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Posted on 28 May 2020 in Non-Fiction |

MALCOLM TURNBULL A Bigger Picture. Reviewed by James McKenzie Watson

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Malcom Turnbull’s expansive autobiography, A Bigger Picture, is as much a rebuttal of critics of his prime ministership as it is a personal memoir.

In it, the 29th Prime Minister of Australia defends his legacy, savages his opponents and describes a modern Australia richer and more prosperous than the one he found upon entering office. It’s as self-assured and polarising as the man himself: consequently, your opinion of it is almost certain to reflect your thoughts on its author.

While split into five parts, A Bigger Picture reads as two distinct halves. In Parts One through Four, Turnbull describes his early life, his law and business career, his involvement in the republican movement, his entry into politics via John Howard’s Government, his six years of Opposition (including as leader, from 2008 to 2009), and his time as a minister under Tony Abbott. In Part Five, Turnbull recounts his time as prime minister from 2015 to 2018. More than half the book’s 704 pages are devoted to this three-year period. It’s perhaps a given that time in the country’s top job would be the centrepiece of any memoir, but it’s not as though Turnbull’s life prior to this had been inconsequential. This preludes one of the book’s recurring themes: Turnbull’s ambition is astronomical, matched only by his sureness of his abilities. Anything less than his achievements in the highest office – even those as internationally significant as the 1986 Spycatcher trial – warrant only a brief chapter.

The book shifts gears from chronological account to policy deep dive upon reaching Turnbull’s time as prime minister. He draws in close to examine the key international and domestic issues his government faced in his three years as leader. These include the delicate domain of China relations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, education reforms (remember Gonski 2.0?), and all matters economic (company tax reform, negative gearing). He also explores in detail the significant challenges he faced as PM, such as the same-sex marriage plebiscite, the election of Donald Trump, the Section 44 citizenship fiasco and, of course, the issue that toppled him twice – energy policy.

Turnbull himself decries the media’s – and the public’s – love of political drama. Yet drama is one of the defining characteristics of his own story. Much of A Bigger Picture is not about politics at large, but about the bitter machinations within the Liberal Party throughout the 2010s. Turnbull aims plenty of criticism at his political opponents (Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten both cop their share) but saves his most scathing attacks for those on his side of the chamber. One of the book’s clearest through-lines is Turnbull’s disgust for the ‘terrorist tactics’ used by his party’s right throughout the 44th and 45th parliaments. Armed with this indignation, he pulls no punches in his attacks on former colleagues including Peter Dutton, Mathias Cormann, Barnaby Joyce and Steve Ciobo. However, no-one comes in for as much vitriol and ridicule as Tony Abbott.

The abandon with which Turnbull writes about his former colleagues makes for some of the book’s most memorable moments. Shortly after being toppled as PM in September 2015, Abbott apparently approached Turnbull seeking the role of ambassador to the Vatican for Liberal party heavyweight Brian Loughnane:

The issue of sending Loughnane to the Vatican became a sore point with Abbott. In December, he became menacing and threatened, ‘If you don’t appoint Brian, I will be very fucking difficult. Very fucking difficult.’ When I wished him a happy Christmas, he told me to fuck off several times and hung up.

Throughout his time in office, he felt he faced two Oppositions: the Labor party to his left, and a large chunk of his own party to his right. On coming to office in 2015, he notes:

The bottom line was I had to expect I’d be fighting on two fronts – a reminder of Churchill’s apocryphal advice to a young man who asked whether the ‘enemy’ was over on the Labour benches. ‘No,’ the great man gravely observed, ‘that’s the opposition; the enemy is behind us.’ And so it was going to be for me.

Turnbull’s candour, about others and himself, defines A Bigger Picture. He unashamedly sets out what he feels are his successes and identifies the failings of others. This will undoubtedly smack of self-importance and arrogance to those who disliked him to begin with, and there’s at least some truth to that criticism. In particular, his account of his 2018 demise as leader reads as though the events within the Liberal Party occurred in a vacuum (that is to say, as if Turnbull’s own conduct had nothing to do with his fall). Nonetheless, this is clearly what he believes, and complaints of narcissism or egotism must be directed at the man, not the book.

Despite the bitterness and acrimony that defined so much of his public life, Turnbull remains surprisingly optimistic and, characteristically, proud of his legacy. He describes his enthusiasm for the future, and his strong conviction that Australia is placed to achieve great things internationally in the decades ahead. One thread that appears repeatedly is his lament for a lack of consensus on climate change. The urgency and frequency with which Turnbull returns to this theme identifies it as his core message. That, and his love for his wife Lucy and his appreciation for the life he’s led:

This is a very beautiful place, we are so lucky. I said to Lucy yesterday that notwithstanding a few disappointments along the way, we are so blessed – happy marriage, financial security, wonderful children, good health (touch wood), beautiful home and lives that while they might have achieved more had things gone better or we had taken different decisions, nonetheless were more momentous than the vast bulk of humanity.

This is an account told purely from Malcolm Turnbull’s singular perspective and, and as many critics have already noted, at times presents a one-sided view of history. Still, this is a review of the book, not the man, and the book is engaging, informative and challenging. Turnbull has a gift for prose that propels his memoir above similar works in the genre. If you found him an arrogant and ineffective politician, this colossal volume is unlikely to change your mind. If your indignation about the way he was hurled from office still smarts, this book will just add salt to those wounds. But if you’re interested in Australian political history, are willing to check your preconceptions at the door, and happy to acknowledge that enjoying the book doesn’t mean you have to agree with its author, then you might be pleasantly surprised.

Malcolm Turnbull A Bigger Picture Hardie Grant Books 2020 HB 704pp $55.00

James McKenzie Watson writes short and novel-length fiction. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. Find him at and follow him on Twitter @JamesMcWatson

You can buy A Bigger Picture from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.