Otto von Bismarck (in)famously said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best”. It is a sentiment I abhor. And Malcolm Turnbull’s tome of atonement – “A Bigger Picture” – unwittingly demonstrates with abundant clarity that the art of the possible is not what democracy should be. Turnbull, the consummate deal maker turned politician, has learnt the hard way how dysfunctional Australian politics is.
It was a long week of reading – 700 pages of what is at times illuminating insights into events, self-aggrandisements and the occasional glimpse into the man behind the public persona. When reading about public figures it is always important to remember that what we see is through a media distorted lens, and often quite different from the real person. Someone very dear to me who knows Tony Abbott, keeps telling me that he really is a nice guy in private!
That is not a view Turnbull shares, and he is unforgiving in his many lamentations of Abbott’s role as chief wrecker – before, during and after his stint as Prime Minister. No surprises there, but he is also quick to praise many of those that supported him, at least until those fateful days of August 2018.
The prose is mostly sharp. Turnbull knows his material and is not afraid to delve into the most minute detail. A more forceful editor may have been able to cut it into a shorter and more concise read.
Some detail of Malcolm’s early life is of less interest except for the most ardent fans, and much of it well known. Mostly abandoned by his mother, he was brought up by a doting father – by the sounds of it, a man’s man of his times. There is much of his father in Turnbull, including being a charmer and a net-worker of considerable skill. The family was not particularly well off, and although Turnbull senior made good money later in life, by then Turnbull and his wife Lucy had already amassed a considerable fortune in their own right.
Turnbull is a self-made man, and his wealth has often been used against him, particularly by Bill Shorten with his “Mr Harbourside Mansion” quip. But also within his own party where many were threatened by a man not just wealthy, but exceptionally well connected and fiercely intelligent. Envy is the root of much ill will.
The book starts getting more interesting as Turnbull’s obvious intellect and drive propels his career to early heights. An ambitious lawyer, one of his early high profile wins was the “Spycatcher” case where he took on the might of the English establishment. Prior to that, he had become well known for successfully defending Kerry Packer against the allegations of the Costigan Commission, although he made a few enemies in the process and left the NSW bar afterwards.
The Packer connection kept Turnbull in good stead during these years, and he likes to talk about the many billionaires and high profile wheelers and dealers he has met – a few of dubious distinction, including some of the more infamous “WA Inc” protagonists, but also the late media tycoon Robert Maxwell. And, of course, Donald Trump.
(His interactions with Trump are mostly well known. But as a peculiar aside, Trump allegedly told him that he knew Packer was guilty. That Trump would have any idea about that is unlikely, but apparently it was a point he kept repeating during their encounters. A more telling story is how Trump insisted Rupert Murdoch join the two of them in a meeting about Australian Steel quotas. To his credit, Turnbull refused.)
After his successes with Packer, Turnbull started “Whitlam Turnbull & Co” – an investment bank – together with Nick Whitlam (son of Gough) and Neville Wran, former Labor Premier of NSW. According to Nick Whitlam’s commentary on Turnbull’s book in The Weekend Australian, Turnbull was not well liked as a manager which is why Whitlam left after a few years, intimating that it is also a main reason for his eventual political demise.
Malcolm Turnbull is a deal maker, and although those skills can be valuable in politics, it is also likely to have contributed to why – as he concedes – he never quite understood the game of politics. In one of his more candid admissions he laments how politicians “are not rational people”, quite unlike his experience from the world of investment banking.
I confess to having a dim view of many of those that I have come across in that profession. Investment bankers are fee seeking balance sheet warriors whose outcomes are invariably focused on shareholder wealth, too often at the expense of sound business operations and the employees. Ozemail – the source of much of Turnbull’s wealth – is a case in point. I started working there the day the deal to sell it to Worldcom’s subsidiary UUNET was announced. I quit a year later – like so many of the management team – dismayed at the American executives who had taken over with no idea how to run a business in a country they didn’t even bother to understand. The business of Ozemail never recovered; Worldcom’s demise was quicker, much more dramatic and costly.
As a deal maker, self-confessed policy wonk and advocate of many good causes – including the Republican movement, Turnbull has displayed throughout his career that he has exceptional command of any subject matter that he puts his mind to. He is numerate and analytical in his approach to problem solving and policy making. He is often called arrogant, but his arrogance is not steeped in entitlement, he is genuinely a self-made man, borne on fierce intelligence, coupled with obvious charm. He likes to present as having the common touch, but appears to lack the prerequisite empathy to possess such qualities.
This is particularly evident in the most glaring omission throughout the book – any interest in people outside of the sphere of power and influence that he inhabits. Whether it is investment banking deals, negotiations with Obama and later Trump over the refugee deal, national security matters, “the people” is only mentioned in abstract terms, never as individual souls affected by his strategies and policies. Like the majority of our current parliamentarians, refugees in particular are nothing more than unwitting pawns in the political game of power and votes.
“A Bigger Picture” demonstrates more than anything what is wrong with Australian politics. Turnbull goes into a lot of detail of many of the “reform” achievements of his Government. The common denominator – almost without exception – is that the majority of the process is about the politics, the optics, the backroom deals that needs to be done for a bill to pass, the substance is seemingly always secondary. And almost every attempt at setting long term policy goals fails at the first hurdle – how it will look in the polls or the next election. The end result is the constant tinkering at the edges of the possible, at the expense of real reform and lasting change.
Tax policy is a good example. Turnbull gets into excruciating detail about the various details of every budget deliberation, and every year the result is the same. Not much is changed except a tweak here, a percentage drop there. And every year we get further and further away from fixing what is a complex, convoluted and archaic tax regime, hindering the ability to deliver better social programs and reducing our international competitiveness.
Equally instructive is his many stories of his front bench colleagues – especially Scott Morrison – always leaking, “front-running” and backgrounding to media, making policy making even harder. This narrative is also at the core of what to many is the “big story” of the book – his ouster. It is ironic that leaks from Prime Minister Morrison’s office meant so many people already have read and commented on those aspects of the book even before its publication. (Disclosure: I paid for my copy.)
Hence, I will not add too much to that commentary, except another quite surprising omission, the depth of details around the media’s role in his demise. Turnbull does repeat his much publicised conversations with Murdoch and Kerry Stokes in the days leading up to what he likes to call “the coup”. Elsewhere he reveals cosy dinners with SKY CEO Paul Whittaker. From an earlier passage about the “citizenship saga” there is an astonishing conversation Turnbull had with then Governor General Peter Cosgrove, who wanted to know if he needed to intervene. Allegedly both Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones had contacted The Governor General to suggest he should!
Malcolm Turnbull blames everyone else for his demise, including the media in general and Murdoch in particular. But he offers little detail on that score except for endless lamentations about Tony Abbott and his right-wing colleagues being constantly in the ears of “their” people in The Australian and Sky. Not once does it occur to him that this is as much of a symptom of the nature of party politics, unbridled ambition and factionalism, as it is the “fault” of the media.
Malcolm Turnbull was not a bad Prime Minister compared to his immediate predecessor, who was disastrous. Nor do I think Malcolm Turnbull is a “bad” person. Although in complaining bitterly about the disloyalty of his colleagues during his own ouster, he conveniently brushes over his own machinations when ousting Tony Abbott in 2015. The way he talks about regrets (including the Grech affair) and depression comes across as genuine, his love for his family is obvious and his pride in delivering marriage equality is palbable; and I suspect, will be his main lasting legacy – and well deserved.
But “A Bigger Picture” is most notable for what is between the pages: Australian politics, and by extension our democracy, is dysfunctional and in desperate need of reform; And on the evidence presented, the Liberal Party appears so thoroughly wrecked that I doubt it can recover while this crop of elected party hacks remain in Parliament and hides within the plush red decor of the Senate.