The Godfather: Peter Corris on the outstanding success of Malcolm Turnbull
This may seem to be an unusual heading given my stated political leanings and the observable political facts, but bear with me. It’s based on a single premise, which will become clear.
Turnbull, although he claims to have been raised in somewhat straitened circumstances, attended Sydney Grammar School and the University of Oxford where he took a degree in Civil Law. On returning to Australia he pursued a variety of careers – journalist, barrister, merchant banker, venture capitalist – and became a very wealthy man. He gained renown and small-l liberal credentials as Chairman of the Australian Republican movement in the 1990s, a project adroitly aborted by John Howard.
Turning his attention from championing a progressive idea and pursuing money, Turnbull became Treasurer of the Federal Liberal Party and began to seek a seat in Federal Parliament. He was twice unsuccessful in his attempts to win preselection for the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth.
At this point his career appears somewhat chequered – cashed-up but with some nagging failures. For a man on the rise that’s not unusual; Napoleon failed to achieve Corsican independence through a coup; Adolf Hitler’s 1923 putsch failed lamentably; Richard Nixon lost to John Kennedy in 1960 before bouncing back when events favoured him.
In what political pundits have seen as one of the most bitter battles for preselection in Liberal Party history, Turnbull, holding a senior position in the party (and accused of branch stacking) was able to replace Peter King as the candidate for Wentworth. In parliament in 2004 and in Opposition after the ‘Kevin ‘07’ election, and a shadow minister, Turnbull was able to oust poor-polling fellow-moderate Brendan Nelson and become party leader. He then suffered another reverse when, failing to anticipate the hostility of what Paul Keating was later to call ‘the pre-Copernican obscurantists’ to his moderate climate change position, Turnbull lost the leadership to Tony Abbott, who won the election as the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd ALP self-destructed. Playing the poor polling card again, Turnbull was able to oust Abbott and claim the top job and win the next election with a paper-thin majority.
I’m almost at the point of stating the premise behind my heading, but a few more preliminary points need to be made. First, the Coalition would almost certainly have lost the 2016 election under Abbott (even Andrew Bolt declared Abbott’s restoration of imperial titles and the knighting of the Duke of Edinburgh stupid). Further, whenever I see Turnbull on television he seems, despite the many problems that beset him, happy – and I believe he is. Although Malcolm Turnbull may have welcomed a republic and favoured sensible positions on climate change and social issues, the evidence suggests that his overwhelming desire and need was to become, in foul weather or fair, Prime Minister of Australia, and he made it! So far, he seems to act as if it has all been worthwhile.