Turnbull Plays Hard-Ball

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Is it Malcolm Turnbull’s volcanic temperament that has led him into his current predicament? There is historical evidence to suggest so.

Annabel Crabb has already produced perhaps the best study of the man and his character in her Quarterly Essay Stop At Nothing. It provides a colourful and at times incisive analysis of Turnbull’s former life. Of course, there is the obligatory reference to the infamous cat incident, Turnbull’s career as a journalist and lawyer, his period in the republican movement, his wheeling and dealings in the media industries and his audacious branch-stack of the Wentworth electorate to ensure Liberal pre-selection.

Crabb spends several pages on Turnbull’s role in the Spycatcher trial of former MI6 spook Peter Wright. At one point, Turnbull rang British Labour leader Neil Kinnock in an attempt to get him to exert political pressure on the Conservative British Government. "What other conservative leader in the world is on record as having once rung up and bullied the Labour Party to bring down someone on his own side?" she writes. Turnbull’s love of cloak-and-dagger legal skulduggery is apparently long-standing.

But it is Turnbull’s role as a lawyer and litigator for Kerry Packer in the early 1980s that today holds the most interest. Working as in-house counsel for Consolidated Press, he was soon working to defend Packer against the attention of the Costigan Royal Commission. The Costigan Commission had begun as an inquiry into the Painters and Dockers Union, but soon widened into an investigation of organised crime and so-called "bottom of the harbour" tax minimisation schemes.

In 1984, someone leaked sensational details of the investigation to the National Times. The leaked documents implicated a well-known businessman — code-named "The Goanna" by the newspaper’s editors — in a veritable Underbelly of drug running, pornography and even murder. When the story broke, Packer outed himself as the Goanna and strenuously denied the allegations. Turnbull rushed to the defence.

"Tackling Costigan by conventional means was futile and I persuaded Packer to counter-attack with a violent public attack on Costigan," Turnbull wrote in his book The Spycatcher Trial.

Not content with attacking Costigan, who enjoyed legal immunity as the Royal Commissioner, Packer then instructed Turnbull to commence proceedings against the counsel assisting Costigan, Douglas Meagher QC.

Just like the current controversy, Turnbull then made a public accusation he couldn’t support. In a blizzard of media attention, he claimed he had "significant evidence" that Meagher had in fact leaked the documents implicating Packer. According to Crabb, this is because Turnbull was in possession of surveillance evidence from an Australian Federal Police informant that Meagher had a secret meeting with the National Times journalists Brian Toohey and Wendy Bacon.

When newmatilda.com reached Douglas Meagher QC yesterday he was not prepared to go on the record to speak about the case although he clearly bears no ill-will towards Turnbull. But the damning judgement of the presiding judge, Justice Hunt, is on the public record. In it, Hunt specifically singled out Turnbull for scathing criticism.

Justice Hunt recorded that the proceedings against Meagher were an abuse of process and that Turnbull had "poisoned the well of justice" by issuing a media release which directly accused Meagher. In light of contemporary events, it’s worth quoting from Hunt’s judgement at length:

"The strongest possible inference from the press statement issued by Mr Turnbull … is that his dominant motive in commencing the proceedings was to enable him to investigate the conduct of the Royal Commissions conducted by Mr Costigan, whom the defendant had been appointed to assist … all of these matters lead me to infer that the plaintiff [Packer] never did have a case against the defendant in relation to the allegation … there may indeed have been a vindictive desire on the part of the plaintiff to make the defendant as uncomfortable as possible, for as long as possible, by having these proceedings hanging over his head in order to punish him for his part in assisting in the compilation of the report of the Royal Commission."

Crabb sums up the Packer versus Meagher case by concluding that "violent tactical methods are not just something to which Turnbull will contemplate turning if sufficiently provoked".

"It’s not enough to say that Turnbull is prepared to play hard-ball," she writes. "He prefers to play hard-ball — that’s the point. It is impossible to rid oneself entirely of the suspicion that Turnbull enjoys the intrigue."

One thing’s for sure: Turnbull is now in the fight of his political life. But anyone who thinks he’ll back down knows little about his history or reputation.

That Turnbull has form in such questionable tactics plays perfectly into the kind of personal attacks that Labor’s strategists have been carefully preparing. On the positive side — if there is a positive side for the Opposition — if anyone can tough this out, it’s Malcolm Turnbull.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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