Turnbull isn’t torching anyone’s legacy but his own

Most prime ministerial memoirs are indulgent and dull.

A rare few, like John Howard's are a bestseller and a handful, like Tony Blair's, are a fascinating read. And then there's Malcolm Turnbull's memoir, to be published this week but already extensively reported, which savages all his former colleagues and declares that the government he'd led didn't deserve to be re-elected last year; not because it had done badly, but simply because it had dispensed with his services.

Poor Malcolm. Despite coveting the job of prime minister since he was a schoolboy, it didn't turn out the way he'd planned when he was there, and it hasn't turned out any better for him since he left.

You see, if it had all gone to Turnbull's preferred script, Scott Morrison would have lost in a landslide last May to Bill Shorten, and this 700 page diatribe would have been the case for the prosecution: how they would have held office had they kept him. Only the reason they're still there, is that he isn't.

The only reason the Liberals are still in power is because Turnbull isn’t. Picture: Kym Smith
The only reason the Liberals are still in power is because Turnbull isn’t. Picture: Kym Smith

All of this must be hard to accept for a bloke that thinks he's the Messiah but then, as Dr Brendan Nelson so accurately diagnosed way back in 2008 after Turnbull had undermined him relentlessly and taken his job as Opposition Leader, "he has narcissistic personality disorder. He says the most appalling things and can't understand why people get upset."

Apparently, I figure a fair bit in this self-serving jumble of half-truth, falsehood and fantasy: first, as Chief of Staff to Tony Abbott, and second, as a broadcaster and a columnist where I supposedly conspired to destroy his prime ministership.

Am I surprised he's got the knife out? No I'm not. I would hardly have done my job either in politics or the media if I hadn't upset someone like Turnbull. After all, I operated on the basis of loyalty in the first job and truth in the second, both foreign concepts to the individual who was this country's 29th Prime Minister; but who leaves no lasting legacy, save for the tales of back-stabbing to get the job, and back-stabbing now, after he lost it.

What an ignominious end for someone who always thought he was the smartest man in the room, and was quick to tell you so.

Was I tough as chief of staff? Yes. No tougher, I suspect, than my predecessors but I became a necessary target for someone who wanted to remove a first term PM in lightning speed and reclaim the job he thought stolen from him.

Had it gone to Turnbull’s preferred script, Scott Morrison would have lost in a landslide last May to Bill Shorten. Picture: AAP/Sam Mooy
Had it gone to Turnbull’s preferred script, Scott Morrison would have lost in a landslide last May to Bill Shorten. Picture: AAP/Sam Mooy

To Turnbull, failure is always evidence of a conspiracy against him, not his own lack of judgment in matters like Godwin Grech.

Funny, being effective at my job wasn't a criticism thrown at me when the Liberals were in Opposition and we took 25 seats off Labor. Still, better to have the reputation in politics for being too tough rather than the other tired accusation, levelled particularly at women, of not being up to it.

Did I push MPs to work hard in opposition and in government, deliver the Coalition's promises? You bet. The best ministers did it anyway and the legacy of strong borders, trade deals and turning around the budget (now gone) is evidence of that.

Those with a chip on their shoulder resented my blunt style; I don't apologise for it because saying what you mean and doing what you say is a badge of honour where I grew up. I'll give you an example: one of Turnbull's plotters never forgave me for telling him he was bone lazy; but given that he had issued just three press releases in 18 months, there was no other word for it. For others, losing their first class (taxpayer funded) travel and 5-star hotel suites sent them over the edge. Some even joined the first spill motion because Abbott refused to allow them to hire their spouses and immediate family in $100,000 jobs in their offices.

Did I push MPs to work hard in opposition and in government, deliver the Coalition’s promises? You bet. Picture: Bradley Hunter
Did I push MPs to work hard in opposition and in government, deliver the Coalition’s promises? You bet. Picture: Bradley Hunter

I'm told there's a complaint in Turnbull's book that he wasn't allowed a taxpayer trip to the US in January 2014. I suspect that's right. Most ministers wanted to travel dozens of times a year and it was the job of officials in Prime Minister's department to sift through the requests to work out which ones were priorities. After the PM weighed the advice and made his decision, I had the thankless task of writing back to the minister's chief of staff, letting them know their junket was knocked back. As other PMs' chiefs of staff have said to me since, managing ministers' entitlements is one of the worst parts of the job.

Ask yourself this, do you seriously think that if I was not there that Malcolm Turnbull would have suddenly given up his lifetime ambition to be prime minister and wished Abbott all the best?

Turnbull's other charge, that I somehow single-handedly destroyed his government via this column and Sky News, again, shows that he just doesn't get it. As a commentator, it's true, I was highly critical of the way "Mr Harbourside Mansion" trashed the Coalition's 2013 landslide majority in the 2016 campaign that Turnbull survived, rather than won. And I disliked the way a centre-right party was being led from the centre-left. So did many of this column's readers. But given that saying what you think, and writing it too, is a rare commodity in politics, I believe voters deserve more of that, not less.

 

It's also rank hypocrisy for Turnbull to claim anyone is out of line for criticising his government from outside the tent, when he plotted and schemed to destroy the governments of others, from inside.

But that's the man isn't it? Look at the outrage he directed at Peter Dutton for daring to challenge a sitting prime minister when that's precisely how Turnbull got the job in the first place.

Even his so-called friends aren't spared. Julie Bishop he claims, was incapable of leadership (unsurprising I suppose given he had removed her as shadow treasurer); Christopher Pyne, he says, couldn't be trusted with a confidence; and Scott Morrison, whom he regarded as an ally when supposedly doing the numbers to remove Abbott, was then totally untrustworthy when he himself was removed.

Look at his astonishing admission in the book that he helped bring the UK news outlet, The Guardian, to Australia - the most Green-left critic of centre-right politics, bar none. Turnbull was shadow minister for communications at the time, yet he declared no conflict. To him, conflict would only have arisen if he tipped in the $20 million to start it up (which he admits he considered), not the inherent conflict in values that establishing the Guardian demonstrated. And recruiting two of his favoured journalists to run its Canberra bureau? It's staggering but so very Malcolm.

 

In all of this, to be brutally honest, my overwhelming feeling is sadness. Sad for the country that endured three years of wasted opportunity and vacillation under Turnbull's leadership. Sad for the Liberal Party too, which has cannibalised itself in government in the very same way Labor did, even though it had ringside seats to the chaos of the Rudd-Gillard years. Sad for the handful of weak MPs who, when the going got tough in government as it was always going to when you have to remove Labor's spending largesse, voted for a plausible carpetbagger (and Labor-reject according to Graham Richardson) over someone who'd done the hard yards in the Howard government and then opposition, and for a lifetime had consistently advocated for centre-right values and policies.

Sad too that so many second-rate people of poor character, flawed judgment, and almost no life experience outside the Canberra bubble inhabit our parliaments.

And in the end, sad even for Malcolm Turnbull himself.

A successful democracy should be able to respect all its former PMs, even the ones whose time in office was short and turbulent. Post-prime ministership, Gillard has gained respect from her work with Beyond Blue; and Abbott, as a firefighting veteran. But rather than let time heal his wounds, Turnbull has chosen now - when our government is wrestling with the gravest national challenge in at least a generation - to drop this bucket of bile on his former colleagues and the party that gifted him the top job.

Rather than explain away his failures as he might have hoped, this book just amplifies them.

Post prime ministership, the left just regard Malcolm Turnbull as a bitter disappointment; and to the right, he'll only ever be seen as an impostor.

Originally published as Turnbull isn't torching anyone's legacy but his own


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