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What drives Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Arrogant, out of touch, lacking in honesty, but highly intelligent. Which Liberal leader are the electors of Australia describing when they tick off these characteristics?

It’s not Tony Abbott, although the first three of those descriptors now are seen by voters as defining our prime minister. The fourth one is the clue, for the punters don’t see intelligence as one of Abbott’s key attributes.

It’s Malcolm Turnbull. Not as we see him now, but as he was perceived back in mid-2009, in polling for an Essential Report, towards the end of his roller-coaster 14-and-a-half months as opposition leader.

Perhaps people forget the disastrousness of his leadership and how deeply loathed he was. Or perhaps as the author Thomas Keneally – an old acquaintance who has an abiding fascination with Turnbull – would have it, we have decided, given the circumstances, to forgive him.

If true, it would follow a pattern in Turnbull’s many and various relationships with business, legal and even political associates. He has put legion offside, but most will later decline to write him off. He’s somehow endlessly forgivable.

Whether the public has forgotten their earlier dislike or forgiven the qualities that bred it, it’s extraordinary that Malcolm Turnbull is again seen as a contender for the leadership of his party and the country.

Five years ago we couldn’t wait to be shot of him. His polling numbers were diabolical, consistently far worse than those of Brendan Nelson, the leader he had cut down the previous September. For the latter half of his time as opposition leader, Turnbull’s were every bit as bad as Abbott’s were later to become.

The difference is, electors never cared much for his predecessor or his successor. If you look at the opinion polling from Nelson’s brief time as leader, the outstanding figure was the number of people who fell into the “undecided” category.

And Abbott? We never liked him much to begin with. He came in with a net approval rating – that is, the difference between those who liked him and those who didn’t – of plus five, according to Newspoll. He recorded a total of nine modestly positive scores over the next four months, and then went into negative numbers for 76 of 77 surveys over the next three-and-a-half years. Not small negative numbers, either. Over that period he averaged minus 17, and went as low as minus 36.

Then, astonishingly, we elected him prime minister and went right on disliking him.

Inspiring ardour

But Turnbull was different. We started out loving Malcolm, and it is rare that an electorate actually loves a conservative leader. There is a saying in American politics that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love. Change the party names and it is just as true here. 

Conservative politics is predicated on apprehension about change. Progressive politics is predicated on hope for change. Love also is predicated on hope and is often an incautious thing.

If the people don’t usually love their conservative leaders, nor do those chosen leaders usually expect to be loved. The bond between them and their supporters is a different one, forged on more stable if less romantic notions of constancy and strength and the assurance they will proceed with caution.

Successful conservative leaders generally seek not to excite the passions of the electorate, unless it becomes necessary to drum up fear of communism or Islamism or environmentalism or unionism or some other threat, so as to keep the populace in line.

Their goal is to engender a quiescent acceptance of the status quo, à la Sir Robert Menzies. As John Howard often said, his aim was to keep people “comfortable and relaxed”. 

Contrast this with Australia’s whirlwind romance of ideas under the Whitlam government. Forty years on, at the memorial service for Whitlam last November, Noel Pearson said his government was the “textbook case of reform trumping management”.

True. But who loves a manager? 

Howard’s prime ministership lasted four times as long as Whitlam’s, and while it’s possible to respect someone whose aspiration – mostly successfully delivered – was to keep us comfortable and relaxed, it hardly inspires ardour.

But Turnbull did inspire ardour.

He came to us like the hero of a romance novel: rich, charming, witty, good-looking, brave and self-assured, someone who knew what he wanted and who was utterly determined to get it. He was a little above our station, too, which only made his wooing of us the more irresistible. 

We fell for him, hard. The first Newspoll after the change of leadership from Nelson to Turnbull saw an instant shift in approval from minus seven to plus 25. 

It was very hot and heavy for a few months. Then it cooled a bit over a few more months. Then, quite suddenly, voters fell thoroughly out of love with Malcolm. Now the self-assurance looked like arrogance, the charm a bit condescending, the determination too ruthless.

Too cutthroat

From April 2009 until his demise as opposition leader in December that year, Turnbull never recorded another positive rating. His average approval score was even worse than Abbott’s. Minus 20.

And inside the party, he was also seen as way too cutthroat.

Poor Brendan Nelson. He was a decent bloke, but he never had a chance. From the day he was elevated to the leadership Turnbull was trying to tear him down.

As Annabel Crabb recorded in her 2009 Quarterly Essay, when Nelson won the ballot he gave a humble and somewhat lachrymose speech to the party room, and then went to prepare for his first press conference as leader. Turnbull burst into Nelson’s office and berated him for his “terrible” acceptance speech.

Several weeks later, he rang Nelson to say: “Let’s face it, Brendan. You’re just no good at this. The best thing you could do is just step down.”

Turnbull never let up on Nelson until he was driven from the leadership and from politics. Rare in this story, Nelson is one who will never forgive him. 

On his way out, he gave a final interview to The Sydney Morning Herald. He spoke highly of a lot of people in the parliament, on his own side and the other. But when it came to Turnbull, he had nothing nice to say. The former president of the Australian Medical Association offered a diagnosis of what was wrong with Malcolm: narcissistic personality disorder.

“He says the most appalling things and can’t understand why people get upset,” Nelson said. “He has no empathy.”

That was bitterness speaking. In her long piece, Crabb cites examples of obvious empathy. And Keneally notes that while Turnbull can be verbally harsh, “in my experience he in no way picks on juniors – it’s people his own weight he’ll take on, and that’s an admirable thing about him”.

“If you’re a cabinet minister of the Commonwealth of Australia and you can’t take Abrasive Malcolm, you shouldn’t be there.” 

Although, Keneally adds: “I think he’s worked on Abrasive Malcolm.” 

Even his close supporters concede that he had to.

Says one: “A lot of what people [inside the party] complain about is not to do with his leadership, but with the things he did to get the leadership. He was too impatient to get the job, and in hindsight that’s cost him dearly. He’s much more zen now.”

Turning point

The turning point appears to have been after he lost the leadership by one vote to Abbott. In April 2010, he announced he would quit at the next election. Then after taking counsel from various people, within the party and outside, reportedly including John Howard and Arthur Sinodinos, he changed his mind.  

Since then we have seen Patient Malcolm. Until recently.

Three weeks ago the media were directed to the speech he gave in Los Angeles, in which he pronounced on the qualities required of a good leader.

“Leaders,” he said, “must be decision-makers, but they must also be, above all, explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change and why the government cannot solve every problem.”

This week he went on to give an object lesson in how to do so.

The Human Rights Commission had released a report into asylum-seeker children in detention. It was embarrassingly timed, but not, as Abbott declared, politically partisan. It criticised both sides. 

And the Abbott government does have a positive story to tell. There are 80 per cent fewer kids locked up now than there were under Labor.

When he was asked about it on the ABC’s Q&A program, Turnbull did a masterful job of unravelling and explaining. He was calm, he was measured. This was in stark contrast to Abbott, whose response was to say that the Human Rights Commission should be “ashamed of itself” and to attack in particular president Gillian Triggs.

Elsewhere on Q&A, Turnbull took the opportunity to heap praise on Philip Ruddock, the parliament’s longest serving member, well-liked by his colleagues, and who had just been sacked from his job as chief whip. Some saw the sacking as payback for Ruddock not having done enough to marshal numbers for Abbott before the recent leadership spill.

Turnbull described this as a “captain’s call” by Abbott.

It was only the previous week, after the “near-death experience” of a leadership spill, where Abbott prevailed 61–39 without even a declared challenger, that Abbott had promised to eschew captain’s calls.

The performance on Q&A was more subtle than Turnbull’s tilts at Nelson, but it suggested he was once again growing impatient.

Trying patience

Patience has always been the hardest thing for Turnbull. It is simply incompatible with his boundless energy and ambition.

The Crabb essay records that in his days studying arts and law at Sydney University he paid a friend to take notes for him while he pursued other interests.

“By 1976,” she writes, “he had managed to install himself in the NSW parliamentary press gallery and while playing hookey from his university studies, filed reports for Nation Review, for the Catholic Church-owned radio 2SM and for Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine. As he puts it: ‘I was serving simultaneously Marx, God and Mammon.’ ”

He was also doing work for the ad man John Singleton, who introduced him to Packer. Turnbull was always moving on to the next thing, often before he finished the last, and there are a million stories, with lots of dropped names, best told by Turnbull himself. 

The bare-bones picture goes like this. 

Law student/journalist. Wins a Rhodes Scholarship, and while at Oxford works for The Sunday Times. Marries Lucy Hughes, daughter of the Sydney legal/arts establishment.

Back to Australia, to work as a barrister. Leaves the bar in 1983 to become general counsel for Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press. Advises Packer to come out and name himself as the mysterious “Goanna”, and to go after the Costigan royal commission, which he believed had defamed Packer.

Back to the bar in Britain, where he successfully defended the former MI5 agent Peter Wright against charges of divulging state secrets in his book SpyCatcher.

That was 1986. In ’87, he was an investment banker, having set up Whitlam Turnbull with Nick Whitlam, son of Gough, and former Labor premier of NSW Neville Wran.

Onwards and upwards. Managing director and later partner with Goldman Sachs, the world’s most powerful investment bank, which later would be memorably characterised by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone magazine as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.

Then there was his chairmanship of Ozemail, and investments in a whole bunch of tech companies, a logging company in the Solomons, property all over the place. 

Plus extracurricular activities along the way, such as running the Australian Republican Movement, and getting involved in Liberal Party politics.

And of course there was money. Tens, then hundreds of millions.

A repeating pattern

These days people are apt to think of Turnbull as a very establishment figure. But he’s not, really. His parents separated when he was nine and his mother moved overseas. His father moved to a smaller flat and managed to stump the funds to send Malcolm as a boarder to Sydney Grammar. 

It seems wherever he went in his extraordinary career, he tended to upset the establishment. He upset the press gallery at NSW Parliament by retailing stories that were supposed to be kept in the lunch room. He upset the political/legal establishment in Britain with his highly unorthodox defence of Peter Wright, and the Australian legal establishment over the “Goanna” business.

He upset the media establishment by acting for junk-bond holders in Fairfax. That was a biggie. The story goes, he fell out so badly with Packer that the media mogul threatened to kill him. Turnbull threatened the same right back. They were estranged for a long time, but eventually there was a rapprochement. 

Forgiveness.

There seems to be a repeating pattern here, of people being drawn close to Turnbull, then falling out with him. Sometimes, particularly if it suits him, there is a reconciliation.

And that is apparently happening now, with the Australian electorate, as he is forgiven for alienating voters in his troubled stint as opposition leader. How does he win back support from ardent detractors? 

Turnbull’s very complex. He can be incredibly tough and abrasive, but he seems to bear no grudges. He’s charming, generous and erudite.

Says Keneally: “I find there is in Malcolm, when you look at him, in his cleverness, in his striving, in his accomplishments, and his affluence, which we envy, as antipodeans can never stop mentioning, there is still that little boy whose father found the money to send him to Grammar. There’s something poignant about the motherless, questing little Malcolm, and that schoolboy I feel is still there and I’ve got a considerable affection for it.”

‘Hard to deal with’

Greg Barns, the lawyer and refugee rights advocate who worked with Turnbull at the Australian Republican Movement, also admires him.

“I’m one of the rare ones,” Barns says. “I never fell out of love with Malcolm. He was certainly the smartest person I’d ever worked with. He has extraordinary energy, he’s not always easy to keep up with. He could be mercurial, but I never had a big run-in with him, although others did.”

Barns once worked as a Liberal Party staffer, although these days he is “estranged” from the party.

“The political establishment found him hard to deal with, as had the media, legal and business establishments before them,” says Barns.

And Turnbull found politics hard to deal with, too.

“He was pretty politically unschooled. He reminded me of John Hewson in that way: both were outsiders who came into the party – ironically into the same seat – without much interest in the machinery. In essence he is a small ‘l’ Liberal. I don’t think that’s changed. But he’s learned to cut his cloth to suit his position in what is now a pretty hardcore, right-of-centre party.”

Nick Whitlam had quite a different experience of working with Turnbull.

“He is incredibly difficult, and I don’t think that changed from the time I was working with him – or as he would see it, working for him – until when he became leader.”

Whitlam goes to the putative reason Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership – his support for the emissions trading scheme being proposed by the Rudd government.

“It occurred over that issue but not because of that issue,” he says. “He went into a party room where a whole lot of people spoke up and opposed the ETS proposed by Rudd. And he said at the end that there is support for this and that’s how we will proceed. And there hadn’t been support for it. That is a manifestation of his style.”

Or it was.

“He’s playing it a lot smarter this time,” says Whitlam, “although the whip comments were pretty pointed.”

He thinks that Turnbull could make it back to the leadership, “but I wouldn’t say he’s a certainty. He is deeply hated by some.”

Tom Keneally is an “old right-wing Labor voter” but he sees Turnbull as the sort of conservative the Coalition parties need if they are to stand any chance at the next election.

“He is the sort of conservative who is concerned about the stability of society. Equity as an outcome, equity as a means not only of dignifying fellow citizens but of making sure that everyone has a chicken in every pot. Whereas the Mathias Cormann/Tony Abbott version is there’ll be a chicken in every pot if the market looks after it.

“Malcolm might be a prince but he’s not the sort of prince that tramples people under the wheels of his carriage.”

More importantly, perhaps, Keneally thinks the public now sees something in Turnbull that makes him forgivable, and therefore loveable again.

“He still holds out the chance of development, and most importantly, for God’s sake, a bit of vision. I think the public can see he is a work-in-progress.

“Whereas Abbott gives a sense of being a work that’s reached the limits of its capacity to change.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "What drives Malcolm Turnbull". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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