Why do we have to put up with Malcolm Turnbull? Contemporaries have had to suffer throughout their lives the intermittent bursting upon the scene of this turbulent, restless and needy soul, sucking all of the oxygen out of the air and demanding everyone’s attention for his latest self-aggrandising controversy.
First, it was the Spycatcher trial, then the betrayal of Kerry Packer, then the Turnbull-funded ARM’s attempt to overturn our constitutional monarchy, then the Whitlam Turnbull Bank fall-out, then the manic recruitment of new members to the Wentworth branches, the failures of his stint as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition (if you can’t beat them, join them) and the long, sorry episode of the ill-gained prime ministership. And here he is again, now in 2020, still fighting it out in the Upper School Room at Grammar with the other prefects in order to prove that he is the best man, always sorely betrayed and unable to show just what a superior character he is. And the whole nation has to stop what it is doing (or currently what it is not doing – nice timing for a book launch) to be entertained by this painful, humourless progress, as the Upstart Crow of our time lurches forth from the counting-house in his San Simeon in Potts Point to hunt down Sir Rupert Ringpull, Sideways Stokes, Fatty Morrison and ‘Black Pete’ Dutton, so they can get what they deserve.
It is childish to complain about being betrayed by Rupert Murdoch. All sorts of obvious morals are forced into the mind –- live by the sword, lie down with dogs. Even assuming that what Turnbull says about Murdoch is true, if you invite yourself to dine at the top table with the lions, selling yourself on the basis that you are useful to them and worthy of their attention and patronage because you are like them –- actually, meh, better than them — don’t be surprised if these wild animals turn on you and eat you up. The problem for Turnbull is that he assumes that his patrons and the people in power whom he cultivates are taken in by his own estimation of himself and will eventually bend to his power, but they don’t.
What, after all, is it all about? Turnbull always wanted to be president or prime minister. At some point in his early career, having obtained a Rhodes scholarship as the first important prize necessary for scaring the Australian public into respecting him, Turnbull decided, correctly, by observing the careers of the rich men he befriended, that no-one ever gets any real power in Australia unless they do one of two things –- spend endless years toadying their way up the hierarchy of a political party for a chance to become prime minister, or accumulating a lot of money. Turnbull knew he was constitutionally incapable of the first, so it had to be the second option, one for which he proved to have some talent. Hence, after the ARM debacle his long period of relative public silence as he accumulated the wealth necessary to buy his way into politics.
Becoming treasurer of the New South Wales Liberal Party was the first step, manipulating the by-election for Wentworth was the way into a safe seat. But Turnbull has a tin ear for the music of the political sphere. It is a world populated by time-servers, idealists, car salesmen and other egomaniacs. Unlike the polite worlds of the law, journalism and banking, political lifers don’t care that you were a Rhodes Scholar or have a huge fortune, except to the extent they can use those things for their own ends. It is a rule of political life that every MP carries in his or her knapsack the prime Ministerial baton, and in this respect Turnbull was for once surrounded by people as ambitious for the prime ministership and as cut-throat as he was. But the difference was that for them the party was their life and they had endured a long apprenticeship in its arcane and cult-like methods of relationship building, a mixture of cunning, patience, dependence and even loyalty. Turnbull has focussed on the privileging aspect of whatever role he has undertaken, but never much given to the loyalty or obligation side of them if it didn’t suit him –- he let his tutors down at Oxford by going AWOL in London to get work as a journalist. So it was inevitable that Turnbull would never really impress his political colleagues and never have the party behind him. It is curious that he appears so disappointed and crestfallen by this outcome. What did he expect? If you treat people and institutions purely as means and not ends, especially people as adept at that game as you are, it usually comes back to bite you.
And then there is the apparent sheer pettiness of the content in his book, announced in some form of pre-emptive strike through the Sydney Morning Herald. Fully expecting that his version of events concerning his downfall as a politician would be disputed by those involved, he squeals, even before the book is out, “I have a file note”; a file note of a hearsay conversation with Kerry Stokes about what Murdoch said to Stokes. Like any good lawyer Turnbull would know that such a note is not admissible evidence. But like any good lawyer, it is evident that Turnbull has been recording everything he has done in politics in file notes in his ‘file’. Does anyone really believe this self-conscious exercise has not been done with a view to later using his notes to flesh out a self-justificatory book and to give a tendentious veracity to Turnbull’s account, at least in the court of public opinion?
Turnbull may well be justified in expressing some contempt for the politicians that got the better of him, but it is hard to accept him as the arbiter of taste in these matters when this tragic man has, as usual, spent a lot of money and invited himself to their feast, and, when he could not get his way, turned on them and now seeks to publicly humiliate them.
There will inevitably follow a chorus of celebration in the media, but the not entirely unexpected net result of this process will be that he manages only to tarnish himself and the institutions and people with whom he comes into contact, leaving them, us and the quality of our public discourse yet further diminished.
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