One hundred years ago, when I worked in commercial television, I was asked to prepare a slate of program proposals for a mini-mogul, one of the rare types who could write an okay script himself, and also raise money, and who was thus, to network execs, a god among gods.
After a fortnight’s work, I sent him the four pitches, each five to 10 pages, together with loglines. As we strode through the corridors of power, and he put his hand on the doorknob to enter the vast boardroom, I asked him what he really thought of the pitches. “Ha. Didn’t read ’em, mate,” he said. “Sorry, no time.” And, as the door opened: “G’day, Brian. What we’ve got for you is incredible!”
Forty nerve-shattering minutes later, through which he fired off an incredible string of bullshit based on the titles alone, we were out the door with three commissions – which would then be produced using the ideas I’d sketched out weeks earlier. They never got made, of course. The whole purpose was to make the faltering production company look in the game, and wait until an overseas player bought it out. It was only in the midst of that meeting that I realised the boss wasn’t a creative-turned-producer – he was a hustler who’d somehow managed to squeeze out a couple of scripts at the start of his career.
What was the thrill for the writer – the work of painstakingly making a script, a whole system, operate and progress – was anathema for him. He had to have zero content when he went into that meeting. He needed the adrenalin, the highwire act. And he appeared to have the old conman’s deep need, beyond mere self-enrichment, to fool people, and be long gone, three rooms away, before anyone realised what the hell had happened.
I think of that meeting whenever I see Malcolm Turnbull approach the mikes for a press conference, that smile cut so far into his face it’s as if the South Park animators drew him, that relentless Californian-mind-cult optimism bubbling through. My old boss was in the same game Turnbull has been in his whole life: the law student living at the racetrack and paying for someone else’s notes, the barrister doing it on the fly, the venture capitalist who tended not to stick around to run anything much.
For decades, Malcolm has lived off the thrill of the deal, and been long gone by the time the yelling starts. He’s been so successful at it that it’s got him to the one job where you can’t do that anymore, and in that lies the sweet contradiction of our current politics: everything Turnbull did that once gave him the imprimatur of command now makes him look deranged.
Why is this man smiling? Has he not heard the terrible news? Why is this prime minister grinning and mugging manically? Is he wilfully detached from reality, with no understanding of what sort of manner of personhood people want from their leader?
What worked in deal-making, and worked for a while in the immediate period after taking the leadership from Tony Abbott – when we were all relieved to no longer be living in a Dan Brown novel – has now become exasperating and infuriating, and contributes to the Coalition’s sense of total collapse. People have sussed Malcolm Turnbull. They’ve identified him as having that most fatal of flaws: he isn’t real.
We all find in others, as we find in ourselves, certain moments of being unreal, of floating free, of not getting to grips. In some people we find it as a whole affliction, someone detached at the very root of existence. We recognise them in the workplace as people with vast schemes that never come to fruition; in relationships, as those who won’t commit to one life path over another. From the parents’ group to the football club, such people, after a period of assessment, are quietly worked around. It is part of the continuous whole-personality assessments we all make of each other, building models, revising them. The fact that we can be “wrong” about someone is a demonstration of the process.
We build such narratives of character all the time. We build them in art, in high culture and popular, and we can go back and forth between the great and the small. As well as the rule of England, Shakespeare’s Henry VI is obviously about the running of a small theatre company – you can hear Shakespeare’s bitching about how hard it is to bring it all together all the way through. The Office, a bitter plaint at the life wasted by time commodified, is about the failure of democratic socialism, from Harold Wilson to the coming of Thatcher.
People have been doing it about Malcolm Turnbull for months now, making stories that explain him out of the things they know. Turnbull is the wanker from head office, the bloke who sold them a timeshare, the guy who seems to have an agenda, teeth-clenched, bearing all before him.
Turnbull’s pressers have become extraordinary things. He starts off ebullient and ends at the edge of mania. Whether it’s the collapse of the national broadband network, the slow-motion catastrophe on Manus, the ex cathedra pre-emption of the High Court, the slow striptease towards a citizenship audit, many have come to the same conclusion: Turnbull’s aim is simply to get through the press conference itself. It’s as if this is the deal that must be struck before he moves on.
Everyone is noticing this and wondering what makes Malcolm. The only people who aren’t trying to make this sort of interpretation are the parliamentary press gallery, whose job it is or should be. Despite our politics running like the inner workings of a Danish castle, the commentary on it runs like the council notices of The Wooropna Advertiser – a dutiful, deathful, exhausting documentation of tactics, manoeuvres, spin and public relations.
With only occasional exceptions – someone like Clive Palmer, who the press gallery can’t read at all and simply write off as mad – the working hypothesis of the gallery is that every political actor is rationally self-interested and transparent to themselves in their motives and desires. They could get away with this approach in the Hawke–Keating period, and, at a stretch, up to the end of the Howard period, when personality remained constrained by political forms, to a degree. But now we have a politics whose dominant figures have slipped their ideological moorings, and the interpretive gap shows keenly.
It was much in evidence three weeks ago, on an unusually high-powered Q&A. The panel included former prime minister Kevin Rudd, pudgy and grinning like a white chocolate Mao; Alan Jones, dressed inexplicably as Goldfinger; and writer Judith Brett, whose recent biography of Alfred Deakin seeks to interpret his political drive through his religious fervour, and both through his enormous will to self. When Brett referred to Turnbull’s optimism, there was general consternation: how could Turnbull be optimistic with so much going wrong? “You don’t have to be rationally optimistic,” Brett said. “It’s usually the opposite.”
At that, bewilderment was total. The same effect can be seen on Insiders, whose structure wasn’t designed to handle Tony Abbott, or many of the current crew. At points, the conversation glides to a mutual, doleful headshaking.
The machinery of political interpretation has run up against a political system that has produced four of the most possessed, driven and contradictory political leaders of our time. Mark Latham, Abbott, Rudd and now Turnbull have been men whose conduct and many key decisions have been driven by their distorted view of everyday life, arising from driven lives. To understand them is to understand not just political theory but human folly. The error was in thinking that political analysis could be limited to political decision-making: for these broken men, what was needed was the kind of sweeping psychotherapy from which tragedies are written.
Latham, having risen, wounded, needy, too close to the summit, spent the 2004 election symbolically reparenting himself, reading stories to children on the floor for the cameras – apparently in compensation for, by his own account, a patchy childhood. The one-time Whitlam protégé has become, of all things, the Down-Under correspondent of a Canadian white supremacist website.
Rudd was driven by a need for ever-greater control in every area of government, from his summoning of the populace to the Australia 2020 Summit, to his 2am phone calls to exhausted aides, querying stray commas. The roots of this are in a backstory of hardship and loss, his father dead when he was 11, he and his mother evicted from the family home and forced to sleep in a car.
And Tony Abbott – the man about whom psychiatrists could hold whole conferences – appears driven by a deep desire to fail, since success of any sort would represent compromise with fallen reality as it is. The star pupil of Santamaria’s last generation of activists, Abbott seems to have taken on all the mordant pessimism of the master’s final years. There was a kamikaze quality to his benighted two years in power, whether because he has never really wanted his ordained destiny in the first place or because he only felt real as a petitioner for a lost world to appreciative and equally self-pitying audiences. Now, his any utterance is like the rusty door of an abandoned cathedral creaking open at night, incense and sounds of a black mass spilling out.
Throughout this succession, their erratic vision of leadership wandered far from the implicit idea of political coverage, which assumed their personal ambition was to enact good policy. The discourse struggled to cope with the possibility that such drive might be blind to ideas, devoid of vision.
Turnbull was seen as a break from all of that. Instead, his eerie detachment has been the triumph of the series. His story is a corker: an only child left by his smart, glamorous mother at age nine, raised by a father doing his best. From there, the frenetic activity, the passage through endless rooms, the endless deals and the rictus optimism, have a touch of the Rosebuds about them. He gives the impression of being someone who, at some point, had to develop a relentless optimism or die away. What was psychically necessary has become the root of Turnbull’s much remarked upon “lack of judgement”.
Given this Grand Guignol procession, this Boschian carnevale of chaos, how is it possible that even the slightest gesture towards psychoanalysis – as per Judith Brett – meets with incomprehension? The question is the answer. It’s because there is so little acknowledgment of the nature of driven people that the most twisted and obsessive slip through unremarked upon. The more that major parties become clients of major donors, separated by the elite process of selection, the more we need to be able to talk about them with a language of depth, to make story from what is happening around us. That applies even to Bill Shorten, a man whose anti-personality disguises an apparent desire to marry his way right into the family tree of the Habsburgs. About to come through the door are more grinning folks, hand outstretched, who have things for us that are “incredible, just incredible”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2017 as "Character actors".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription