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The adventures of Malcolm Turnbull


Annabel Crabb: Quarterly Essay 34, 'Stop at Nothing: The life and adventures of Malcolm Turnbull'. Black Inc., Melbourne, 2009. ISBN 9781863954310. Extract

Quarterly Essay, Malcolm Turnbill, Annabel CrabbThe great wave of Utegate has passed over us, leaving Malcolm Turnbull on the sands, chastened but apparently unrepentant, and far from exhausted. As the title of the current Quarterly Essay warns, reports of his political death are manifestly exaggerated. When he smiles before responding to an importunate journalist, his teeth make one think of weapons rather than a rictus of defeat.

Annabel Crabb's modus operandi in her newspaper columns is to skewer the pretensions and foibles of our politicians with a deft phrase — she gave us the Ruddbot, for example. So one might have expected this essay to be a bit of a romp, an extended piece of light relief strung between Guy Pearse's distinctly unfunny essay No 33 on the continuing power of the coal lobby and Noel Pearson's forthcoming No 35, on education, unlikely to be a barrel of laughs.

'Stop at Nothing' does not disappoint on the amusement front. Unlike other recent and current parliamentary leaders, Turnbull on the one hand has considerable charm, erudition and ebullience, and loves a good anecdote, and on the other takes risks and makes enemies, generating a whole different stream of anecdote.

Kerry Packer's death threat, Turnbull's sheer gall in taking on — and winning — the Spycatcher case, deliciously alarming glimpses of how the players talk to each other at the big end of town ('Turnbull: If you want to be an assassin, you have to get blood on your hands. Conrad Black: You don't just want me to get blood on my hands, you want my bloody fingerprints on the dagger') — all these make excellent copy.

But it's not all fun and games. Crabb's essay is in effect a brilliant piece of backgrounding on the events of the last two weeks. She interviewed Turnbull at length, as well as an impressive cast of those who know him, including John Howard (whose comments are remarkably benign), Bob Ellis (characteristically indiscreet), Tom Keneally (who has a 'warm if slightly scarred relationship' with Turnbull), and a number of ambivalent members of the Liberal Party — ambivalent not about the party but about their parliamentary leader.

She gives us snippets from an unpublished musical about Jack Lang that Turnbull worked on with Ellis, and some prize-winning student poetry, both of which their author might have preferred to stay forgotten. She raises and discredits a nasty rumour about Turnbull and a cat, a rumour that was nevertheless back in circulation last week.

She gives us juicy bits of the story of Turnbull's work for Kerry Packer when he was under investigation by the Costigan Royal Commission in 1984, and of their spectacular parting of the ways, complete with mutual death threats, seven years later. Probably most seriously, she explains aspects of the parliamentary Liberal Party, its allegiances and rivalries, for those of us who aren't politics-tragics.

If Peter Costello is the greatest prime minister Australia never had, Turnbull is — still, perhaps, despite the polls — the greatest prime minister Australia hasn't had yet. These 94 pages aren't so much concerned with his politics or with the kind of prime minister he would be, as with the feel of the man; not so much what makes him tick as what a fabulous film could be made with him the lead character. We don't know how that film turns out yet.

A footnote: the most striking feature of the current issue of Quarterly Essay is an absence. Each issue includes correspondence on the previous issue. Guy Pearse's 'Quarry Vision', published in March, argued that the coal lobby's influence is virtually as entrenched under Rudd as it was under his frankly denialist predecessor.

One might have expected the right of reply to be taken up by the prime minister, the minister for climate change, or someone on their behalf. Nothing published here challenges Pearse's grim, and terrifying, portrait of a government that is failing to grasp the nettle. Instead there is silence made all the more eloquent by Rudd's lengthy self-promoting articles in Black Inc's other publication, The Monthly.

In Pearse's short piece at the end of the correspondence, he notes, 'The notion that Australia is blinded by a 'quarry vision' that renders its political leaders incapable of deeply cutting greenhouse pollution at home is apparently uncontroversial.'

Uncontroversial, and not about to change any time soon. After all, how many battalions has Morry Schwartz?

Jonathan ShawJonathan Shaw was for many years editor of the NSW Department of Education's School Magazine. He has recently had poems published in Quadrant, Harvest and Going Down Swinging.

Topic tags: Annabel Crabb, Quarterly Essay 34, Stop at Nothing, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Turn Bull ... that's a fantastic name for a future Liberal Prime minister! : )

Ian James | 03 July 2009  

This is not, in my opinion, a comprehensive review of Crabb's essay, being much too sympathetic to Turnbull. In many ways, Turnbull is the Lib's equivalent of the ALP's Graham Richardson. 'Stop at nothing' and 'whatever it takes' are essentially the same message. I wouldn't trust either of them as far as I could throw them. How about giving us a more balanced and serious review of this essay?

Tom Jones | 12 July 2009  

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