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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