ANDREW P STREET The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull, the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat Reviewed by Chris Maher
Street continues to blend fact and witticisms as he takes on Captain Abbott’s mutinous replacement.
As your humble scribe suggested when reviewing The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, Andrew P Street could well have embarked upon a sequel if his captain had remained on deck.
And indeed Captain Abbott did remain on board the good ship Government, though demoted to the role of a disaffected deckhand ominously glaring at the poop deck.
It’s lucky for Street that Abbott’s still there to offer a sorely needed undercurrent of conflict, because Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, as Street wryly observes in his title, works tirelessly to make himself an increasingly small target.
Oh, such hopes had the thoughtful voters when Turnbull assumed the captain’s hat. A leader committed to intellectual inquiry and impartial action; a statesman to wrest back the party from the slavering rabble of the raucous right:
Turnbull had spent years featuring in the nation’s fevered imaginations as their prime ministerial lust object.
Sure, people had been prepared to endure Abbott or perhaps even put up with Labor leader Bill Shorten, if they absolutely had to – but the whole time they were thinking about Malcolm
But beneath the optimism following Turnbull’s elevation was the nagging fear that this was actually a Shakespearean tragedy, where the newly feted leader would be undone by his own ego, cowardice or indecision:
He was the one, as poll after poll after poll confirmed, whom Australia would totally leave their current PM for… but then, when it happened, it turned out that the commanding leader about whom Australia had fantasised for so long wasn’t quite the red-hot legislative lover they’d imagined.
This second volume of Street’s depiction of the Abbott-Turnbull-(Abbott?) government is more considered and richer in political detail than the first. In some ways, that is to be expected. The wit is still there, but no one can make funny with Turnbull material and expect Abbott-scale chuckles. Fortunately, there is plenty of opportunity to bring the Captain back to reprise some of his timeless classics, as well as some new ones, such as promising ‘no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping’ just prior to a series of leaks and ‘helpful suggestions’.
And there is a cast of new characters as well, including the rise of the ultra-conservative, anti-immigration advocate Eric Abetz. As with the earlier book, an amusing commentary needs a strong point of view, and Street clearly hangs to the left. Certainly a Liberal Party supporter wouldn’t dredge up the Abetz family history, full of infamy as it is:
Indeed, since he was born in Germany, Abetz was an immigrant himself. His great uncle, Otto Abetz, was a German SS officer imprisoned for war crimes, specifically the deportation of French Jews to Nazi death camps.
Bringing Abetz into the picture also gives us a chance to relive the otherworldly story of the wonderfully named Godwin Gretch, and learn about Abetz’s views on abortion – including that it gives you cancer, based on ‘a single piece of flawed research in the 1970s, rejected as nonsense even then’.
But the heaviest hitter amongst the new mutineers is Cory Bernadi, a self-styled ‘[Fletcher] Christian’ keen to see the captain pushed out to sea in a longboat. Put him together with George Christensen, a man so Christian he even has Christ in his name, the slippery Arthur (I know nothing) Sinodinos and Peter Dutton, the potato-faced man who upset the electorate with his Medicare co-payment plan, and the stage is set for a rollicking good time.
There are also a number of prior Abbottonians keen to prove they were always with Malcolm, while paradoxically staying loyal to their old leader. Previously staunch allies like Christopher Pyne and Scott Morrison get several pages to themselves – Morrison a whole chapter.
Then comes the double dissolution we had to have, ushering in an even greater cast of characters, including a host of delightfully medieval One Nation senators as well as ex-shock jock Derryn Hinch. The double dissolution didn’t provide the result Turnbull was after, and he couldn’t holster his disappointment:
Veteran political commentator Laurie Oakes was the first to slam the PM’s less-than-gracious speech. ‘It is the first time that I have seen a bloke who has won the election give a speech to say that we were robbed,’ he tutted on Channel 9.
I suspect this book will appeal to a wider audience than Captain Abbott, simply because while Abbott was ridiculed by the centre and left, Turnbull has just as many detractors on the right as well.
It might not be quite as funny as Street’s earlier work, but as an entertaining precis of the past 12 months of political intrigue, this book makes an enjoyable holiday read. And while many of the politicians’ shenanigans might seem ridiculous, venal and self-serving, in a global political climate characterised by Brexit anxiety and the Trumpian post-truth narrative our little gaggle in Canberra seems a beacon of honest, positive democracy. So rather than make you angry, it might just leave you with a wry grin to start the new year.
Andrew P Street The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull, the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat Allen & Unwin 2016 368pp $29.99
Chris Maher is a Sydney writer and journalist.
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