Turnbull, the Liberal your ‘small l’ mother loves, staked his claim to “centre-cough-conservative” early on. He was a hack in every sense of the word: on first name terms with Honi’s readers, a prolific letter writer and a frequent character in other people’s writing. He had a finger in all the pies of student careerism: Turnbull was elected as a USU Board Director twice, worked on the Union’s Recorder, was the Student Representative on the Academic Board and was an SRC representative. He even ran for Honi in 1974, but lost. He doesn’t live in the public record quite like Abbott–there isn’t the same kind of BOYS WILL BE BOYS around Malcolm–but he proves an interesting character anyway.
Reading his contributions to campus publications and his reception among his peers, the portrait is familiar. He wrote sobering, centrist political critiques and clever, “old boy” prose. Among his opponents he was singled out as “conservative”, “vocal” and a punchline. In a list of 69 ways to turn yourself onto masturbation, Malcolm was gag 45– “Seeing Malcolm Turnbull’s balls through binoculars while bird watching on No 2 Oval”.
Honi circa 1975 was a radical place, Sydney University 1975 was a radical place. Conversation was dominated by the political upheaval in Chile, the divergence of political economy from Economics, Whitlam and Feminism. Young Malcolm saw himself as a sober anti-radical that could see things clearly.
Turnbull’s contributions to Honi vacillated between condemning the left–Whitlam, activism, political economy–and chastising the conservatives for their privilege. He describes the political landscape Whitlam inherited from the conservatives as warmed “by the steak-fed bottoms of the sons of Toorak and the champions of Double Bay” and is quick to point out that political advertising reforms are pointed squarely at conservatives, “friends with the owners of the networks”.
But mostly Malcolm wrote about national politics. He even wrote a sharp defence of proposed changes to political advertisements–arguing financial contributions should be regulated and that ads should be substantial, not gimmicky. “It’s time” comes to mind.
Yes, Malcolm found himself early. From day one he saw himself as the rational lone crusader. Criticising a group of students who resisted raising USU membership from $20 to $40, Malcolm wrote:
“But I am used to being beaten at elections and meetings, I am accustomed to being in a minority, and generally I know that neither I, nor my opponents, are entirely right and that by next week, we both may be proved entirely wrong […] The Corollary is frightening. We are only alive seventy years, and many of us less, so why plan, why build, why care for anything beyond an electrically comforted and carefully drugged existence, tucked away in a wasteful and tasteless hermetically sealed suburban paradise. I’m alright Jack, let tomorrow look after itself.”
Awfully familiar, isn’t it?
Perhaps looking back at a politician’s university career is a tedious exercise in dirt gathering. Malcolm himself, however, took no issue with this. Careful centrist Malcolm set his sights on the character failings of one Gough Whitlam, opining in 1974 on his imminent fall from grace.
“Old university hands will tell you that Gough Whitlam has always been arrogant. As the fairly well off son of a prominent public servant he lived at St. Pauls and upon buying a new suit would turn up to the English lecture ten minutes late, so the crowds could stamp with admiration as he entered in sartorial splendour […] he has even fallen into the trap of proclaiming his own prominent place in history. He is, on his own say so, the greatest Prime Minister since Curtin, or was it Menzies, with whom he has always compared himself. Needless to say these sorts of judgement are best left to the cunning fellows like myself as we thump out the truth on portable typewriters.”
He goes on to compare Whitlam to Hitler.
“[Whitlam’s] small but devoted staff had referred to him as ‘the leader’. Translated to German, that’s ‘der Fuhrer’”.
Ah well, we are all young once.
Perhaps the most notable episode from the annals featuring Malcolm is a USU debate, memorialised in the 1974 Union Recorder. “THAT A WOMAN IS JUST A WOMAN BUT A GOOD CIGAR IS A SMOKE” was argued fervently– the transcript is lyrical and outrageous. The bringer of the topic “didn’t want women and cigars interchanged, indeed he wanted the old values retained […] he wanted women to be women, not students”, apparently. Several men insisted that they “could see a difference between women and cigars”, Malcolm included. He delivered his affirmative in verse:
“The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Ms Liz Kirkby, took a more serious line. As an ardent womens’ Libber she saw a women’s place as being more permanent than cigars. She saw women behind every man (how frustrating). Which is better for the Liberal party––Sue Gaillie or a Corona, she asked rhetorically.
She thought the House should unite against smokers, against those “who would push cigars before women” (strange perversion).
Cigars may be good smokes but women are better pokes.”
This is obviously deeply offensive. Then again the whole debate was deeply offensive. The Union Recorder only registers one piece of dissent: “Ms. Julie Bishop objected to being seen as a sex object”. This isn’t the Julie Bishop you are thinking of; the current Deputy Leader attended the University of Adelaide.
Turnbull would later write a poem in response to the debate––evidently after a little bit of a stir (this situation remains opaque to Honi today). The Ballad of Gundamire is a lengthy–LENGTHY–lampoon of the topic, taking the debate’s premise to its logical conclusion: a woman is badly burnt, mistaken for a cigar. Take what you will from this.
In another debate on the topic, “Does Stripping Degrade Women?”, Malcolm argues something less grating. The Union Recorder reports Turnbull as putting forward “those who strip or ‘haunt the fork’ for money are no more degraded than those who sell their forensic abilities as barristers. The degraded people were the wowsers who moaned about ‘sexual exploitation’ and so on when they should be talking about wages and conditions instead of obscenity and the like”.
What does all this mean? Who knows.
One letter to Honi in 1974 alleges some sort of censoring on Malcolm’s part of a previous letter by Nobel. Apparently Nobel’s letter was missing some critical comments and titled “Malcolm got a hold of this one” by the editors.
Another letter records Malcolm’s desire to start paying the President of the USU a salary–$5000, roughly half full time minimum wage in today’s terms. The letter expressed concern that a culture of political careerism could grow out of this move. For what it’s worth, the contemporary President was apparently also opposed to this idea.
Perhaps pre-empting all of this analysis of young Malcolm is young Malcolm himself. In issue 26 of Honi 1974 wrote:
Getting in Early
I deny Everything.
Research by William Edwards and Isabella Trimboli
Artwork by Stephanie Barahona