In Disney’s 2014 remake of Sleeping Beauty, a pure-hearted Green fairy who suffers a terrible betrayal is twisted into Maleficent, the evil creature after whom the film is named who wreaks vengeance using the toxic spindle of a spinning wheel. In the Australian version playing out in the federal parliament, Malcolm the Maleficent is the deadly prick, avenging himself on the traitors who brought him down with the help of his poison pen and his friends at the ABC.
Ever since he lost the prime ministership in late 2018, Turnbull has been doing his best to bring down the Coalition government. After his barbs and bombshells during the 2019 federal election failed miserably to derail the government, he pinned his hope of destroying his former colleagues by dishing the supposed dirt on them in a tell-all autobiography.
The mere prospect of a book by Turnbull was too much for his publisher’s insurer who refused to renew the company’s defamation insurance policy fearing it might be the book that would launch a thousand claims. ‘They named the memoir in particular, and they made the decision without even seeing a single page,’ said the publisher. ‘It’s as if they’re pre-empting the possibility of litigation even before they’ve read any of it, and that’s extraordinary… there have been five prime ministerial memoirs in my career and none of them have attracted litigation.’ That’s probably because none of them were penned by Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.
Turnbull launched a first pre-emptive attack against his finance minister Mathias Cormann, leaking extracts of texts to the media, before the book appeared, in which he told his colleague he was ‘weak and treacherous’ and should be ashamed of himself. This sort of leaking was devastating when deployed against Brendan Nelson, Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce but it has hardly made a dint in Cormann’s reputation since by then, a slap from the 29th prime minister was a badge of honour.
Turnbull was forced to turn to diplomacy to wage war by other means. This week, sources claimed he texted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry trying to thwart Cormann’s campaign to become Secretary-General of the OECD. If true, it would be a bitter blow that Cormann triumphed
Originally, the publication of Turnbull’s tome, A Bigger Picture, had been delayed as he was apparently forced to delete reams of venomous tittle-tattle making the attacks on colleagues somewhat cryptic. Then, in November, the ABC’s Four Corners broadcast an exposé by investigative journalist Louise Milligan into Attorney-General Christian Porter and then minister for immigration Alan Tudge that joined the dots.
Turnbull appeared on the program criticising the culture in Canberra’s corridors of power but journalists who had waded through A Bigger Picture noticed something else. Turnbull had launched veiled attacks on both Porter and Tudge in his memoir. ‘What was Malcolm Turnbull hinting at with his poison pen?’ asked one headline writer. References in the ex-PM’s book fit neatly with Four Corners’ allegations — including an ‘awkward’ situation that made one minister ‘turn pale’.
Milligan revealed that the minister in question was Tudge and the ‘awkward situation’ an affair with his senior media advisor. Affairs, by their nature, are consensual but Turnbull seized on the indiscretion and in the memoir he hung it over Tudge’s head like a sword of Damocles, hinting that at any moment it might ‘find its way into the public domain’. Clearly, by November, that moment had come.
Turnbull also mocked Porter for ‘tearing up’ over potentially losing his seat at the forthcoming election and claimed he had consoled him that if he did, he’d have more time to spend with his family, knowing full well that Porter’s marriage was already on the rocks. Ironically, it was Turnbull who teared up when he lost the top job.
For viewers, the Four Corners program was as satisfying as a gag without a punchline. Enemies of Porter dredged up scuttlebutt from university but all he was accused of was indulging in a consensual cuddle in public with a young woman who was not his wife, hardly a hanging offence.
The reason the program was as hollow as a doughnut without the cream was because, according to an anonymous letter sent to the PM, Milligan intended to cover the now-public rape allegations made against Porter but had been thwarted by defamation constraints and the objections of the woman’s family.
The facts of the matter were that the woman had withdrawn the allegation against Porter before taking her life, there was no admissible evidence to corroborate her claims, and her family had asked the ABC not to air the story as they were not sure what had happened given the woman’s bipolar disorder.
Yet the ABC published the allegations and its spokesperson claimed that this was acceptable because they were not linked to any individual. Yet almost immediately it was clear that Porter was the target and his name was published on social media while Turnbull called repeatedly for the anonymous Cabinet minister to out himself.
Having been subjected to a show trial by media that was surpassed in its savagery only by that unleashed on Cardinal George Pell, Porter has now commenced defamation action in the Federal Court against the ABC and Milligan. The most surprising thing about this development was that the ABC’s managing director said that he was ‘surprised’.
After Pell, as a man of the cloth, had followed the teaching of Christ and ‘turned the other cheek’, perhaps the ABC imagined they could ride roughshod over anyone. Porter, however, is a man of the law, indeed the nation’s first law officer, and has availed himself of the legal defences afforded all Australians.
Most Australians cannot afford to take on the cost of defamation proceedings. You need deep pockets when the ABC’s legal costs are paid by taxpayers. But it is precisely because the ABC’s staff do not have to worry about the impact of legal proceedings on the broadcaster’s bottom line, that they have acted as a law unto themselves.
Some may see poetic justice in the turn of events that will oblige Milligan and the ABC to defend their actions in a court of law, since nobody has been more strident in calling for an independent inquiry into the allegations made against Porter than Turnbull and Milligan. Indeed, the discovery process may illuminate ‘the bigger picture’, as it were, and answer the question as to who, in this modern morality tale, is the bigger you-know-what.
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