Stop at nothing – Malcolm Turnbull’s fatal flaw?

The events of the week have given new significance to the title of Annabelle Crabb’s Quarterly Essay about the ‘Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull’ – Stop at Nothing.  This piece is to draw comparisons between Turnbull’s past behaviour and that which he has exhibited in the last week. [more]

Anyone reading the Quarterly Essay seeking to gain insight into Turnbull’s political persona, ideology and performance will be disappointed.  After all, of his action-packed 55 years, he’s been in federal parliament representing Wentworth for only five years, assumed ministerial responsibility as Federal Minister for Environment and Water Resources only in 2007, and was shadow Treasurer for a short stint before becoming Opposition Leader in September 2008. Before entering parliament he practised as a barrister, for a time was a journalist, was a businessman and a merchant banker for a while, and was leader of the Australian Republican Movement.   Most of Crabb’s essay is therefore devoted to his pre-2004 life.  The piece is well researched and referenced, but that makes some of the reading tedious with detail.  This piece dissects out some events in Turnbull’s life that shed light on his recent actions and behaviour.

There have been several pieces on The Political Sword about Turnbull.  Perhaps the one that most forensically examined his skills, written on February 24,  was Malcolm Turnbull’s intelligence.  The article concluded: “So shall we stop repeating the pointless mantra that ‘Turnbull is highly intelligent’ and then express surprise when he makes elementary political mistakes?  Shall we acknowledge that intelligence is not a uniform attribute, and that while Turnbull has intelligence in some areas, he has poorly developed political intelligence, acumen, or judgement, call it what you will.  The real question for the Coalition is whether he has the capacity ever to develop it.  Or will his universally acknowledged large ego and self-confidence render him incapable of learning from his political mistakes.  There’s not much sign of that so far.  If the prognosis is as poor as it looks, his party has a very fundamental problem.”

Nothing that has happened since has invalidated that view; indeed it has been reinforced.  Other pieces make similar points: Why does Malcolm Turnbull make so many mistakes?

Is there anything in Turnbull’s past that might explain what Turnbull has done this past week?

In Crabb’s essay there is a revealing account of Turnbull during the 1984 Costigan Royal Commission convened to investigate the activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union.  Turnbull, then aged 30, was representing Kerry Packer. Some sensational case summaries from the commission were published in the National Times that seemed to reflect adversely on Packer.  These evoked radical action from Turnbull, who later said “Tackling Costigan by conventional means was futile and I persuaded Packer to counter-attack with a violent public attack on Costigan.”  Turnbull wrote an 8000 word press release and followed this up with appearances on television and radio.  His barrister colleagues believed that Turnbull was no longer functioning as a legal advocate, but ‘as a vastly over-educated bouncer for Packer’.  But even this attack on Costigan was overshadowed by defamation proceedings taken against Douglas Meagher QC, who was counsel assisting Costigan, which claimed that Meagher had leaked the case summaries to the National Times’ editor, Brian Toohey.  Crabb writes, Turnbull “...ramped up the legal action with a series of provocative claims in the press, including an interview in which he claimed to have ‘significant evidence’ that Meagher had leaked the documents.  The evidence was never adduced: Turnbull and Packer dropped their action, and Meagher’s riposte was to have the whole thing struck out as an abuse of process.  Justice Hunt, finding for Meagher, delivered a crushing condemnation of Turnbull’s style, saying that his statements to the media had ‘managed effectively to poison the fountain of justice immediately before the commencement of the present proceedings”.   Toohey denies ever receiving the documents.

Crabb concludes: “From the Costigan affair we can draw some preliminary conclusions about the young Turnbull.  The first is that he has no regard for orthodoxy,...” and  “This refusal to ‘play by the rules’ is something of a lifelong pattern for Turnbull; it explains much of his success, but also accounts for the worst of his reputation.”...”The second thing we learn from Costigan is that violent tactical methods are not just something to which Turnbull will contemplate turning if sufficiently provoked.  It’s not enough to say that Turnbull is prepared to play hard-ball.  He prefers to play hard ball – that’s the point.  It is impossible to rid oneself entirely of the suspicion that Turnbull enjoys the intrigue – the hurling of grenades...”

Stop at nothing.

In the last piece The old rusty ute, I mentioned that Crabb recalls that during the run-up to the Spycatcher case, Turnbull and his British colleague, suspecting that their phones were being tapped by British intelligence, “...devised complicated techniques to unnerve intelligence agencies and Mrs Thatcher’s government...They staged elaborately hoaxed discussions to keep spooks guessing.”  She goes on to record some actual conversations.  So we should not be surprised at any technique Turnbull uses to achieve his ends.  He is prepared to ‘stop at nothing’.

Just these two instances from Turnbull’s past life give searing insight into his modus operandi.  He is prepared to be ruthless, unconventional, headstrong and stubborn; he is prepared to take risks, throw the dice, come what may.  And he is prepared to do it again and again, if at first he does not get his way.  He has supreme confidence in his ability and his assessment of a situation, and no matter what advice he gets to the contrary, he is prepared to press on regardless, sure that he is right and will prevail.

Last week we saw him, at a social occasion, confront Andrew Charlton, economics adviser to the PM, with the fact that he had some information that might jeopardise Charlton’s career if ‘he lied to protect his boss’, thereby telegraphing his attack on Rudd and Swan; then we saw him accusing the PM and Swan of corruption and misleading parliament over the OzCar affair, only to find the document on which it was based, an email, was a fake.  Undeterred, he turned his attack on Swan, even suggesting that since the bogus email came from Treasury it was Swan’s responsibility, not his, ignoring the way he had used the email in the media to condemn Rudd and Swan.  His attacks on Swan and to some extent on Rudd over ‘favours for mates’ has continued all week in and out of parliament, and he has disrupted proceedings with repeated questions on this matter, censure motions and calls for a judicial inquiry,  all as if nothing adverse had happened to him.  Even when he was confronted yesterday with the news that Grech, who is said to have generated the fake email and passed it on, was a long-time Liberal informant, he tossed that aside by saying that he was entitled to get information anywhere he pleased.

Many commentators have remarked on Turnbull’s impetuosity, his headlong incautious rush into situations that need careful thought, the absence of the ‘due diligence’ that one might expect of a legal man, his self-confidence and arrogance, and his lack of political nous.  The Political Sword has long contended that Turnbull is a barrister, a banker and businessman, but not a politician.

He continues to take his father’s advice: ‘keep on punching’.  He told his party room that the Coalition must continue to attack and attack.  That his reputation is being shredded day by day, even in the eyes of the media, many of whom have been supportive of him and the Coalition, seems not to concern him, much less moderate his action.  He seems to know only one way of proceeding – keep on punching.

I hope this account will be judged as factual as far as it goes.  The Crabb essay points to the personality of the man and how he thinks and operates, and coincides closely with his behaviour during the OzCar affair. 

The question for readers is: Is Malcolm Turnbull as portrayed in his past life, and as exemplified by his behaviour this week, a person you would wish to be Prime Minister of this country?

Is ‘stop at nothing’ Malcolm Turnbull’s fatal flaw? 

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24/06/2009As I wandered past the TV earlier I caught sight of Malcolm saying something about that fellow Swan giving favours to Rudd's mate. I couldn't help but remember why he got his nickname "Rainman". If I was Kerry I would have done a comparison.


25/06/2009Malcolm's fatal flaw apart from being Malcolm is, he is to arrogant to actually believe he ever made a mistake, and he thinks he is intellectually superior to any one else. This is the attitude of a person who never learns. Malcolm's leadership is terminal, it always was in my opinion. The events of this week will only hasten it's inevitable arrival. Cheers Eb P.S Thanks Ad for actually answering or acknowledging peoples posts to your site, its a credit to you and your blog to take the time to do so. ( I assume when your traffic picks up as it inevitably will due to the quality of your posts this practice will become harder to continue, but until then we appreciate your replies)


25/06/2009The inference that he is a Mark Latham mk 2 is born out by his disregard for anything other than his own ego, ignore facts if they do not fit into his game plan and ride roughshod over everyone. He still thinks he is in court and can browbeat witnesses into subjection. What have the liberals done to themselves to deserve this. Surly there is at least one or two Coalition members who can stand up and tell him where and when to go. We know they wimped out during APEC 2007 with Howard but backbones can be grown. As I see it the whole shadow front bench is tainted and needs replaced. One last thing I have been advocating that labor fight back re the big lie etc it took a direct attack on the PM to awaken the giant, stay awake, be alert and alarmed we have the fridge magnets to refer to.


25/06/2009Ad astra, Truffles has so many flaws it is hard to pinpoint which of them is fatal. At this stage in the 'affair' I wonder why the Libs do not call a halt to the whole business. It was reported yesterday that Truffles was advised by some colleagues (or senior colleagues) not to pursue his planned attack on the PM on the email evidence. He ignored that advice and now has tarred the whole party with his sticky black brush. Quite frankly, I don't think the Liberal Party have any idea how to shut him up or even how to minimise the damage he's already done and continues to do to his Party. If they lasso him and drag him off to a dungeon together with the boofhead Hockey, what do they do for a leader? One might be excused for asking the question 'what does the Nation do if they don't have an Opposition? Perhaps a handful of bi-elections might be the answer. It is all so damned silly that all this began with the attack on the Govt over the attempt to smear Rudd and Swan over the donation of a second-hand ute loaned to Rudd prior to the 2007 election. No-one in his/her right mind would conclude that a donation of this kind could possibly make Rudd 'beholden' to the donor and put his integrity at risk to repay the favour. It would only be the likes of the elite-minded Truffles who would countenance that a Labor PM and Treasurer would get up to the dirty tricks he, himself, would do without hesitation because he has no scruples about wiping his boots on anyone who gets in his way.


25/06/2009Definitely explains a lot about Turnbull. Thanks Ad Astra. Labor had John Falkner to keep a leash on Latham and, by the time of the election, Falkner was an exhausted man. Unfortunately the Liberals have no-one who could every control Turnbull They would be better off ditching him and start guiding a younger one to the leadership. Let Abbott take over while they are doing it. Costello must have seen the writing on the wall.

Bushfire Bill

25/06/2009Well, that was the week that was... Turnbull started out a rooster and has ended up a dead duck. Abetz has not aided. Rudd has shown his steel. Swan has not taken a dive. Abbott should have stayed in the seminary. Latham's ghost has been exorcised. Sloppy Joe Hockey scored an own goal. The mole has been found and he's a rat. Pies got one in the face. Milne threw a tanty and fell off the wagon. Dennis came back and realised it wasn't a bad dream. Grant didn't get one. Uhlmann decided he was a journalist after all. Farr will go a long way. And Harold Wiloson was right after all: A week really [i]is[/i] a long time in politics.

Ad astra reply

25/06/2009Ebenezer, Thank you for your kind remarks. I’ve taken a cue from Jack the Insider whose blog in [i]The Australian[/i] is, in my opinion, the best newspaper blog. He answers bloggers’ comments promptly, and often works late into the night. But you’re right, it may be difficult to keep up the practice of replying as the traffic increases, as indeed it is. There are three problems with Turnbull as leader; the first is that, as this piece suggests, he is unlikely to resign. Tonight’s Clarke and Dawe on the [i]7.30 Report[/i] satirized this brilliantly. Turnbull will go on believing that someone else is to blame; certainly not him. The second problem is that there is no obvious replacement, and the third is that the party hasn’t got the courage to up-end him, just as it would not eject Howard. So I expect he’ll be around for a while yet, and as self-confident as ever. As Chris Uhlmann said tonight on ABC news, Turnbull is diminished but not destroyed. The Liberal Party needs to seriously ask itself if it can win an election with Turnbull as leader. The opinion polls over the next few weeks will be interesting to read. Has the public been paying enough attention to the OzCar affair to mark him and his party down? fred, The Government has not missed the opportunity to remind Turnbull of his rainmaking efforts, and that while he was Environment and Water Resources minister he upped the ante from $2 million to $10 million, against advice, to support a venture in which his next door neighbour was an executive – the very cronyism of which he accuses Swan. His chutzpah knows no bounds. Bilko, I thought Albo’s christening of Turnbull as the Liberal Mark Latham was brilliant. Like you, I was pleased to see Labor hit back so hard over this matter, and do it so effectively. I hope they will continue in this vein. It’s the only language Turnbull knows. janice, I doubt if anyone in the Liberal Party has the guts to shut Turnbull up. They might murmur to journalists about their apprehension, but who will act? I think they’re just stuck with him, as Labor was stuck with Latham after he went off the tracks. Perhaps only an election defeat will do the job. The paltry issue around which this whole attack was initially mounted – cronyism, is something I might write about at the weekend. That so much time could be consumed on the supposed issue of ‘looking after mates’ is a serious indictment on our political system. BH, You’re right, the Liberals need to start all over again with new blood, and Abbott might be one who could serve as a stopgap until they do. But it’s going to be a long process.

Ad astra reply

25/06/2009BB, Nice comment. And there's a lot more to play out. The meeting between Grech and Turnbull (and maybe Abetz too) before Grech's last Senate appearance looks very fishy. It's hard to believe that there was no coercion of Grech, as that is Turnbull’s style. And all the time at that meeting Grech would have known that the email was bogus, as he was the author. No wonder he was so anxious at the hearing.

Just Me

27/06/2009Credit where it is due. A particularly good article from Peter Hartcher. And another article from David Marr and Phillip Coorey, which I have not had time to read yet so cannot vouch for its worth.

Ad astra reply

27/06/2009Just Me, Peter Hartcher's [i]SMH[/i] article [i]Brilliant and fearless but Paul Keating was right about Turnbull[/i] is indeed a very good read. The David Marr Phillip Coorey piece too is well worth reading: [i]The incredible shrinking leader - how the Opposition blew it[/i] Annabelle Crabb's [i]A Turnbull in a china shop is amusing[/i]. But I never imagined that I would read from Dennis Shanahan's pen the article in [i]The Australian, The Rudd you never knew[/i],25197,25695756-28737,00.html In it he says [quote]"Putting aside questions of right or wrong, justice or equity, Rudd's performance in the past eight days has been a political tour de force that has changed the way he is perceived, the way his colleagues and government operate and laid the foundation for the next election."[/quote] Shanahan concludes: [quote]"Rudd has now seen off, defeated or severely damaged four Liberal leaders (or potential leaders) in just 18 months: John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Peter Costello and Turnbull. The chances are that the new Rudd, although diminished in public as being like other politicians, will also beat any other Liberal leader put against him at the next election. That's why there's no leadership challenge to a terminally damaged Turnbull right now. There is a sense, as there wasn't just two weeks ago, of an invincible government led by a ruthless politician."[/quote]

Just Me

27/06/2009Rudd has always been underestimated by his opponents and critics, and always to their cost.


28/06/2009I agree Ad astra that I never thought I'd ever read such an artical from Dennis Shanahan. It seems the light has dawned on him and he finally sees 'the real Rudd' he couldn't see before. Perhaps the old adage 'it's an ill wind that doesn't blow anybody any good' is apt here and we might now see less campaigns of character assassination from the coalition.

Ad astra reply

28/06/2009Just Me, janice, This morning I see Tony Abbott telling us that we're now seeing the 'true Rudd' - ruthless, smearing, indulging in 'gutter politics'. So no matter what he does or says, in Abbott's eyes Kevin Rudd will always be a sham, a fraud, a chameleon who has duped the sleepwalking electorate for all this time about who he really is, and every day he prays that the scales will fall from their eyes and reveal, in all its distastefulness, the awful, nightmarish spectre of the 'real Rudd'.
I have two politicians and add 17 clowns and 14 chimpanzees; how many clowns are there?