Soon after the change of prime minister on August 24, Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull decamped to spend six weeks or so at their Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. A key question is, having had a great time, will the Turnbulls return to their harbour-side mansion at Point Piper before the Wentworth by-election, so that they can cast their votes in person?
As it happens, on October 24 (i.e. four days after this crucial by-election) the Sydney-born Malcolm Bligh Turnbull turns 64. Significantly, for the first time in his eventful life, he no longer harbours aspirations of being the political leader of the Commonwealth of Australia! In Manhattan, Malcolm in particular blended in well with the locals. He displayed the hustle and pugnaciousness that many of us associate with the no-nonsense inhabitants of New York City. From afar, an assertive Turnbull supported the winning candidate in the spirited Liberal Party pre-selection ballot for the Wentworth by-election. This candidate is the extremely talented, well credentialed, ex-Australian ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, who is now in a neck-and-neck struggle with high-profile independent Kerryn Phelps.
Even though he is of Indian and not of Jewish background, Sharma is likely to win most of the votes of the 10% of the electors in Wentworth who are Jewish. This may well balance the likelihood that Phelps will garner significant electoral support from the sizeable number of gay voters who reside in Wentworth – a seat that, in the same-sex marriage plebiscite, returned Australia’s third-highest “yes” vote of 80.8 per cent and which boasts the highest percentage of LGBTQI voters in the nation.
Importantly, and disruptively, Malcolm Turnbull’s son, Alex Turnbull, who runs a hedge fund in Singapore and, who maintains that the federal Liberal Party has been taken over by conservative extremists, has urged voters in Wentworth to register a protest vote and not to support the Libs in the by-election. While in New York City, Malcolm Turnbull also provided highly quotable assessments of other recently deposed prime ministers Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd (“miserable ghosts”), while at the same time ignoring the bleak reality that, these days, he seems to be rather ghostlike himself.
Turnbull has also begun to write a tell-all book about Australian, and possibly American, politics. When he does return to Point Piper, our most recent ex-PM is likely to be still abuzz with the Manhattan ethos. Indeed Turnbull’s love for New York makes the reason for his sad Australian fate all the more clear. A fondness for highly transactional party-political connections and ensuing instability is one obvious New York trait that Turnbull would particularly appreciate.
New York City is the birthplace of the most recent large-scale political disruption in the United States. Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue is the locale where the current, deeply divisive, President of the United States launched his march to the White House in the summer of 2015. Neat party labels mean nothing in Donald Trump’s electoral universe. Originally a Democrat, Trump registered as a Republican in 1987. He nominally returned to the Democrats in 2001 before abandoning them again in 2009. For a while, Trump even presented himself as a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton!
Trump’s malleability is not unique in New York City. The place is full of turncoats.
Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York for three terms starting in 2002, was a Democrat until 2001 and then a Republican for six years before becoming an Independent. He may now seek to run as a Democrat for President in 2020. Bloomberg’s immediate mayoral predecessor was current Trump adviser and lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was a Democrat until 1975 and a Republican after 1980.
An ambitious soul in New York City who is blessed with a large personality and ready access to sizable funds can campaign equally as a Democrat or Republican (or Independent) and by breaking down party barriers come over the top and secure election as mayor or even president. Importantly, such ambitious souls cannot easily be removed in an overnight coup engineered by their immediate political colleagues. This is a state of affairs well suited to Malcolm Turnbull, who was cursed with a conspicuous lack of judgment when forced to deal with his party political colleagues. The parliamentary system in Canberra proved to be far too constrictive and tribal for him.
In particular, it obliged Turnbull to try and work with people who did not share his powerful sense of his own destiny. Turnbull’s natural milieu is the place where he and Lucy have loved living during the early North American autumn. New York is a dream city where someone with vast self-belief and huge financial resources can, at the right strategic moment, soar above the conventional hacks in the major parties and alight at will as either a Republican or Democrat incumbent.
Turnbull is not tribal. In Australia, he could have been equally a Liberal or a Labor leader. Many if not most members of the Liberal Party room in Canberra always knew this and so had to get rid of him sooner or later. He may be far from bereft, however. He does have a natural political habitat where he can recharge his batteries. It is far away from Australia, on the other side of the world, but that is merely a further sign of what some of his rusted-on supporters still regard as his largely untrammelled spirit.
In Australian and in American political life these are truly times of wonder.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. Dr Stephen Holt is an historian based in Canberra. Among many collaboration they wrote ‘Alan (The Red Fox) Reid: Pressman Par Excellence’, which was short-listed for the National Biography Award.