors are pretty dicey at any time. We never really grow up until we assume full responsibility for ourselves.
Ginger Meggs | 04 June 2020


Ginger Meggs: “But arguments based on metaphors are pretty dicey at any time. We never really grow up until we assume full responsibility for ourselves.” Unless metaphors, as they should be, are relatable to the fact that the UK is more multicultural than Australia, and not to the wishful thinking that we haven’t assumed full responsibility for ourselves. We have (courtesy of the pushing of the envelope by the ‘conservative’ opposition in the Senate in 1975, actually). We tell the world by our status that the lowest common denominator of nationhood is a republic because it is so … common …, that we’d rather distinguish ourselves from the bland crowd by being one of the few constitutional monarchies around because, as Barack Obama might say, “we can”, because a 'constitutional' monarchy broadcasts the fact that the polity possesses a high degree of political development and nuance, and because all constitutional monarchies incarnate a formal, symbolic link to the Divine. A republic is what you get when your history doesn't allow you to rise above the plebeian.
roy chen yee | 07 June 2020


Roy: “a 'constitutional' monarchy broadcasts the fact that the polity possesses a high degree of political development and nuance, and … all constitutional monarchies incarnate a formal, symbolic link to the Divine.” The symbolism and reality of a ‘constitutional’ monarchy excludes just about everyone from becoming the ‘constitutional’ monarch in the system, limiting this privilege to one family and, indeed, one person within that family, for better or worse and, in the better case, giving us Elizabeth Windsor and not Donald Trump (I would be the last to say the current Queen has not devoted her life to public service). But seriously, is this elitism in selection your link to the Divine (in a few years’ time with different incumbents, the situation could well be reversed), or is it the system itself? A well-developed political system reflects and represents the will of the people. Looking at the system itself and not the office holder, if there is any ‘link to the Divine’ in any political system, it would manifest itself in how well the system provides for the poorest, the sidelined, the most vulnerable and the people least able to care for themselves. I don’t see a ‘constitutional’ monarchy holding any aces in that regard.
Brett | 15 June 2020


Brett: “excludes just about everyone”. The person symbolising the link has almost no rights of individuality. When Edward VI publicly mischaracterised the meaning of matrimony, the sensus fidelium of the then public in the UK and the dominions meant he was given the boot. In 2004, the then Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, described Prince Charles as a ‘public adulterer’ and, as such, unworthy of the Throne. This is exactly how it should be: the believing public firmly, perhaps brutally, holding the privileged holders of the link accountable for it. The pope, similarly, has no ‘human’ rights. The duties of symbolising the link override everything. In return, out of charity, the cage is provided with some gilding. The symbol is there to remind the people of God. Systems are too diffuse to do the job. They are machines. Only a being with an accountable soul can do that. Citing the ‘poor’ (a condition caused by many reasons) is a convenient excuse for disparaging the link. Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.” Do we cancel Eucharist because of the ‘poor’? The excuse comes from the ‘seamless garment’ refusal to distinguish between the intrinsic and the prudential.
roy chen yee | 18 June 2020


Roy, all political systems – republic, constitutional monarchy, divine right of kings, dictatorship, whatever – are manmade arrangements with the benefits and flaws that come from being a human construct. While some may be based on Christian values (which can mean different things to different people), it is a long hop for any system to claim a unique “link to the divine” not present in any of the others. Not even the US Republic can claim that, despite Mr Trump symbolically holding a Bible while standing outside a church. The character of the incumbent is irrelevant to the operation of the system. You can ignore “the poor” as a convenient excuse if you want. They will always be with us, but it is how the system provides for them that makes the point valid, as highlighted by the protests going on around the world right now. And really, who cares what Phillip Jensen thinks of Prince Charles? It is no more relevant to the political system than your view or mine, or Charles’ for that matter. If a future King Charles visits Australia, I reckon Jensen will line up with the others and bow before him.
Brett | 22 June 2020


PS: Roy, Edward VI was a sick child who died aged 15. It’s a bit mean to say he was “given the boot” for his views on marriage. Your point about matrimony would be more appropriate (but no more relevant) to Edward’s father who married six times and reigned for nearly 40 years. No boot there either.
Brett | 22 June 2020


My bad. Edward VIII. And while there’s no doubt that Harry Wales is a good-hearted chap, good cannot be achieved by skirting a few details. As for “all political systems – republic, constitutional monarchy, divine right of kings, dictatorship, whatever – are manmade arrangements”, this sounds like an argument that the Church is man-made because humans construct churches and the Bible is manmade because humans print copies. “And really, who cares what Phillip Jensen thinks of Prince Charles? It is no more relevant to the political system than your view or mine, or Charles’ for that matter.” By this postmodern yardstick that Jensen’s view is only Jensen’s view, your view that all political systems are manmade must, similarly, also be hot air.
roy chen yee | 24 June 2020


My bad. Edward Viii. And while there’s no doubt that Harry Wales is a good-hearted chap, good cannot be achieved by skirting a few details. As for “all political systems – republic, constitutional monarchy, divine right of kings, dictatorship, whatever – are manmade arrangements”, this sounds like an argument that churches are man-made because humans construct them and the Bible is manmade because humans print it. “And really, who cares what Phillip Jensen thinks of Prince Charles? It is no more relevant to the political system than your view or mine, or Charles’ for that matter.” By this postmodern yardstick that Jensen’s view is only Jensen’s view, your view that all political systems are manmade must, similarly, also be hot air.
roy chen yee | 26 June 2020


Nicely argued Roy, but again it is not what I said. To be clear, your post of 7 June claimed “all constitutional monarchies incarnate a formal, symbolic link to the Divine”. Your context was that republics don’t have this link (theocracies perhaps but let’s stay clear of them). There is no basis for your claim, and you have not provided one. It sounds like monarchist puffery and, to be fair to you, I don’t know how you would support that bit of elitism. Indeed, the US Pledge of Allegiance even refers to “one Nation under God”, surely a “link to the Divine” for one of your “plebeian” republics, even if they don’t always live up to it. Your comment about churches is your extension, not mine, even if you think it is inconsistent with my view on political systems (that serve a different purpose). That political systems are manmade is supported by the evidence of the systems themselves. If you don’t think they are manmade, fair enough, that’s your view, or should I say hot air, but you are then arguing against your initial point. You haven’t identified any “link to the Divine” unique to constitutional monarchies.
Brett | 08 July 2020


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