Going big picture with Malcolm Turnbull



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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Existing comments

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


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