Once upon a time there was a boy christened Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. Bligh is a name the family uses in honour of Governor Bligh, of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ infamy, the fourth governor of NSW. Greatly admired by the family, this moniker evokes the aura of a distinguished person.
Born in 1954, Malcolm was the only child of Bruce Bligh Turnbull and Coral Magnolia Lansbury, a second cousin of the British film and television actress, Angela Lansbury.
Because his father raised Malcolm after his parents separated, he has the deepest respect for his father, who was killed in an air crash in 1982.
His schooling was at the best institutions: Vaucluse Public School, Sydney Grammar School, where he was senior school co-captain and won a literary prize, and the University of Sydney, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws, and then Brasenose College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he acquired the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law with honours. While at Oxford, a university don wrote of Turnbull that he was ‘always going to enter life's rooms without knocking’.
Seemingly set for a distinguished career, he was first a journalist, then lawyer, merchant banker, and venture capitalist. He made a fortune when he sold Internet service provider Ozemail
in 1999 for $57 million having paid half a million for it in 1994. He thereby had the financial backing for an exceptional career. His net worth is estimated by the BRW Rich List
to be above $200 million.
Even his marriage to Lucy brought prestige with it. She is the daughter of former Sydney QC and attorney general Tom Hughes. The Hughes family's political lineage traces back to Sydney's first Lord Mayor. Lucy herself was the first female Lord Mayor of Sydney.
But that’s not all.
In 1987, Turnbull established an investment banking firm, Whitlam Turnbull & Co Ltd, until Whitlam parted company in 1990 and the firm operated as Turnbull & Partners Ltd from then until 1997, when Turnbull moved to become a managing director and later a partner at Goldman Sachs.
It was obvious that Turnbull was a multi-talented and successful professional with the world at his feet. Surely fame and fortune would follow.
As a barrister he successfully defended Kerry Packer against the "Goanna" allegations made by the Costigan Commission
, and later Peter Wright, a former MI5 official who wrote the book Spycatcher
. Turnbull successfully stopped the British government's attempts to suppress the book's publication in Australia. Ironically, this trial required Turnbull to challenge a British law that prohibited free speech; Turnbull now seeks to legislate a similar law here!
The splendid oratory he used at the Bar is now being used in the political arena. We saw it recently in Question Time when he answered a question linked to the Barnaby Joyce debacle: ‘When does a lover become a partner?’
Turnbull’s tricky legalistic response was a feeble attempt to get his deputy off the hook, accused as he was of breaching ministerial guidelines in claiming travel allowances.
Turnbull’s political career stretches back for decades. He has had a long affiliation with the Liberal Party of Australia, but during his time as head of the Australian Republican Movement, he had considered running for a seat as a Labor candidate! Some of his colleagues still believe he is in the wrong party.
In 2000, Turnbull sought Liberal pre-selection for Wentworth but did not contest after being convinced that Liberal incumbent Peter King had the numbers. But in 2003, after a bitter pre-selection campaign, when King accused Turnbull of branch stacking, Turnbull prevailed. He was developing his political mongrel!
In what turned out to be a bitter three-cornered fight between Turnbull, King, standing as an Independent, and Labor candidate David Patch, Turnbull poured $600,000 into the campaign, which just got him over the line but made Wentworth a marginal seat for the first time. Money counts but does not always buy the planned level of success.
My research has not uncovered when it was that the burning fire to be prime minister was first kindled in his breast, but politicians tell us that many, if not all elected to the House of Representatives, harbour that desire, usually covertly. It was not long before Turnbull’s desire became overt.
He seemed to have the world at his feet. Urbane, likeable, even charming, eloquent and statesmanlike, what could arrest his inexorable rise?
Something seemed to be missing though. He came across as bland, hesitant, and at times uncertain. He spoke lavishly about how there was no more exciting time to be an Australian. He urged us to be ‘agile’ and ‘innovative’, but did not show us how. The image of a great new leader began to fade as the reality of day-to-day politics ambushed him.
I won’t bore you with tedious details of Turnbull’s parliamentary career. You know well enough his time as Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in the Howard government when he funded a foolish ‘rain-making’ scheme, his challenge of Brendan Nelson, whom he considered wholly inadequate as Liberal leader, and his defeat of him by four votes at the 2008 Liberal leadership ballot.
Will you ever forget his attempt as Opposition Leader to bring down PM Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan with his ‘Utegate’ accusations, only to be undone and humiliated by the admission of a Liberal ‘mole’ in Treasury, Godwin Grech, that the story he had spun Turnbull was fiction. The exuberant Turnbull had been sucked in because of his lack of due diligence, not a good look for a man of the law!
Who can ever forget the mess he made of the NBN as Communications Minister when ordered by PM Abbott to ‘demolish the NBN’? Not willing to follow Abbott’s instructions, he substituted for Labor’s FTTP model a multi-technology mix that he thought would be cheaper and quicker to roll out, yet be just as fast. He was wrong on all counts. Politicians make mistakes, no less Turnbull. Australia’s NBN now lags behind the rest of the world with lamentably slow Internet speeds. Distribution is uneven, and the cost threatens to run well over budget.
It is, however, his abandonment of some of his deeply held convictions that make his metamorphosis so dramatic, so disappointing, so disgraceful.
When he toppled Tony Abbott on 15 September 2016, the electorate breathed a collective sigh of relief that the awful Abbott and his nasty, punitive politics had been consigned to the backbench, and that at last this nation had a prime minister that looked like one, that spoke like one, that behaved like one. Turnbull offered to ‘respect the intelligence of the electorate’ and ‘give voters substance, not slogans’.
In response, they were prepared to put aside their memories of Turnbull’s mistakes, his errors of judgement, even his arrogance and adventurism, and ‘give him a go’. But since that fateful September day he has undergone a distressing and shameful metamorphosis.
Think back to school days when your teacher spelt out the stages of the metamorphosis of a butterfly. The adult butterfly lays eggs from which caterpillars (grubs) form. They pupate in a chrysalis until the pupal skin splits and a beautiful butterfly emerges.
Turnbull has exhibited reverse metamorphosis. What we at first saw as a colourful butterfly when he upended Abbott has morphed into a colourless grub.
Let me remind you of the instances when he put his deeply held principles aside to embrace the opposite, all in the pursuit of power, all to appease the hard right conservatives in his party who extracted promises from him in return for their support.
Turnbull’s climate change metamorphosis
His initial stand on climate change was strong and unequivocal. ‘I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am’. He even crossed the floor to support Kevin Rudd’s legislation to establish an emissions trading scheme, a move that lead eventually to his defeat by Tony Abbott by one vote in a Liberal leadership ballot.
In 2009 he wrote this in an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald
While a shadow minister, Tony Abbott, was never afraid of speaking bluntly in a manner that was at odds with Coalition policy.
So as I am a humble backbencher I am sure he won't complain if I tell a few home truths about the farce that the Coalition's policy, of lack of policy, on climate change has descended into.
First, lets get this straight. You cannot cut emissions without a cost. To replace dirty coal fired power stations with cleaner gas fired ones, or renewables like wind let alone nuclear power or even coal fired power with carbon capture and storage is all going to cost money.
To get farmers to change the way they manage their land, or plant trees and vegetation all costs money.
Somebody has to pay.
So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, "bullshit." Moreover he knows it.
Yet this is the same Malcolm Turnbull who has now so firmly embraced coal. He applauded his treasurer when he brought a lump of black coal into the House to demonstrate how benign it was. Don’t be surprised if he backs the Adani venture.
And as he extols coal, he deprecates States that have moved towards renewables, notably lambasting Premier Jay Weatherill for South Australia’s reliance on them after a severe weather event tore down hundreds of stanchions and wires, leading to a state-wide blackout. Turnbull’s sarcasm knew no bounds.
As part of the subsequent debate on energy security, fearful of power shortages in NSW, Turnbull advocated the continuance of the coal fired Liddell power station for a further two years beyond its retirement date, although the owners, AGL, insisted that it had become too unreliable and expensive to run. AGL prevailed and will shut it down in 2022. Moreover, Turnbull is not averse to the idea of building new
coal-fired power stations, even with a government subsidy!
So here is a shameful example of Turnbull’s metamorphosis from a strident opponent of coal and the pollution it creates, to a coal advocate.
Turnbull’s anti-pollution butterfly that initially flew so brightly has morphed into a dirty anthracitic grub.
Turnbull’s marriage equality metamorphosis
Malcolm Turnbull has always been in favour of marriage equality and has maintained his position on this throughout. But initially he was strongly in favour of deciding the matter by a vote in the parliament. He derided Abbott’s delaying tactic of a plebiscite of the electorate to decide the issue. But all that changed when he canvassed support for his leadership challenge of Abbott.
To garner the votes of Abbott’s conservatives, he agreed to carry out Abbott’s plebiscite. Becoming PM was more important to him than sticking to his principled position. So when he became PM he, and we the voters, were stuck with an expensive plebiscite, which morphed into a postal survey that still cost taxpayers $122 million. Cost was unimportant to Turnbull as he firmed his grip on power. To make matters worse, he was forced to give way to those who wanted to be free to vote against same-sex marriage regardless of the outcome of the public vote. His capitulation was complete.
In the end the people and the parliament voted strongly in support of marriage equality, and Turnbull publically revelled in what he implied was his own historic personal accomplishment.
On marriage equality, Turnbull morphed from a rainbow butterfly to a dowdy political grub. When the Marriage Equality Bill finally passed, he fluttered his soiled multicoloured wings just once more hoping to attract applause. Nobody noticed.
Turnbull’s metamorphosis on the Republic
As Chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, there was no greater advocate. When the ‘Yes’ vote that Turnbull promoted failed to get up in the 1999 referendum, due to John Howard’s sabotage, he declared that Howard had ‘broken the nation’s heart’.
Since then Turnbull has lost his enthusiasm for another attempt at a Republic, and has put it on his ‘back burner’, no doubt to placate the monarchists that abound in his midst.
Turnbull’s Republic butterfly that once flew so enthusiastically, has gone back to the pupa stage. It lies nestled in its chrysalis. Will it ever emerge? Will Turnbull ever get his Republic mojo back?
Turnbull’s metamorphosis as a politician
Finally, let’s look at what has happened to Turnbull since those halcyon days when the electorate was ready to embrace this stylish, urbane, well-spoken gentleman as their new PM. The political world was his oyster. What went wrong?
What went wrong was that Turnbull metamorphosed from looking like a statesman with his colourful wings beating attractively, a butterfly of which we could all be proud, into a common-or-garden political grub.
Of all the words evoked in vox pop encounters that ask people to describe Turnbull in one word, ‘disappointment’ tops the list.
Reflect on his early behaviour: gentlemanly, statesman-like, reasonable, and balanced. Look at him now. Whether in Question Time or in set pieces, in news conferences or in ‘door stops’, we now see a sarcastic, sometimes ranting man, whose vitriol against his opponents knows no bounds. He lambasts them, never concedes a point, and describes them in shamefully derogatory terms, almost frothing at the mouth as he does. His nastiness equals Abbott’s.
And if you think my assessment of Turnbull is too harsh, read Guy Rundle’s views in Crikey: Rundle: Turnbull is the most contemptible modern prime minister we’ve had
Is Turnbull’s deterioration due to the twenty-seven adverse Newspolls
, now approaching Abbott’s thirty? Is it the prospect of losing power, as he nearly did at the last election? Is it due to the unending pressure being exerted upon him by the antagonistic conservative rump within his own party? Is it due to the limited legislative success he has had as a hostile Senate thwarts him? Or is it due to impatience with the slow pace of change inherent in the political process, anathema to a man who seeks immediate success, to which he has been accustomed throughout his professional career?
Whatever the reason, it’s undignified. The flamboyant butterfly we saw emerging from its chrysalis on 15 September 2015 has disappointingly morphed, all too quickly, into just another shabby political grub.
Is Turnbull’s reverse metamorphosis now complete? Or is there more to come?
After the events of the last few days, clearly there is much, much more.