The talented Mr Turnbull

The former PM has reimagined his time in the role, and Australia's media establishment has happily joined in.

Art by Shrawani Bhattarai

People go into public office for a number of reasons, and, ostensibly, there’s a certain degree of humility and altruism involved. The same lines are trotted out routinely from budding student hacks to weathered careerists alike; a desire to represent one’s community, to voice their grievances, advocate for their interests, and help those less fortunate. On campus, we’ll soon start to hear some of these platitudes in the upcoming USU Board race. Often however, this is all simply a smokescreen to justify a career in pursuit of material, selfish ends. In the 1970s, one such hack was Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, later to become our 29th Prime Minister. Turnbull, in his time at the University, was an avid contributor to this very paper, unsuccessfully vying for editorship in 1974.

Fast forward to 2020, and Turnbull has added his own piece of pulpy environmental vandalism to the growing genre of autobiographies released by resentful, deposed Prime Ministers. This cottage industry of manufactured rehabilitation has given way to an unrelenting downpour of glowing profiles, reviews and reprints of salacious excerpts in national broadsheets. Turnbull’s recent appearance as a major headliner for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where he is interviewed by Annabel Crabb, is no exception. Their conversations traverse much of Turnbull’s experiences as detailed in the book, and over the course of an hour Turnbull is indulged further and further into an endless pit of his own self-aggrandisement. He freely admits he was motivated to write the book so quickly after his demise at the hands of the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, the implication for the audience being that it is largely out of a residual anger and spite from the unsavoury spill that delivered us a Morrison government. 

Crabb’s initial interruptions, altogether more curious than challenging, are aimed at unpacking Turnbull’s psychology as an author over anything else — understanding the nature of his diary habits, or the lessons he learned from his recent contemporaries in writing autobiographies. This, however, quickly devolves into tittering flattery, as if Malcolm were an overstrung schoolboy in desperate need of confidence. As they reminisce over their memories filming Crabb’s famously vacuous Kitchen Cabinet and giggle about Malcolm’s wild transgressions of outdated New South Wales civil law on the waters of Port Jackson, one begins to wonder whether the ABC’s chief online political editor intends at all to interrogate any of Turnbull’s indiscretions as Prime Minister. 

The conversation then turns, on his terms, to politics — a reflection on his role as the contemporary saviour of media diversity in Australia, having had a key role in the founding of The Guardian Australia in 2013. Crabb goes to remarkable lengths to portray Turnbull as a man in control, describing his membership of the Liberal Party as merely “an intellectual exercise”, his relationship “one of convenience”. Her reference to his insouciance in the face of being exiled from his party takes on a tone of adoration that never seems to shrink; whether intentionally distancing oneself from committed ideology is a thing to be adored is another question. 

Crabb’s evasion of the marriage equality miscarriage stands out as possibly the most glaring omission in the entire conversation. On no other social issue was Turnbull more morally fluid and incomprehensibly spineless, capitulating to the Right’s cavalcade of culture warriors and their legislatively impotent plebiscite that permanently scarred this country’s democracy. In spite of the fact that 85% of the LGBTQ community would have preferred delayed reform over the survey process, Turnbull continues to this day to champion the eventual Marriage Amendment Act as one of his crowning achievements as Prime Minister, and a feather in his progressive cap. For Crabb, this is apparently just not worth pressing.

Turnbull does seek at various junctures to move away from his past and engage Crabb in the present, discussing the Government’s response to COVID-19. Extraordinarily, he manages to insert himself into proceedings here, noting how glad he was that the Morrison administration got on with their implementation of the JobKeeper scheme, at his urging. For all of her obsequiousness, it is here that Crabb seeks to restrain Malcolm slightly, bringing him back to the book and one of the most genuinely interesting elements of it — his diplomatic relationship with US President Donald Trump, and specifically the turbulent crossover period between the Obama and Trump administrations. 

Here, Turnbull manages to spin a story about getting Trump to honour a deal that resettled refugees arbitrarily imprisoned in offshore detention into one of delicate heroism and diplomatic prowess. Turnbull’s conversation with Trump is better known for the President’s remark about Australia’s offshore detention regime: “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.” He makes a point of his describing the refugees he tortured as “wonderful people”, whilst conveniently skipping over the fact that they had been detained at all. If one was reading the book in a vacuum, you’d wonder why they needed to be resettled in the first place. Naturally through all of this, there is little to no accountability nor interruption from Crabb; only knowing, pursed smiles. The bulk of the rest of the interview goes in uncritical circles around how, as a leader, he was formidable, accomplished, exceptionally progressive — and yet simultaneously powerless to the right of his party. It’s an extraordinary piece of sustained intellectual gymnastics, and it’s as grating to listen to as the book is difficult to read.

It is hardly surprising that Turnbull has attempted to reimagine himself as a moderate, classically liberal Prime Minister, shackled by the Murdoch press and a rogue, antediluvian cabal in his own party; even less so when we’ve seen the Australian media establishment come running to his aid. For those who continue to be marginalised by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison administration, it is nothing short of grotesque. Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet theory of political coverage seems to be that if you pull back the curtain, we come to appreciate the realities of political life, and the nuances involved in the callous policies of Coalition politicians, (who are actually just like us, if you’d just care to listen). 

This operates on the assumption that softball questions about fish curries and multi-layered pavlovas are enough to get politicians to open up at all, or on anything relevant. Politicians can be, and frequently are, likeable and charismatic; but this is largely irrelevant to their efficacy as public servants. Turnbull as a political operator has always known this — he’s spent years perfecting his image of an articulate, polite Liberal that was palatable across the political spectrum. Turnbull’s firm grasp of respectability politics (no doubt learnt in his formative years brown-nosing billionaires) is central to his historical resurrection, and we’ve seen it when any halfway-contentious social issue is raised — what is important for Turnbull is that we are civil and well-mannered, even if it is to the detriment of justice; because of course, he would never bear the brunt of what follows. In line with a lifetime of paying lip service to progressive movements, in retirement Turnbull has had the arrogance to brand himself ‘an activist’, and sees no issue of praxis in his arena being Twitter, where he’s recently proselytised about the climate action he never had the fortitude to deliver, and told people of colour to buy his book to fix racism. 

Instead of taking him to task over his time in office, or asking questions of him that could potentially see him become a more legitimate, if flawed figure in progressive politics in the future, our media establishment has chosen to simply fawn over him until his hurt feelings are soothed by a bestseller. Here, Annabel Crabb was no exception. Malcolm Turnbull didn’t need the curtain pulled back; we’ve been subjected to years of his trying to tell us how we should see him, with nothing short of disdain for those who sought to hold him to account. 

“Humility is for saints.”

Filed under: