The Malcolm Turnbull I first knew in 1973 — when a former girlfriend of mine asked me to work with him on his Jack Lang musical Lang Is Right! — and the one I see on television today seems very much the same cheerful, troubled teenage boy.
Impatient, unsure of himself. Passionate about this and that. Impelled by logic and reason, and outraged that people don’t see things his way. Less intelligent than he is thought to be. Slightly, though not greatly, deficient in social skills. Both shy and blustering, like many an only child. Missing the sibling contact and parent contact that makes you whole as an infant, a child, a man.
Armchair Freudians who point to his mother’s desertion of him when he was nine often failed to note the worse insult that followed, which was boarding school. It was an hour’s drive from the family home and must have seemed a total rejection by both parents, a punishment for an unknown sin.
Small, pudgy, friendless (or initially friendless), brotherless, sisterless, motherless, fatherless (I recall hearing a story that his father once locked him in a cupboard for three days, and he thought he would die in there), he must have felt a total ‘loser’, a concept that in 1962 became widely known courtesy of the Paul Newman pool-hall film The Hustler, released that same year. There is certainly a coat-trailing quality about him, a Mercutio keen to pick — and lose — a fight. ‘It is only when a cause is all but lost,’ I once said, ‘that Malcolm Turnbull first joins it.’ Unfair of course, but there may be a grain of truth in it.
I co-wrote an unmade mini-series about him and the Spycatcher Trials in, I think, 1987, when he was at the height of his first celebrity, and saw a fair bit of him and Lucy in their home. I recall a quarrel they had over whether he should seek Labor or Liberal pre-selection. He narrowly favoured Labor; she vehemently (as the daughter of a Liberal Attorney-General) wanted him chained and manacled into the part of Menzies, and safe in that way from harm, and loudly said so. I was surprised to be in the room hearing this, and remember the occasion vividly.
He retains, I think, a calf-love for Labor from his early apprenticeship with Lang, his partnerships with Neville Wran and Nick Whitlam and his genial contacts with Gough, Bob Carr and other cultured Labor figures. And I strongly suggested after the roof-batts debacle and the first four deaths in that saga that Kevin Rudd sack Peter Garrett and offer Turnbull Environment and Finance. Being then in the sullen wake of his hair’s breadth defeat by Tony Abbott, I believed, and still believe, he would have crossed the floor like Churchill in 1924, seized the vengeful prize and die — as his mutinous role model Jack Lang did — in the arms of the Labor Party, his natural home.
His relations with the Liberal Party were famously edgy. He would say in party-room meetings, ‘Well, as Neville Wran once said,’ or ‘As Gough used to say,’ and really dismay them, roughing up their sense of club-room unanimity. They would wonder what secret faction he belonged to, what tattered flag he was waving as he led them up the hill.
He was not of their kind. He was a roisterous, intrusive, brilliant buccaneer like Gorton or Killen or Elliott or Hawke or Lang or Latham, not a prim team player with a buttoned mouth like Minchin, Ruddock, Howard, Nelson, Julie Bishop. The bluster that covered his shyness led them to mistrust him, to want, as it were, to breathalyse him before he did an interview. ‘The soul of indiscretion,’ his wife called him, and they believed that too. It was a white-knuckle ride with Malcolm, always.
I have written about him copiously in my new book One Hundred Days of Summer, out in August, and find myself in many a paragraph involved in his pain.
For he is a good man, and his conscience is real, and his conclusions (on the Republic, on the environment, on the way money works) are born of an angel wrestling with doubt of large and anguished proportions. He has never chosen the easy, smooth-talking, slippery path to acclaim that most politicians travel these days. He works hard at his opinions, and comes to them with abrasive difficulty and (as we have seen) personal cost.
That said, though, he was a fool in many ways, believing too readily in the knock-out punch, the silver bullet, the ultimate weapon, the terrible swift sword that would win the day. A minimal republic this was not. Gordon Grech it was not. The PM’s rusty borrowed ute it was not. It was a feature of his impatience, his fear that if he stayed too long in the cupboard he would die there. (Is this story true? It feels true.)
Like many a deserted child, he never had the luck. His father was killed before there was a chance to make it up with him. He sought pre-selection in Wentworth in 1986 but lost it to Hewson. He was out-soft-shoed by Howard and Reith and Abbott on the Republic, and narrowly humiliated. He lost the party leadership to Nelson by two absent votes on a late-arriving plane that might have given it to him.
Had he won that first ballot his career would have been very different. He would have seemed inevitable, predestined, the coming man, the party saviour, his foibles mere interesting adjuncts to a hero. And he could have been where Abbott is now, facing down a worried government whose poker hand looks increasingly insubstantial, and seeming very dangerous indeed.
Was he, as this organ last week editorially suggested, the worst Liberal leader since Snedden? I don’t think so. Hewson was surely that. He had only to do nothing to prevail. And he chose to run in slow motion through the surf instead, a curious thing to do, and to conduct evangelical outdoor meetings that smacked of the Hitler Youth.
Malcolm would never have done any of that. And had he won the pre-selection against Hewson in 1986 his history, and ours, would have been very different indeed. Who knows? He might have been prime minister instead of John Howard, and PM still.
Bob Ellis is author, most recently, of The Capitalism Delusion — How Global Economics Wrecked Everything and What To Do About It (Penguin) and has worked for numerous Labor leaders such as Bob Carr and Paul Keating.