Late last year, Geoffrey Luck reviewed ‘Born To Rule’, Paddy Manning’s incisive biography of the Prime Minister. Today, after an ill-advised double dissolution and near-death experience for the Coalition, we reprise that examination of a man disastrously blind to his own deficiencies
Every headhunter beating the corporate jungles for prey knows the best predictors of future management success are past performance and evidence of behaviour under stress. The technique is simple but arduous. It requires close scrutiny of the CV, rigorous cross-examination in a candidate interview, and forensic reference-checking with all relevant previous superiors, subordinates and associates.
On one level, Paddy Manning’s Born to Rule is just what it claims to be – an unauthorized biography of Australia’s latest prime minister. On another, more important plane, it can be assessed as a detailed report on the suitability of Malcolm Turnbull for the position of Chief Executive of Australia. On this basis, it is clear that Turnbull was a high-risk candidate for the appointment. Brilliant, energetic, ambitious — undoubtedly. But also with a fast-skipping career in which he showed himself arrogant, impatient, aggressive, individualistic, impetuous and, possibly, unstable/unpredictable?
Many readers, like this reviewer, will be surprised to find that largely because of those characteristics, what appeared a rocket-like trajectory to the top job involved several flame-outs, and re-launches. Well explained also, is how despite the temptation of many ALP friends and mentors, Turnbull made the objective decision that in Labor, his wealth would ultimately frustrate his obsessive ambition to become prime minister.
Manning manages to suppress his partiality through the fourteen chapters detailing Turnbull’s life story from its start in 1954. It is a well-balanced, fair, warts-and-all study of an extraordinary individual. To his credit, only in the final chapter does he come clean on where he stands as an admirer. Taking him at his word that he compiled this life history in a mere seven months, from the January Liberal Party leadership spill motion. It is an extraordinary achievement, and it would, therefore, be churlish to carp at some of the rushed writing, the clichés, and confusing detail of financial transactions. These aspects of the book are important but a little out of balance with the rest. The book is enlivened by catchy chapter headings: The Member for Net Worth; Grechery; Fraudband and Thatcher-Catcher.
Above all, it is a rattling good read. I say rattling because it reminds me of one of the old red Sydney trains – open doors, everybody on board, swaying and lurching, with Malcolm hanging on for dear life, hurtling onwards to a promised, but by no means certain, destination.
The Turnbulls – both Malcolm and Lucy – emerge as a strong family couple, proud of their ancestry from the very early days of the colony of New South Wales, and united in their ventures and purpose. Because Malcolm was involved in some of the most newsworthy events of the last 35 years, and associated with some of the leading figures in business and politics, Manning’s pursuit of him has also produced a fascinating potted social and political history of the times.
To understand the character of Australia’s new Prime Minister, we need only to follow the candid assessments of contemporaries handed out at every stage of his career. Manning has done his reference-checking well, for example:
An old schoolfriend, Andrew Cohen, once recalled that on his first day of boarding at [Sydney] Grammar, Turnbull stood in the doorway of the classroom and declared that he could beat anyone in the class at anything.
Turnbull was appalled at the bastardisation at the school and refused to submit to the fagging system.
I wasn’t going to submit to this sort of rubbish. I was then assaulted by four of these fellows who were big 18-year-old men. They belted me up and kicked me. It was quite a serious bashing. I mean, if it happened to you in the street all the people involved would go to jail.
So he told his housemaster, who had the senior prefects punished. Turnbull was not a popular boy, but no loner either. At 13, he demonstrated both his interest in writing and his tendency to pomposity with a letter to the school magazine, the Sydneian.
I have been concerned in recent months at the general feeling that ‘football is all that matters and when it’s over, rowing is next best….. Colours, blazers and other gaudy paraphernalia are awarded to the muscle-bound types who can play in the First XV, row in the VIII, or do other such duties, but what glory is showered on the debaters and chess players and other such bastions of true culture?
Four years later, he was made head prefect and joint school captain – but only after the headmaster had rebuffed a deputation pleading “anyone but Turnbull” because he was too domineering. So the bullied became the bully. Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst:
Turnbull managed to alienate almost everyone around him, students and teachers alike. A fighter and a winner, he nevertheless had a dearth of people skills: a ‘plummy brew of eloquence, imperiousness and un-humble pie, plus a kind of sighing, saturnine resignation that his job necessarily involves being constantly surrounded by cretins.’
No sooner at Sydney University, recounts Manning, that he stirred up a hornet’s nest with an attack on the university union, which won him a defamation threat from the professor who was president. And a biting put-down by a correspondent to the newspaper Honi Soit:
This thing called Turnbull is just a person that wants to have its name in print because that sort of thing is good publicity for Union Board elections.
Manning says an early influence during those university years was the writer Bob Ellis, who had a typically pithy description:
Ardent, ambitious, promiscuous and old beyond his years.
The two started to co-operate on a musical about Jack Lang, but it ended badly.
I was of course egocentric and always doing other things…eventually he came around to discuss the play and I didn’t want to see [him], so I told him to fuck off. He broke the door down and raged at us till dawn.
In his second year and studying constitutional law, Turnbull was outraged to find the population of country electorates was smaller than city electorates. Through the help of maverick businessman Gordon Barton, a High Court challenge was mounted, but lost. The Constitution did not guarantee ‘one vote, one value.’
Turnbull’s energy was amazing. He wrote steadily for Honi Soit, took part in debates, won the poetry prize his mother had won, fought (and was attacked) in student union politics, then found time to write for Nation Review, and broadcast on radio 2SM and Channel Nine. To juggle all this with his law studies, he paid another student $30 a week for his lecture notes.
He had wangled a seat in the NSW parliamentary press gallery, and stepped on a few toes. Channel Ten reporter Paul Mullins didn’t cop it, as Premier Morris Iemma recalled, years later:
This ambitious young turk, in very typical fashion, said something to which Mullins took exception. Next minute, the offender was on his back on the ground.
But all his work had paid off when Trevor Kennedy offered him a full-time job on Kerry Packer’s prestige Bulletin magazine. It provided an early outlet for his republican sentiments, on the Queen’s tour of 1977.
So long as we can stomach the fact that we have a woman who heads the most bankrupt state in Europe on our coins and banknotes, and so long as we can still appreciate the irony of hard-headed conservatives taking honours from a woman in whose name an enormous socialist bureaucracy regulates the lives and livings of a nation, then we will probably remain a monarchy.
When Turnbull conceived the idea of writing a legal column as The Officious Bystander, he soon made waves — and enemies. Not yet graduated, he fired back at critics in true undergraduate style.
I have never respected the notion that judges should be treated as though they were a combination of Buddha and a vestal virgin. Their names have been noted and their performances will come under even closer scrutiny.
And he called for the Chief Justice of the High Court to step down! After more complaints about his style, he lashed out.
There’s nothing the matter with being vicious, In fact there is not nearly enough venom and malice in this pussy-footing society of ours.
Kennedy and Trevor Sykes, who took over from him, in 1980, were impressed:
You only needed a couple of minutes in his presence and it was bloody obvious he had a brain and a half.
Winning a Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford, where he didn’t fit in.
I felt superior to them really. There are a couple of good things about being an Australian in England. For one, you don’t fit into that class structure, so you’re not restricted by it. England never felt like home to me.
After a flirtation with journalism at the Sunday Times (which didn’t publish him for eleven months, and never used a story) Turnbull settled down to become a model student. The Warden of Rhodes House reported back to the NSW trustees.
‘Turnbull had begun to find his level and to stretch his ability. This has dented his arrogance usefully, but I expect it will bounce back. He has the manner of a likeable rascal but I hope there is more to him than that. Assuredly he does not suffer from shyness.’
He is less of a know-all than when he arrived, but he is always going to enter life’s rooms without knocking.
He did just that when he burst in on Brendan Nelson at a meeting after he had defeated Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party in 2007. Nelson, a doctor, was not impressed:
[Turnbull] has a narcissistic personality disorder. He says the most appalling things and can’t understand why people get upset.
Graduated, Turnbull went to work first as a solicitor, then a barrister, but seemed unsettled:
The media business has always been my real love; I’m temperamentally more a journalist than a lawyer.
In the early ‘eighties, Turnbull had his first flirtation with politics, and his first setbacks, with unsuccessful bids for Liberal Party selection for Wentworth (Federal) and Mosman (NSW). By the age of only 29, he was corporate legal counsel to Kerry Packer and his Consolidated Press Holdings. Not long after helping take the group private, he found himself defending Packer from allegations of drug dealing, tax evasion, even murder, as Packer got caught up in the investigations of the Costigan Royal Commission under the offensive code-name “Goanna”. On Turnbull’s advice, Packer “outed” himself in a 5000-word rebuttal . Manning says “the voice is recognizably Turnbull’s – combative, legalistic and full of the triumphant debater’s galling logic”. On television, Turnbull excoriated Costigan as “Unjust, incompetent, a statutory Savanarola who felt he had a licence to libel.” In the middle of the Costigan furore, Trevor Kennedy, ACP Managing Director observed:
Malcolm probably wouldn’t even be satisfied with being prime minister of Australia. He’d probably rather be prime minister of the world.
But what brought Turnbull to the public’s attention was the excitement surrounding what seemed a spectacular defeat of the Poms in the Spycatcher case, soon after he had set up his own law firm. In reality, the British government had a weak case, and as Manning makes clear, there wasn’t much law in it. Turnbull used the media, politics and PR techniques to buttress his cross-examinations. But he admitted, “Lucy’s public international law had won the day.” Nevertheless he was not slow to claim credit:
I hope I don’t exaggerate my abilities. By the same token, nobody would accuse me of hiding my light under a bushel.
Nevertheless, Turnbull seemed to sense that, notwithstanding phenomenal sales of the Spycatcher book (his own The Spycatcher Trial fizzled), the public acclaim was exaggerated. His comment, “I don’t know whether it will do a lot or a little (for the career). It’s not as though there’s a great line of business in espionage memoir cases”, indicated he was already thinking of moving on. This meant investing in a couple of small companies, both of which failed in a few years, then setting up a cleaning company with former premier Neville Wran, before establishing a boutique merchant bank with Gough Whitlam’s son, Nick. After millions of dollars in fees for advising Fairfax (advice which youngWarwick Fairfax didn’t take, costing him the company) Turnbull was on the way to wealth:
I’m just starting to realise that I am unquestionable an adult, that I can’t go around an pretend otherwise…..Well now, I don’t want to pay obeisance to anybody.
Whitlam Turnbull lasted less than three years as the partners fell out. Whitlam claimed there was a constant feeling of crisis in the office, with staff resentment of Turnbull, whom they dubbed “The Ayatollah.” Later, in the vicious in-fighting around the bid by the Tourang syndicate for Fairfax, Turnbull leaked a key document to the Chairman of the Broadcasting Tribunal (which was holding an enquiry to see cross-media rules weren’t breached.) It showed that Kerry Packer was aiming to control Fairfax, and had lied to a Senate inquiry into the matter, forcing Packer to pull out of the Tourang syndicate. Turnbull collected a fee of $6 million, and showed he was prepared to use leaking to win. Sydney University academic Rod Tiffen had the last word:
I think the first thing that should be said is that what Malcolm Turnbull did helped Australian democracy.
Money continued to flow in – from his major shareholding in Fairfax, from a logging concession in the Solomons sold profitably in nine months, and from advisory work. But there was a string of investment failures – a Siberian gold mine, a zinc project in China, Ghana Gold, and Air Australia International, a planned weekly Sydney-Beijing service. The jackpot came with Ozemail, the innovative ISP Turnbull and others helped to prop up with an injection of capital, and went on to yield him $40 million. He was a joint investor and chairman. Ozemail’s founder and visionary, Sean Howard, found it necessary in 2010 to clarify Turnbull’s role.
I do wish Malcolm Turnbull would stop claiming, as he did on the ABC yesterday, that ‘I’ve been involved in the internet since 1994 when we started Ozemail.’ The corporate entity which ran Ozemail changed in 1994 when Trevor Kennedy and Turnbull invested in it, but Ozemail itself began two years earlier, in 1992…..Malcolm initially passed on the opportunity, but on Kennedy’s second approach he decided to invest in what was by then already Australia’s largest ISP.
It was I who, in 1992, two years before Malcolm’s investment, thought up the name Ozemail while taking a shower. I recall being rather tickled with myself for conceiving that name. And I recall showering alone.
In 1997, the Wall St bank Goldman Sachs set up in Australia by attracting Turnbull and incorporating Turnbull & Partners. “I like to be where the action is, Turnbull said, “I like to play first division.” Goldman Sachs’ advisory work in the FAI/HIH debacle led to Turnbull spending three days in the witness box of the royal commission into the collapse, an experience he considered grossly unfair. As he put it:
‘There are few things more painful than to be unjustly accused…and there are few unjust accusations more painful than one which has no reasonable basis…things that are said by royal commissioners have a very real impact on reputation.’
And he went on to castigate the commission over the leak of an issues paper. So assiduous was he in briefing the media at the hearings that members of the press voted to have him evicted from the media room! The royal commission rejected the claim that Goldman was to blame for the losses caused by the HIH takeover of FAI, but Turnbull wanted to underline it.
‘Wild allegations about Malcolm Turnbull sell more newspapers than the dull, but highly relevant minutiae actuarial accounting, reinsurance losses and the underpricing of insurance products.’
When then-Opposition Leader Mark Latham questioned whether Turnbull’s conduct over the sale of FAI rendered him ‘unfit for public office’, he was threatened with a writ and subsequently apologised. Later, Latham reflected under parliamentary privilege.
This is a fellow who is so litigious that if you tell him that his tie is crooked he will send you a lawyer’s letter.
The FAI saga had a long tail; the HIH liquidator began legal actions against several parties, including Goldman and Turnbull. These were settled in 2008, when Turnbull was leader of the Liberal Party. Labor’s Stephen Conroy needled him with a parliamentary question:
‘How much did Goldman Sachs pay to settle Malcolm Turnbull’s deceitful behaviour around HIH?’
The great public issue that consumed Turnbull for eight years was his campaign for a republic.
‘I have always been a republican, but the Spycatcher case radicalized me.’
During the republican debate, there were flirtations with the Labor Party. Graham Richardson said he was asked for a safe spot on Labor’s Senate ticket:
I told him if he wanted to be a Labor senator, the first thing he might like to do is join the party. After that little detail had been taken care of, he would have to spend around a decade attending meetings in draughty School of Arts halls all around the state.
Manning claims that when Brendan Nelson defeated him for the Liberal Party leadership by 45 votes to 42, Turnbull set out to undermine him. Next year, the voting was reversed at 45 to 41. Much later, Nelson summed up his opponent:
‘Malcolm has an intellect that you can’t jump over, that would be the envy of any one of us. But while the world loves talent, it pays off on character.‘
Paul Keating offered his assessment of Turnbull to Kevin Rudd:
‘Turnbull is brilliant. He is utterly fearless. But he has no judgement.’
As leader, Turnbull led a blistering attack on Labor’s economic policies, and especially on Treasurer Wayne Swan. When the Reserve Bank cut interest rates during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen mocked Turnbull for claiming credit:
‘He’s perfecting the Kath and Kim approach to economics – holding a press conference and saying, ‘Look at moy, look at moy, look at moy.’
The Godwin Grech affair, in which the skilled lawyer was stitched up by a fake e-mail, allowed prime minister Rudd to humiliate him:
The member for Wentworth is not only not fit to be leader of the opposition by his actions in this sordid Turnbull email forgery affair, but he has disqualified himself from ever being fit to serve as leader of this country.
Craig Emerson, always good for a barb, chimed in:
‘A dirty little shortcut to The Lodge.’
There would be no shortcut. Turnbull nailed his environmental colours to the mast, bucking his own party’s position:
‘I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.’
to which Tony replied:
‘Mate, you’ve just given an ultimatum to the party and you may not like the way it responds.’
When divisions in the party threatened to lead to a leadership spill, Turnbull stuck to his guns:
‘We must be a party committed to action on climate change. Anything else is irresponsible. This is about the future of our planet and the future of our children and their children. It is the responsible thing to do and it is the honourable thing to do.’
After Abbott won the leadership by 42 votes to 41, he appointed Turnbull shadow communications minister, assessing him as having
‘…..the technical expertise and business experience to entirely demolish the government.’
Turnbull, in government, changed the NBN plan to a multi-technology-mix, claiming a cost reduction from $43 to $29.5 billion. But costs are now up to $56 billion and former chief executive Mike Quigley observed:
‘Mr Turnbull has consistently talked up the cost and time taken to roll out an FTTN network, and talked down the costs and time taken to roll out FTTN and HFC. And now the chickens are coming home to roost…..as long as Australia’s broadband future is tied to an ageing copper network, we will fall further and further behind our competitors and trading partners. At a cost of $56 billion and counting, that will be Mr Turnbull’s legacy.’
Independent telecommunications executive Paul Budde was less kind:
It appears to me that the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has totally underestimated the consequences of changing the fundamentals of such a large national infrastructure building project midway through the process. In my opinion he simply didn’t have a clue what he was doing.
Achieving at last his goal of the prime ministership on September 15, with a 54-44 defeat of Tony Abbott, Turnbull had to define his vision for Australia and a programme to deal with a moribund economy and mounting debt and deficit. Liberal Party historian Ian Hancock:
‘The bigger question surrounding Turnbull as prime minister: to what extent he has traded away his own longstanding deeply-held small-L liberal policy commitments to assume the leadership – on climate change, on marriage equality, and the republic, and if he has, how long will they remain on the outer?’
Here, if Manning’s book is considered as the sort of profile a corporate headhunter would compile, a summation of the candidate would follow. It wqould read something like this:
It is not often that one has the opportunity to appraise the development of an individual over 52 years. Putting aside for a moment the “born to rule” promotional gambit, Malcolm Turnbull must be recognised as an outstandingly gifted individual – highly intelligent, with prodigious energy and concentration, quick to grasp essentials of complicated issues, and withal an infectious charm and ready smile.
It is also true, however, that people have found him arrogant, petulant, quick to anger, intolerant, self-absorbed, lacking in empathy and crassly ambitious. It is noted that one referee commented, “he can read a balance sheet but he can’t read a human being.”
Few people have demonstrated capacity for success in so many fields – as barrister, merchant banker, corporate lawyer, negotiator, company director, investor and politician. He is a living example of the value of the mentor in building a career.
Yet it may not have been realised how many failures accompanied his many successes, how frequently public perception ran ahead of the judgements of those who worked with him and knew him best.
His management experience is limited to quite small teams, and this is where he has shone brilliantly, displaying versatility, often with an ability to seize victory in combative situations deemed unwinnable by others less talented. In such combative encounters, he has demonstrated his skill in using the media to advantage. This has included leaking information prejudicial to the opponent, although tending to irascibility when the same technique is used by others.
His entry into politics often saw demonstrated the worst of his foibles, and impatience and over-confidence soon brought him undone. However, a re-considered more measured approach (without yielding toughness) saw him present an apparently more collaborative and consultative style.
If this ultimately convinces those suspicious of his principles and his people skills, he has the capacity to lead his party to great success. The concern must be whether he will stick at it when things get tough.
Until then, Turnbull may be recommended only as a high-risk candidate, with many of the qualities necessary for the leadership of the nation yet to be synthesised. He has yet to disprove Paul Keating’s free assessment of eight years ago: “I fancy Malcolm is like the big red bunger. You light him up, there’s a bit of a fizz, but then nothing, nothing.”
There is a final nest of delicious ironies that you won’t find in Born to Rule. In 1853, one of the richest men in NSW, William Charles Wentworth, proposed a new constitution which would have established, among other things, a titled aristocracy and hereditary peerage. His initiative was hounded into oblivion by ridicule, launched by a young republican, one Daniel Deniehy who lampooned Wentworth’s idea as setting up a bunyip aristocracy.
Today, as we marvel at starstruck commentators and broadcasters fawning at the feet of the Right Honourable member for Wentworth, the wealthy arch-republican Malcolm Turnbull and wife Lucy have become the nearest thing to Australian royalty.
Geoffrey Luck, a former ABC journalist, was a partner in the international executive search firm Spencer Stuart & Associates.