It is difficult to overstate the significance of what happened to the Liberal Party in late November 2007.
It lost government, of course. It lost its leader, too, in an outcome that was probably kindest for him; voted out of his own seat, John Howard was not obliged to choose between shrivelling away publicly on the backbenches or submitting the innocent people of Bennelong to a by-election.
But then it lost its Plan B, too. Peter Costello, to the amazement of nearly everyone, decided not to lead the Liberals after all. When Costello announced he would depart rather than take up the leadership, it was as though the backbone had been removed from the Liberal Party. Stripped of the two men who had given it form and substance for 13 years, this luckless invertebrate flopped about in search of a new leader.
"I was flabbergasted," remembers Brendan Nelson of that day. "I was on the phone to Joe Hockey, having decided to run for deputy when I got the news that Peter wasn’t going to run. Then I thought, from his perspective, I could completely understand why he wouldn’t. He’d been incredibly close to the prime ministership and the leadership of the party and that hadn’t happened. The fact is that whoever leads after an election defeat like that is almost certainly not going to be the next prime minister — immediately at least."
Malcolm Turnbull was quick to step up. So quick, in fact, that there are a couple of MPs and senators who reckon they only became aware of Peter Costello’s withdrawal when Turnbull called them seeking their support. Nelson, after a lot of thought, decided to run too.
"I knew it was going to be hard, it was going to be thankless. I knew all that. But I believe in life you’ve got to have a go. I had a lot of support. And I’d seen a bit of Malcolm in the 12 months he’d been in cabinet. Enough to motivate me to see that there would be a contest."
There was a strange, light-headed feel about the short campaign that ensued before Coalition MPs and senators gathered in Canberra to make the choice between Nelson and Turnbull. For many, it was like one of those childhood dreams in which all the roles are played by the wrong people; where you turn up to school and you notice that you’re not at school at all, but at the Easter Show, and your teacher’s turned into Daryl Somers, and you’re wearing a snorkel.
"The problem with that ballot is that nobody saw it coming," says Howard. "Nobody expected there to be a ballot between Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull."
Turnbull was convinced, with Costello out of the way, that he was the obvious choice. On the day before the leadership ballot, Turnbull gave an interview to Fran Kelly, of the ABC’s Radio National. It was a confident performance; too confident for some.
Kelly: In the past, sometimes John Howard’s leadership was described as mean and tricky. Would you describe yours, if you were Liberal leader, as more generous?
Turnbull: Very much so.
Kelly: Should Work Choices be dumped?
Turnbull: Look, there is no question that Kevin Rudd has a mandate to make changes to Work Choices.
Kelly: Would you support Labor in saying "Sorry" to the stolen generations?
Turnbull: Unquestionably. That was, look, that was an error. I say this about, you know, a friend, John Howard: that was an error. Clearly, we should have said sorry then.
The above is an edited selection of Turnbull’s remarks.
There was plenty about the interview that grated with Liberals who knew there had to be some renovations, but weren’t quite prepared for the sight of Turnbull with his raised sledgehammer. To Turnbull’s great surprise, Brendan Nelson won the ballot, with 45 votes to 42.
Nelson was overcome with emotion and humility upon his election to the leadership. Like a long-shot actor finding himself on stage grasping an Oscar, Nelson gave a teary speech in which he thanked Malcolm Turnbull, John Howard, Peter Costello, Mark Vaile and Alexander Downer, before solemnly warning his remaining colleagues that they faced a long and difficult road ahead.
Turnbull couldn’t quite believe he had lost. "It was like the captain of the football team, who was also the rowing blue and the captain of the debating team and dux of the school, watching as the headmaster chooses someone else to be head boy," recalls one colleague. And he was disgusted by Nelson’s weepy display. After the meeting but before Nelson’s first press conference, Turnbull barrelled into Nelson’s office, startling the small group that was already in there with the new leader.
"Brendan, that was terrible. It was funereal!" he stormed, waving his arms in the full Turnbull display. "Come on! You have to gee them up, like a football coach. Not depress them!"
Several weeks later, when Nelson was out in the car, Turnbull rang him again. "Let’s face it, Brendan," he said. "You’re just no good at this. The best thing you could do is just step down."
Recalling the intervention in Nelson’s office, Turnbull grimaces. "I was trying to help him!" he protests.
It sounds disingenuous, but Turnbull is serious. Turnbull is a creature of conflict. As he says, he has dealt with a lot of brutes. He is steeped in conflict, and as a result somewhat inured to it, and often fails to notice when he has given offence. Or sincerely cannot understand why people feel affronted by his manner. This is one of Malcolm Turnbull’s key character attributes, and a source of much confusion, one suspects.
In Turnbull’s view, it was absolutely plain that Nelson was going to be a disaster. It was equally plain, in Turnbull’s mind, that Turnbull would do a considerably better job. Giving Nelson tips on how to address their colleagues was, on that basis, a kindness rather than an assault.
Turnbull has also tried to "help" Kevin Rudd, on occasion. The two men often run into each other at major events. Over the years, each has listened to the other speak many times, and at Jewish events Turnbull has several times fretted privately over Rudd’s pronunciation of Yiddish terms.
Recently, at one such occasion, Turnbull pulled the Prime Minister aside just before he was due to speak.
"Listen, Kevin. It’s not in my interests to help you, but you should know that Yiddish words with a ‘ch’ aren’t pronounced like the ‘ch’ in ‘cherry’. It’s more like this." Here Turnbull produced a throaty hawking sound, as if preparing to spit, while Rudd stared at him coldly. "For example ‘Chanukah’ is pronounced ‘Hhhhhanukah’. Just letting you know. Really, it’s worth getting it right."
You can imagine how thrilled Rudd was to receive this tutorial.
The Rudd-Turnbull match-up is rich in comedy, largely due to their unconscious similarities. Each of them is privately, independently and unshakably convinced of his utter superiority over the other, and there are very few things in life that are funnier than watching two such people interact.
Both of them grew up in reasonably straitened circumstances, and both of them are now wealthy thanks to hard work and a flair for business — in Rudd’s case, the flair is largely that of his wife, Therese Rein.
Both converted for their wives: Turnbull made the leap to Catholicism, while Rudd made the much rarer transition in the opposite direction. Both men are intellectually strong, and both prefer their own counsel to that of others. Neither man is easy to work for.
Turnbull’s advantage over Rudd is that he is much more comfortable in the world of private enterprise, and is a far better speaker and can communicate without resort to the use of jargon. Rudd’s advantage over Turnbull is that he is much more comfortable in the world of the bureaucracy, and understands that the building of a political narrative has much to do with the senseless repetition of drab phrases.
Rudd’s contempt for Turnbull is apparent in parliament, where he regularly discusses and disparages the Liberal leader, whom he calls the "Member for Goldman Sachs". Turnbull, who often tries to engage Rudd in pleasant banter over the dispatch box and is usually rebuffed, puzzled over the PM’s unfriendliness in an interview with the Courier Mail in late 2008: "For someone who trained as a diplomat, he is often very undiplomatic," Turnbull mused. "He is very chilly towards me. He is odd."
This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 34, Stop At Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull, by Annabel Crabb (Black Inc).
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