Malcolm Turnbull: Private School Boy, Trainspotter, And A Prime Minister Still In Waiting


Malcolm Turnbull is apparently still unaware that he’s the Prime Minister of Australia. John Macdonald has some travel tips for the PM that might help him discover his long sought after destiny.

It’s admirable that Malcolm Turnbull likes public transport and took a train trip to Penrith during the recent federal-election campaign.

There’s a trip he could have taken that would have yielded better insights, however.

He can still take it.

The PM could load up the bus with staff and media and take a trip along Pennant Hills Road.

Before the James Ruse Drive turnoff, he would pass the adjoining Kings, Tara and Exclusive Brethren schools.

He could tour the grounds and facilities, finishing in reverse order with the Kings School, taking note of some of the staff designations.

This last tour might take some time, necessitating an overnight stay.

From there he could journey on through the extended west and a tour of public schools, including high schools in the stigmatised greater Mt Druitt, and speculate how many high schools might fit in those private-school grounds.

On tour, he might talk to parents of one primary-infants school who fondly recall the times of school performances-presentation nights. Of removing hundreds of chairs from classrooms and placing them in the quadrangle, then when the events were over, placing them back in the classroom and finishing near midnight, the rooms ready for the next day’s lessons.

Great for fostering community spirit but given a choice, the parents would have opted for the school hall that eventually came.

Sydney Grammar, which schooled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE: Deborah & Kevin, Flickr)
Sydney Grammar, which schooled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. (IMAGE: Deborah & Kevin, Flickr)

Turnbull might relate to this, recalling his days of deprivation, living in a one-bedroom apartment while attending Sydney Grammar.

More importantly, he might have a blinding insight.

The PM might not only recognise it’s essential to implement the Gonski report, but that it didn’t go far enough, being hamstrung by the directive that no child be worse off.

He might conclude that those Pennant Hills Rd schools could be a lot worse off without government largesse, and students wouldn’t suffer deprivation.

He might conclude that resources have been misplaced and if he wants to leave his mark as the innovation PM, it must come through repairs to the education system.

Once the smartest student in any classroom, Turnbull might recognise that this can only be achieved by gutting private-school grants, and he could remove private health-insurance rebates while he’s on the job.

Do that, and he’s a fair way along the fabled path to surplus right there.

Money alone is not the solution to any problem, of course, but teaching standards, curriculums and class sizes are separate questions.

Money is an indispensable prerequisite for lifting standards. One snag: in its own way, the private-school lobby is as powerful as the National Rifle Association is in the United States.

In his crass way, Mark Latham tried to take it on when Opposition leader and the gods made him mad.

new matilda, kevin rudd, paris climate talks, cop 21
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, pictured at the Paris climate talks in 2015. (IMAGE: Thom Mitchell, New Matilda).

Smartest kids in the class haven’t got good records either. Kevin Rudd was another smart kid. It’s forgotten that when Rudd became PM, he promised to end the extravagant spending of the Howard era.

The sum of his belt-tightening was promising to reduce income-tax cuts from $34 billion to a non-whopping $31 billion.

Beyond the grocery-watch, fuel-watch, Canberra talkfest trivia, Rudd had the chance to go top of the class by calling a double-dissolution election in early 2010 to address his designated greatest moral challenge of our time: climate change.

Rudd didn’t call it because he lacked moral courage, as he lacked the courage to take on the mining lobby, as he lacked the courage to not be the most popular kid in the class.

What is the point of having such a large brain when you’re such a little man? The irony of Rudd is that he presided over one of the great economic achievements, the response to the 2008 GFC.

Two abiding questions attend Turnbull: has he compromised himself out of existence?

When you’ve believed-have been told all your life your destiny is to be master of the universe, king of the quiz kids, prime minister, what is the point if you do nothing with the big prize?

Fortunately, there would be potential help for Turnbull along his way, post the Pennant Hills Rd illuminations.

The media could prosecute Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Barnaby Joyce for metaphorical treason.

Ask Abbott what is a tax and what is its purpose? Could he give examples of good taxes and bad taxes? Would no income tax be the ultimate achievement?

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Why are electricity prices still rising, now the dreaded carbon tax has been removed?

When he was addressing the Labor government’s debt-and-deficit disaster, what was the debt level?

How did it compare, say, with Britain’s, Germany’s, Japan’s or the United States’?

How many surpluses had there been since Federation? How many in the Menzies era? While remembering the Whitlam government is held as an example of profligacy and could produce surpluses, if that is the criterion of economic success.

And remembering Abbott’s greatest stated economic achievement is that he stopped the boats.

Ask why would Australia be safer under an Abbott government than under a Labor government? How would Australia be safer by sending troops into the Ukraine, as was discussed?

Ask Joyce the same questions, and was he referring to net gross debt or gross net debt? Why had he compared Australia with Greece? Why was there sovereign risk under the Labor government?

Ditto, the Abbott questions for Hockey.

Wayne Swan’s greatest failing as treasurer was that he was bullied and cowered into promising a surplus that wasn’t immediately necessary, and in making that promise made the means less attainable. It allowed Joe Hockey to make the juvenile schoolyard boast that he could produce a surplus in the first year, and then one happily ever after.

Former Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey.
Former Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Ask these questions and Abbott, Joyce and Hockey could be removed from the dock, allowing Turnbull to introduce the grand plans he has been preparing a lifetime for.

Well, no. All this could happen only in a Frank Capra movie.

A more fundamental question remains: what is the point of an economy if it can’t fund public education and health systems and a functioning national disability support scheme?

Or do we want the disparities of a United States society, but without the guns?

Abbott has his place in history. That was assured when he removed the carbon tax. History will judge that as one of the most destructive actions taken by a prime minister.

Pennant Hills Rd would tell Turnbull he could have a more honoured place than Abbott.

John Macdonald is a retired Fairfax and News Corp journalist, and worked on The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australia. He lives in Sydney.