Prime Minister In Waiting
By Bernard LaganFebruary 6, 2012
Malcolm Turnbull lost the leadership of the Liberal Party two years ago. Some think he’ll be back. As he says, even in demurring: “Politics is a crazy business…”
Malcolm Turnbull, tapered by a minute diet, tanned in an uncertain Sydney summer, is sitting at his expansive, dark conference table in the January cloth of an eastern-suburbs Liberal: polished brown boat shoes sans socks, pale cotton slacks and a pressed shirt, long sleeves down.
Turnbull is a man of theories. Today he will draw upon the writings of the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to explain why Americans have embraced philanthropy. And then there is the Turnbull theory of how to lose weight.
The latter, he says, is the simplest. First he went to a Chinese herbalist, took herbs and fasted for a month, losing 14 kilograms. He now concludes: "It is rather odd that billions are spent on diet regimes but the obvious thing is simply to eat less. I must say that I found the fast extremely informative because it made me realise I am in control of my own body and can control my appetite. It is a very good insight."
For a man of such certainties, hesitations are stark. One is triggered with the inquiry that reliably surfaces in any half-serious conversation about Malcolm Turnbull: Is he resigned to never again leading the Liberal Party?
"I wouldn't put it - if you ask me - let me put it this way, let me answer the question this way," he says in the only hint, in an hour-long interview, of unease.
He steadies: "I would say that I think it inconceivable that anyone but Tony Abbott will lead the Liberal Party to the next election. In other words, I think it is, in so far as there are any certainties in politics, he will lead the Liberal Party to the next election. I think it is not certain by any means, but there is a very high probability, at this stage anyway, that he will win the next election. So, ah, therefore for that, if for no other reason, the prospects of me leading the Liberal Party again are, you know, somewhere between nil and neglible."
There is a pause, and then: "But, you know, who the hell knows? I mean Tony Abbott didn't think he'd lead the Liberal Party either, so like I said, politics is a crazy business. So you can paint all sorts of weird scenarios. What was it Thatcher said? The inevitable never happens and the unexpected, always.'"
For now he is an Opposition front bencher; seven years in the Parliament, one year a minister, 14 months Leader of the Liberal Party, two years a deposed leader, and within three years of hitting 60.
Ousted is not a word previously part of the gilded résumé of Turnbull, journalist, author, barrister, grazier, confidant and advisor to Kerry Packer, investor, multimillionaire, chairman of Goldman Sachs, leader of the Liberal Party.
The leadership loss to Tony Abbott was, he now acknowledges, a deeply upsetting time: "I was, you know, down in the dumps, you know. A bit sort of disillusioned by it all, you know. That's a natural reaction to something like that, yeah."
Turnbull's first instinct was resign from Parliament, and he announced his intention. "But I was very torn," he says. "I was tossing it back and forth. It was one of those decisions I think that, in a way, you need to make to realise it's the wrong decision. You know, those times when you do something and you say, 'I knew I shouldn't have done that.'"
What else might he have done? "I wasn't really sure. I thought I'd probably go back to just investing and business, which I do enjoy, but, you know, there is a little bit of been there, done that. Look, it was a very tough time and very difficult."
His longtime friend, the lawyer and leading Sydney banker John O'Sullivan, met Turnbull as a debater in 1967, when both were 13 -year-olds leading their respective school teams; Turnbull's team, Grammar, thrashed O'Sullivan's, St Joseph's. Later O'Sullivan was paid $30 a week (plus expenses) by Turnbull to take notes for him at university lectures while Turnbull was off moonlighting as a journalist for the Sydney radio station 2SM and Packer's Channel Nine.
When Turnbull was dumped from the Liberal leadership, O'Sullivan was - and still is - chairman of Turnbull's blueblood Liberal Wentworth electorate committee and was intimately involved in his friend's deliberations about his future. There were, O'Sullivan says, three powerful arguments made to Turnbull in favor of him rescinding his retirement announcement: that he had a grip on policy that was hard to duplicate, his business acumen and intellect, and the fact that while Wentworth would be winnable for the Liberals without Turnbull, holding it would be tougher.
John Howard, commonly viewed as an Abbott supporter, was among those who privately urged Turnbull to stay, pointing out that he had lot more to contribute to public life and that he should stick with it.
Other well-connected people were invited into the Turnbull home over the period when he was in some anguish. One was Arthur Sinodinos, the well-regarded economist and policy guru who had been Prime Minister John Howard's chief of staff and his closest advisor.
Over that night's dinner with just Turnbull and his wife, Lucy, it became clear to Sinodinos that Turnbull was deeply regretting his resignation announcement. He seemed bewildered by the level of support people were showing for him to stay in Parliament, causing Turnbull to exclaim to Sinodinos: "Why haven't they said this to me before?" The dinner guest gently explained that politicians must not expect such unsolicited outpourings of goodwill.
Sinodinos, who entered the Senate in December, recalls: "I think he was a bit agitated about the whole thing, yeah. He came across as a bit agitated about things. You could see he was actively canvassing his options."
ON THE QUESTION of whether Turnbull may still covet the Liberal Party leadership, Sinodinos offers: "My view was that, by his decision to stay in politics, he was saying he had a contribution still to make. But whether that was leadership or some other thing - that was really going to be in the lap of other things. But I assume that by staying in politics he was keeping his options open."
Here Sinodinos draws a comparison with his longtime boss, John Howard, who lost the Liberal Party leadership in 1989 to Andrew Peacock in a party room ambush. Howard, who'd held the leadership for a little longer than three years, was devastated but, against many expectations, stayed in Parliament.
Howard, says Sinodinos, was not expecting the world to turn back to where it was - he wanted to make a contribution. Of course the world did, eventually, turn back to where it had been for John Howard; he not only resumed the Liberal leadership some five and half years later, he then went on to become Australia' second-longest serving Prime Minister.
" So, I think maybe a bit like Howard, he [Turnbull] was not expecting the world to turn around. After all, the Liberal Party had just gone to a new leader. But Malcolm was probably hoping he could still make a contribution in some form. And probably on a personal level, because he's a proud person - he's had a successful business career, he's had a successful journalistic career - he was hoping that he could at least make this chapter a successful chapter, rather than walk away unfinished or the verdict being that politically it [the loss of the Liberal leadership] was a cul-de-sac for him."
Of course one should not feel too sorry for Turnbull. He did, after all, stomp all over the Sydney barrister Peter King, who'd had only two years as the Liberal MP for Wentworth before Turnbull challenged his candidacy and elbowed him out in an extremely acrimonious contest.
King found the experience sorely bruising and was expelled from the Liberal Party after he ran - and lost - as an independent against Turnbull. These days he says he is happily back at the Bar and says of Turnbull: "Malcolm Turnbull genuinely seems to be treating the pursuit of politics as different from the cut and thrust of commerce and has succeeded in knuckling under to Tony Abbott's leadership - I wish both well. The ongoing success of Tony's leadership will depend on Malcolm Turnbull and others doing just that until the next election and during their period in Government."
Turnbull himself is more circumspect about who said what in their urgings that he stay on in politics under Abbott. One suspects, given Turnbull's connections, that his encouragers would have included business and government luminaries none too keen to share their views in public, nor with Tony Abbott.
Connections course like blood through Turnbull. We learn his current houseguest is Sir Ivor Roberts, the former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy, who famously - and doubtless appealingly to Turnbull - inadvertently ended the long tradition of the British Foreign Office of letting retiring diplomats speak their mind publicly by widely circulating their last telegrams home.
Upon his 2006 retirement as ambassador to Italy, Sir Ivor's valedictory telegram to the Foreign Office railed against its burgeoning management consultants and business-speak. Sir Ivor wrote: "Can it be that in wading through the plethora of business plans, capability reviews, skills audits, zero-based reviews and other excrescences of the management age, we have indeed forgotten what diplomacy is all about?" Within hours of the telegram's arrival, Whitehall ended the centuries-old tradition of circulating the ambassadors' valedictories.
It is friendship born of adversaries; Roberts was part of the British Government's legal team tasked with preventing publication of the hugely controversial book Spycatcher, by the former British MI5 agent Peter Wright, that exposed the intelligence agency's director, Sir Roger Hollis, as a Soviet agent. Turnbull was the young barrister who sensationally won the 1986 court case for Wright, overcoming the British Government's strenuous attempts to suppress his book.
We learn, also, that Turnbull once admonished Jon Corzine - then the New York-based chairman of Goldman Sachs and later governor of New Jersey - after Corzine remarked in a Goldman Sachs partners' meeting that Goldman Sachs's partners were entitled to their fabulous pay packets because they worked really hard. Turnbull says he retorted that most of New York's taxi drivers also worked long hours but earned far less. "It's true, he couldn't argue with that," recalls Turnbull.
The distribution of wealth - or the lack of it - is a topic about which Turnbull has much to say. And here he has form; as the writer Tom Keneally told the journalist Annabel Crabb of Turnbull: "I always felt that he was, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a minority among the new rich in that he had the feelings of noblesse oblige."
Noting that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has very recently favored giving shareholders the final say over executive pay, Turnbull says he has long advocated a shareholder veto over executive pay hikes.
"The corporate sector gets up in arms about this, but bad luck, you know."
He adds: "I say this not from an Occupy Wall Street point of view but just as an owner, an investor. I think the level of remuneration in some of these public companies is ridiculously high. Ridiculously high."
To the traditional corporate refrain that high salary packages are needed to match what is on offer internationally, Turnbull argues that there will always be a younger person of equal talent prepared to work for less: "I mean, people work for a whole bunch of reasons and it's not just the money."
He says he has long thought that his own financial success (BRW magazine in 2010 estimated his wealth to be $186 million) to be as much a blessing of good fortune as business acumen. He says he and Lucy have always been generous in their donations for what they regard as important social objectives.
Should other very wealthy Australians also give generously? They ought to, says Turnbull, though he wouldn't say they have an obligation.
There are a couple of goals Turnbull has set himself for the coming year. One is to read more fiction, a resolve he makes after reeling off the list of books currently on his bedside table: a new history of the Second World War, a history of Jerusalem and a history of the Athenian Navy.
The other is to write a book. "I have resolved to write a book this year," he says. "Probably a sort of political book. I will keep it under wraps for the time being."
Turnbull, of course, has material aplenty.