It is reasonable to accept that, as we grow older, our experience broadens and we modify our views about things. Whilst we should not necessarily be held to previously expressed opinions, it is nevertheless instructive to follow this evolution, particularly when it comes from the man who now leads our country.
A letter published in the school magazine, the Sydneian, by a 13-year-old Malcolm Turnbull gives us our first insight:
I have been concerned in recent months at the general feeling that ‘football is all that matters and when it’s over, rowing is next best… Colours, blazers and other gaudy paraphernalia are awarded to the muscle-bound types who can play in the First XV, row in the VIII, or do other such duties, but what glory is showered on the debaters and chess players and other such bastions of true culture?
Four years later, Malcolm was undemocratically appointed as head prefect and joint school captain despite a deputation to the headmaster pleading “anyone but Turnbull” because he was too domineering. This is somewhat ironic since his current popularity stems largely from the “anyone but Abbott” camp.
Schoolmate Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst said Turnbull had a “dearth of people skills”, describing him as a “plummy brew of eloquence, imperiousness and un-humble pie, plus a kind of sighing, saturnine resignation that his job necessarily involves being constantly surrounded by cretins.”
Writing in the Sydney University newsletter, Honi Soit, Turnbull lauded the Labor Party as a “wealth of opinion and class… diverse and less likely than the conservatives to blindly rally behind one great leader.” Menzies’ Liberals, on the other hand, had “warmed the treasury benches” for 23 years with “the steak-fed bottoms of the sons of Toorak and the champions of Double Bay”.
Speaking of this time, Bob Ellis described Turnbull as “Ardent, ambitious, promiscuous and old beyond his years.”
In his second year and studying constitutional law, Turnbull was outraged to find the population of country electorates was smaller than city electorates. Through the help of maverick businessman Gordon Barton, a High Court challenge was mounted, but lost. The Constitution did not guarantee ‘one vote, one value’, as evinced by the number of National Party representatives in Parliament.
Still at university, Turnbull became a correspondent for Nation Review, a now-defunct weekly. When, in 1976, prime minister Malcolm Fraser unveiled a proposal to return some income-taxing power to the states, the young Turnbull wrote of Fraser’s plan: “It is nothing more than a cunning attempt to offload millions of dollars’ worth of government expenditure back on to the states without giving them any means, other than imposing an income tax, of raising the extra revenue needed.”
States were not so much being sold a pup, Turnbull argued, as being given “a large, extremely hungry and undoubtedly treacherous hound.”
Writing for the Bulletin about the Queen’s 1977 tour of Australia, Turnbull wrote:
So long as we can stomach the fact that we have a woman who heads the most bankrupt state in Europe on our coins and banknotes, and so long as we can still appreciate the irony of hard-headed conservatives taking honours from a woman in whose name an enormous socialist bureaucracy regulates the lives and livings of a nation, then we will probably remain a monarchy.
Still an undergraduate, Turnbull started writing a legal column, The Officious Bystander, in which he called for the Chief Justice of the High Court to step down.
I have never respected the notion that judges should be treated as though they were a combination of Buddha and a vestal virgin. Their names have been noted and their performances will come under even closer scrutiny.
After some complaints about his style, he wrote “There’s nothing the matter with being vicious, in fact there is not nearly enough venom and malice in this pussy-footing society of ours.”
“I felt superior to them really. There are a couple of good things about being an Australian in England. For one, you don’t fit into that class structure, so you’re not restricted by it. England never felt like home to me.”
The Warden of Rhodes House reported back to the NSW trustees “He is less of a know-all than when he arrived, but he is always going to enter life’s rooms without knocking.”
Malcolm and Lucy decided to marry while he was studying in England. The Anglican vicar they had approached told them that Lucy, as a Catholic, and he, as a Presbyterian, were not part of his flock. “Your petty sectarian approach is unconstitutional,” Turnbull retorted. “The Church of England is the religion of the State. You are a servant of the Crown, not materially different from an ambassador or an admiral. It is your constitutional duty to prevent fornication in your parish.” The vicar finally relented and married them. Perhaps the marriage equality advocates should employ the same argument.
Law, Business and Politics
“In this economic environment, things are so hard that unless people are prepared to act aggressively they will not be able to protect their rights. This is a time for bold action.”
In the vicious in-fighting around the bid by the Tourang syndicate for Fairfax in 1991, Turnbull leaked a key document to the Chairman of the Broadcasting Tribunal (which was holding an enquiry to see cross-media rules weren’t breached.) It showed that Kerry Packer was aiming to control Fairfax, and had lied to a Senate inquiry into the matter, forcing Packer to pull out of the Tourang syndicate. Turnbull collected a fee of $6 million, and showed he was prepared to use leaking to win.
In an interview that same year, during a discussion about the appalling record of Australia’s regulatory bodies in prosecuting corporate crooks, Turnbull declared, “lf I were Director of Public Prosecutions, I’d have them all behind bars.”
During the republican debate, there were flirtations with the Labor Party. Graham Richardson said he was asked for a safe spot on Labor’s Senate ticket:
I told him if he wanted to be a Labor senator, the first thing he might like to do is join the party. After that little detail had been taken care of, he would have to spend around a decade attending meetings in draughty School of Arts halls all around the state.
In 2007, after Brendan Nelson defeated Turnbull for leadership of the Liberal Party, Malcolm burst in on a meeting. Nelson, a doctor, was not impressed:
[Turnbull] has a narcissistic personality disorder. He says the most appalling things and can’t understand why people get upset.
When Turnbull reversed that defeat the next year, Nelson said:
‘Malcolm has an intellect that you can’t jump over, that would be the envy of any one of us. But while the world loves talent, it pays off on character.‘
Keating’s assessment: ‘Turnbull is brilliant. He is utterly fearless. But he has no judgement.’
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