The Bulletin Boys
By Bernard LaganMarch 9, 2012
They are rivals now, each a possible Prime Minister. But in earlier times, Malcolm Turnbull, Bob Carr and Tony Abbott all were bright, young things priming their political ambition in with the camaraderie and commanding position of The Bulletin magazine in its heyday.
In the late 1970s, a gaunt, angular figure frequently appeared atop a desk at The Bulletin magazine's tight little warren within Kerry Packer's rambling Park Street, Sydney headquarters. He'd toss off his shoes, peer across the chin-high glass partitions that walled off each writer and launch into an elegant, achingly funny parody of the Premier for Life, a despot fashioned by blending the sitting NSW Labor Premier, Neville Wran, and the bloody Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.
Part piss-take and part prescient (Wran stayed Premier for a decade), Bob Carr's Premier-for-Life character could break out at anytime. Then The Bulletin's young industrial relations writer, Carr would scoop cartoonist Ward O'Neill's toddlers from their strollers, hold them aloft and deliver a stump speech.
"He relished that role," recalls O'Neill. "Some people didn't like it. They thought he was too ebullient. But a lot of us loved it."
Among the audience was another young writer, quieter than Carr, though emboldened with a towering self-confidence. Malcolm Turnbull was leading a frenetic life. He had been putting himself through law school while working as a political reporter for Channel Nine in Sydney, radio station 2SM and for the Nation Review magazine. The Bulletin's brash and sometimes thundery editor, Trevor Kennedy, had spied promise and hired him. Turnbull was paying a student friend, John O'Sullivan — now chairman of Credit Suisse Australia — $30 a week, plus expenses, to take his law lecture notes.
"I enjoyed Bob. Everyone liked Bob Carr. He didn't have any detractors that I remember," recalls Turnbull, who would later take his future wife, Lucy — daughter of the lauded Tom Hughes, QC — on their first date to dinner with Carr and his wife, Helena.
"I had thought that it would be nice to ask Lucy out with a married couple. She would be more likely to come, you know. So I said, 'Would you like to come out these friends of mine, the Carrs?' And what young girl could have been worried about that?" recalls Turnbull.
The regard between Carr and Turnbull was pretty much mutual back then. Carr remembers being astonished by Turnbull's guile. It was 1983 and Premier Neville Wran was about to face the Street Royal Commission over claims (he was later exonerated) that he had attempted to influence the courts. There seemed, to The Bulletin's staff, ambiguity in Royal Commissioner Justice Laurence Whistler Street's terms of reference.
Says Carr: "Malcolm Turnbull was only 23 or something and he said, 'I know what to do, I will call Sir Laurence Street. I will ring him and clarify this.'
"I would never have dreamt of ringing up a Royal Commissioner and asking, 'Would it be possible to know such and such, could it [the commission] take this direction or that direction.' But Turnbull just picked up the phone and called him. Turnbull had extraordinary confidence for one so young. That is the standout characteristic."
A few years later another serious, confident, opinionated young man — louder than Turnbull — would turn up at The Bulletin, a refugee from a Catholic seminary. Tony Abbott, holding degrees in economics and law, as well as politics and philosophy from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar, boxer and rugby player, had painfully relinquished his long ambition to become a Catholic priest near the end of his seminary studies. Still raw from the decision, he resisted Kennedy's and new editor Ian Frykberg's urgings that he write a cover story about why he'd left.
The Bulletin's issue of August 18, 1987 was a sellout; Abbott eventually produced a stark, tender account of his experience and ultimate disenchantment at Sydney's fabled St Patrick's Seminary:
'St Patrick's is not the place for you,' a senior priest told me. 'What are we going to do with you?' asked another after consulting my educational background.
'You are about to experience the worst years of your life,' said a recently ordained acquaintance. What on earth was I letting myself in for?
Trevor Kennedy — who would rise to the top of Kerry Packer's media empire, and go on to make tens of millions of dollars investing with Malcolm Turnbull — hired all three young men, Bob Carr, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. They wrote for Packer's Bulletin magazine, which tripled its circulation to above 90,000 under Kennedy. The Bulletin swiftly grew in stature and importance. So, too, did Kennedy's three hires.
"Look, they were all gifted with great energy and intellect and were all very ambitious people," recalls Kennedy. "Clearly Bob Carr, since he seems to have been born, wanted to be in politics. As did Malcolm. And, as subsequently did Tony. And Tony was up there with them in the context of being a Rhodes Scholar. People tended to think of him as not being hugely bright. But in fact intellectually he's up there with the best of them."
The Bulletin launched their careers; two inveigled the company of Bulletin colleagues to help win the women they would marry. Later they took widely different career paths; Carr into politics, Turnbull into the law and business, and Abbott meandered through journalism, the concrete business and, eventually politics.
The boys from The Bulletin are now back together in the Federal Parliament. Any could yet end up Prime Minister of Australia. Their epic ambitions have not waned in the years since they wrote for The Bulletin. But their friendships have. They are political enemies. Bob Carr is the Gillard Labor Government's new foreign minister. Tony Abbott is the leader of the Liberal Party who believes he will be Australia's next Prime Minister. Malcolm Turnbull is the rival Liberal Party leader Abbott deposed and still a man who many Australians would like to see as Prime Minister.
This is the story of how a once great — and now gone — magazine brought them together, the connections they kept and the deadly rivalries they now face.
Bob Carr has a blazing memory of the moment when he first encountered what it meant when people said they'd walked on air; Malcolm Turnbull had invited him to lunch.
Carr was barely 30 years old but feeling bleak in his job as education officer at trade union headquarters — the NSW Labor Council. A promise of a Labor Senate seat had evaporated. Carr already knew he needed a new career when Turnbull, then 23, called him after having a swim at the Tattersalls Club. Turnbull wanted to talk and suggested Carr come up to Tattersalls for a salad.
Carr and Turnbull had first met a few years earlier when Turnbull, working a summer job as a laborer hefting vegetables in Sydney's Haymarket, was ripped off by his employer. Turnbull sought help from union officials. He was referred to Bob Carr at the Labor Council, who listened intently to the oppressed young worker's complaint.
"Bob listened to my industrial complaint and Bob's response was, 'I've just read a very interesting book about politics in Eastern Europe. Would you like to borrow it?'" says Turnbull. They became friends and Turnbull, once he'd started on The Bulletin, sometimes sought out Carr at the Labor Council for help on stories.
On this day, over lunch at Tattersalls, the still youthful Turnbull had an offer to make to Carr. Would he like to join The Bulletin as a writer?
Carr remembers: "I said 'W-H-A-T?' And all of a sudden it was one of those days you remember for the rest of your life. It was a way out. It was a way out of a trap."
John Ducker, the dour northern English unionist who was Secretary of the NSW Labor Council, was the man who'd killed Carr's Senate aspirations. He was also Carr's paymaster. Carr knew he had to leave — but he had nowhere to go.
"And I said to Malcolm, 'You bet!'" recalls Carr. "Twice in my life I've had the experience of walking on air, of walking on a pavement so upbeat that I understood the expression 'walking on air'. And as I walked back to the Labor Council offices, I was so happy. I bought an electric typewriter at Woolworths opposite the town hall and started planning a career writing on industrial relations for The Bulletin… I was so happy, it was so fortuitous, I was so happy."
The second time Carr walked on air was to come in 1992, when Carr was invited to a party in New York hosted by the eminent American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., attended by some of the Kennedy family and writer Norman Mailer.
Carr had to spend an anxious couple of weeks waiting for Trevor Kennedy to make him an offer to come to The Bulletin. Kennedy recalls: "Malcolm didn't have any rights of hiring and firing and that sort of thing — he was another journalist on The Bulletin, obviously. But he came to me and told me that Carr was available. I didn't know Bob. Malcolm did convince me of his merit and talent, so we offered him a job."
Carr thrived at the magazine, writing across industrial relations and NSW politics, where he had well-placed Labor Party contacts. Under Kennedy's editorship, The Bulletin had amassed probably the richest minds in Australian print journalism; the political genius Alan Reid wrote from Canberra, Ron Saw wrote Australia's most consistently brilliant columns, Ian Moffitt was among the nation's best feature writers and a novelist, Brian Hoad was a leading reviewer. A young Robert Drewe wrote for the magazine, whilst establishing himself as a novelist and author.
Kennedy encouraged his writers to not only record, but to interpret and to try to predict. Carr wrote a novel piece, published in September 1978, that foretold the enormous changes to Australia's work places that computers would bring. Headlined "Are You About to Be Replaced By a Computer?", it convincingly attempted a word picture of how life in a Sydney law office would look:
In a Sydney law firm equipped with a word processor, a solicitor picks up a microphone at his desk and says "I want a letter based on precedent 198." He proceeds to dictate the appropriate details while his voice is recorded on a cartridge in the word-processing room, which is manned by only three operators. The solicitor had his perfectly typed document on his desk within three-quarters of an hour, instead of the usual four hours ... now productivity is up by 40 per cent and staff — including solicitors — are being reduced by natural wastage.
Carr's journalistic forays into politics included a glowing piece on Neville Wran's continued and startling success as Premier of NSW. He attributed Wran's success to his acute intelligence and ambition and noted that if Wran were a Democratic governor in the United States, he would be planning his assault on the party's presidential nomination. But, as Carr, lamented, Australia was different; for Wran to transfer to federal politics he'd have to be prepared for a boring and perhaps terminal spell as a backbencher and a large paycut.
For frustrated party elders, such as Senator John Faulkner, who tried to get Bob Carr into national politics after Carr himself became NSW Premier and notched up 10 years, Carr's refusal to go to Canberra — without a seriously important job — could be understood from that magazine article.
Carr knew exactly what he wanted in Canberra — even while he worked on The Bulletin. He wanted to be Australia's foreign minister. Lindsay Foyle, a cartoonist who rose to become The Bulletin's deputy editor, was on the magazine during the Carr, Turnbull and, later, Abbott eras. Foyle recalls Carr's ambitions: "He was always going to be foreign minister and as foreign minister he would go to the opera in Vienna. One of his great dreams was to be able to go to the opera in Vienna as Australia's foreign minister."
"Oh, yeah," says Malcolm Turnbull. "That was always his intent. He was always interested in foreign affairs, yes."
For all his industry as a writer and political aspirant, Carr remained the irrepressible office lark at The Bulletin. For a period, there was an unoccupied desk next to his with a phone that had a number similar to that of a trade union — esulting in a series of wrong number calls. Whenever that phone rang, Carr, according to Lindsay Foyle, would lean over and answer it, telling the trade union's callers: 'I am sorry, you are not allowed to talk to them. They are communists and you can't have anything to do with them. And what is your name? I am going to report you."
Carr bolted from The Bulletin in 1983 to enter the NSW Parliament and embark on the political career he'd long wanted.
Carr retains grand memories of The Bulletin: "I enjoyed the humour of the place, the company of those characters, the occasional long lunches, the weekly deadline which was a real luxury. I was able to go anywhere in Australia and interview anyone I wanted."
David Armstrong started as a writer at The Bulletin. His career bridged both journalism and business, East and West. He edited the magazine, later became editor-in-chief of The Australian and later of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. Now based in Bangkok and chairman of the company that publishes Cambodia's leading newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, Armstrong was struck by the work ethic of the young law student who joined The Bulletin in late 1976. Trevor Kennedy had noticed Malcolm Turnbull's reporting work for Channel Nine, radio 2SM and Nation Review and offered him a job.
"Malcolm Turnbull was a bit of a phenomenon," says Armstrong. "He managed to complete a law degree and win a Rhodes scholarship while holding down a fulltime job on The Bulletin." Armstrong particularly remembers the perfectly typed law lecture notes that John O'Sullivan would deliver to Turnbull. The important points were neatly highlighted in red.
And sometimes Lucy would aid Turnbull's frenetic pace by dictating his stories over the phone to The Bulletin staff. "Malcolm was just too bloody good," says Armstrong.
While Carr's ambitions in Labor politics were always clear, Turnbull's political aspirations were not. "It was never clear whether Malcolm was Liberal or Labor," says Armstrong. "And I am not sure that it was even clear to Malcolm for while. He was small 'l' Liberal, and very close to Neville Wran and guys like that."
Indeed, Turnbull wrote a highly entertaining feature in The Bulletin in mid-1977, "Nev the Nifty Media Manager." Turnbull's article forensically unravelled Wran's management of the Sydney news media and contained an insider's detail of how Wran managed to deny accurate leaks to newspapers of forthcoming Government announcements by changing minor details. This allowed him to dismiss the leaks as wrong.
The article belied Turnbull's later Liberal political affiliations by dismissing the State Liberals and their leader, Sir Eric Willis, as an unworthy Opposition to Wran. Turnbull ended it with the pithy barb:
Until the Liberals produce a leader with the ability to provide a researched, credible and responsible opposition to Wran, he will rule forever, unless he dies of boredom first.
Turnbull is remembered as the quiet over-achiever by those who worked alongside him on The Bulletin — an eager news gatherer often out talking to his contacts.
"Like any good reporter, I was out of the office most of the time," recalls Turnbull. "I was still at law school, so I'd occasionally have to nip off and go to the odd lecture."
For a man with such supreme self-confidence, Turnbull nevertheless had a reputation for co-operation and courtesy within The Bulletin.
"A lot of people said he had a massive ego and he probably did," says Lindsay Foyle. "But in that office he would not have been any bigger than most of the other egos."
It was clear however that Turnbull, like Bob Carr, was never going to spend his life as a journalist. In 1978, Turnbull departed for England and a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. He married Lucy, also a lawyer. He returned to Sydney in 1980 and began working as barrister, but maintained his links to The Bulletin and Packers, penning a law column under a pseudonym. It was called "The Officious By-Stander".
Bob Carr and Lindsay Foyle credit Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine for bringing Turnbull back into the full folds of the Packer family, leading to Turnbull's appointment as General Counsel for Packer's Australian Consolidated Press in 1983. According to Carr, Turnbull was dispatched to Chicago to negotiate for the Packers to publish Playboy. "Turnbull got himself into the job of going off and negotiating it," says Carr. "It was just extraordinary self-confidence."
Later Turnbull would go into business with Neville Wran, make millions investing with Trevor Kennedy and later chairing the Australian arm of Goldman Sachs. And a political career would follow — only to be thwarted by another of Trevor Kennedy's chancy hires on The Bulletin: Tony Abbott.
By the time that Abbott walked into The Bulletin to begin a fulltime job in the mid 1980s, Carr and Turnbull were gone. Trevor Kennedy had hired Abbott but Ian Frykberg, a highly regarded print journalist with flair for making television programs and money in the media business, was now The Bulletin's editor and Abbott's new boss. Frykberg, likeable and soft-spoken, with a big frame and a serious intellect, enjoyed a drink and rugby union. He and Abbott, who'd once played for Oxford against the Wallabies, got along.
Frykberg, not a Catholic but close friends with several, quickly understood something of the rawness left inside Abbott by his decision to give up his studies to become a priest.
In fact, Abbott had done his first stint on The Bulletin while still in the seminary some months earlier. Lindsay Foyle remembers both Abbotts; the one still in the seminary and on loan to The Bulletin and the later Abbott who'd renounced the priesthood.
Of the first Abbott, Foyle remembers: "He was clearly the sort of person that people noticed. He was loud. He was very much out with his views, which were very conservative. He was pretty much a political warrior and he didn't mind telling anybody what his political views were and how their views were wrong. He was against homosexuals, he was against sex before marriage and was basically against anything that the Catholic Church frowned upon. But he also had a bit of fun about him. And he would either laugh at himself or pretend to laugh at himself. He was certainly well noticed in the office."
Of the second Abbott, Foyle observed: "He was more free in that he didn't have this priesthood hanging over him. He didn't have this belief that he was going to be a man of God. It didn't mean to say he'd lost his beliefs. He just knew that he wasn't cut out to be priest."
David Armstrong was the one person on The Bulletin who probably knew Abbott the best. Some six years earlier, in September 1978, Tony Abbott had sensationally led a Right Wing student takeover of Sydney University's Students' Representative Council (SRC). Armstrong had done a story for The Bulletin about the highly charged clashes between Left and the Right factions at the University provoked by Abbott's takeover. Offices had been occupied, locks changed and police called in.
"We became quite friendly," recalls Armstrong. Margaret Aitken, a young Catholic woman from New Zealand who worked at the Rothschild merchant bank in Sydney, had read Abbott's article on his rejection of the priesthood. She later met him. When Abbott went on his first date with Margie Aitken, whom he later married, he chose Armstrong and his wife as companions for dinner in Chinatown. Years later, after he'd left The Bulletin and moved to The Australian, Armstrong got Abbott a job as a leader writer on the paper.
"It wasn't immediately obvious that Tony would have a career in politics, even though he was politically motivated," remembers Armstrong. "There was no obvious place for Tony to go. He wasn't an obvious Liberal and maybe he could have passed for some sort of Catholic Right ALP."
Ben Sandilands, another Bulletin writer, shared an office with Abbott and also thought that Abbott was headed to a Labor political career. "He seemed to see his political future in the Right Wing of NSW Labor in that he always appeared to be conducting his phone conversations at a fairly high level," recalls Sandilands. "He seemed to have contacts in the Right Wing of NSW Labor."
Ian Frykberg warmed to his new charge. "He struck me as being a young man with strong views," he says. "He was willing to learn and, as people who are obviously talented do when they come into a new place, Tony Abbott wanted to try and do stories on things that mattered to him."
But Abbott baulked when Frykberg asked him to write the cover story on why he'd left the priesthood. "That was not something he wanted to write about … my argument was that it was an unusual thing for a person who had studied long and hard and who was about to enter the priesthood then to have made the decision to leave all that behind. I thought readers would find that very interesting. He didn't want to write it. It was very close to him. But he did write it, and more power to him."
Not all warmed to Abbott, however. Ward O'Neill, the cartoonist, remembers: "Tony Abbott was incredibly noisy. He'd occupy the space as his."
In an office adjoining Abbott's sat a tall, elegant, Englishman. Brian Hoad had joined The Bulletin as a sub-editor and had become a leading theatre critic. Refined, quiet and gay, Hoad thought Abbott a figure of hilarity. When Abbott later left The Bulletin to try a management career at Pioneer Concrete, Hoad memorably remarked to Ward O'Neill, as the cartoonist recalls: "He's gone somewhere that's just perfect for him. Into concrete."
Abbott's re-entry to The Bulletin, the priesthood behind him, aroused a round of office speculation; had he ever made love to a woman?
Some who worked there insist that a plot was hatched for Abbott to be taken out on a serious drinking session by some male colleagues, led by a reporter, Martin Warneminde. The plan was that Abbott be delivered into the arms of woman who, unbeknown to Abbott, was a prostitute who'd already been paid for the services she was to deliver.
Ian Frykberg acknowledges it was he who suggested to Martin Warneminde that Abbott be taken out on the town.
Says Frykberg: "I certainly didn't take him out with Martin with that express view, but I did suggest to Martin that he might take him out for a few beers."
Did Martin take him out?
Frykberg: "Not sure."
But when you suggested Martin take him out, I ask, you thought Tony may have needed an introduction to a woman?
Frykberg: "No. I thought that Tony might enjoy having a night out with some journalist friends, that was basically … I am not sure what happened after that."
One of the stories that has come up was that you and Martin Warneminde organised for Tony Abbott to go out with a prostitute…
Frykberg: "Well I'd say that would be drawing a long bow. I certainly suggested he go out with Martin but what happened after that, you'd have to check with Martin."
Unfortunately, Martin Warneminde is dead.
When Tony Abbott was asked if he recalled the night, his office issued a statement: "A response from a spokesman is that the story is entirely fanciful."
Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of the alleged prank on Abbott, Trevor Kennedy remembers the era fondly. "There was a great spirit of camaraderie that existed in the place," he says. "The magazine was very successful. They were a great bunch of lively people, they were breaking a lot of news, we were an important publication. We used to have quite serious Friday lunches, that sort of stuff."
The Friday lunches were generally in the New Hellas Greek restaurant on Elizabeth Street. Carr and Turnbull were attendees and so later was Abbott. But none of the three had a reputation as big drinkers.
Turnbull recalls: "They used to call lunch the New Hellas school of journalism."
Says Foyle: "The lunches were a good thing for the staff because they gave everybody a chance to have go at everybody in front of everybody in a friendly manner. You'd get support or you'd get shot down. Carr was a sparse drinker, Abbott would have a few. Malcolm was always pretty busy."
Twenty-seven months ago, Tony Abbott wrested the Liberal Party leadership from Malcolm Turnbull by a single vote. Malcolm Turnbull at first planned to leave Parliament, but then decided to stay.
Bob Carr, most recently a consultant to Macquarie Bank, has been unexpectedly elevated to the Australian Senate to fill a vacancy caused by the sudden resignation of Senator Mark Arbib. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has appointed him Minister for Foreign Affairs to replace her defeated leadership challenger, Kevin Rudd, now relegated to the wilderness of Parliament's back benches.
The Bulletin boys are now together at the top of Australian politics — but they are not close. Any one of them could become Australian Prime Minister — even the next one. Their friendships have waned. Their ambitions have never.