Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Book review: Born to Rule by Paddy Manning — Malcolm without the muddle

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Biography of Australian political figures has always suffered, and looks like it always will, from our terrible libel laws. Despite the development of a ‘public interest’ defence, it remains impossible to tell, in detail, any juicy stories — even when you are telling them to dispel them.
Like the entirely false accusation that our current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull strangled his ex-girlfriend’s cat. Fiona Watson’s moggy, Nessie, was found dead some time after she had dumped a young Turnbull, and he had taken it badly. His attempts to woo her back appear to have involved writing letters, ostensibly addressed to the cat, asking it to have Fiona love him again.
Soon after, Nessie was found dead. The story pinged around the papers for a while – or, as Paddy Manning puts it in his biography of the current leader, ‘the basic facts remain a mystery’. Which is, the public argy-bargy aside, all you’re going to get to hear.
A pity really, because this detailed, elegantly written and supremely useful story of our current leader could do with a bit more stories, even of things that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t do. We get a far bit of colour and movement in the early parts, when Turnbull is a hot-shot student journalist, combining a law degree got through on someone else’s lecture notes (he bought them for $30) while working his way up through Sydney University newspaper Honi Soit, and rapidly onto contributing to Nation Review, the weekly which combined Turnbull’s rpeorts with Humphrey McQueen’s review essays on Marxian economics, Patrick Cook’s cartoons and Keith Windschuttle’s calls for peasant revolution, all paid for by the barely concealed swingers’ ads in the classifieds.
Via Trevor Kennedy’s legendary assemblage of (right-oriented) talent at The Bulletin, Turnbull got himself to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, knocked back a job at The Times offered to him by editor Harold Evans (on the strength of a debating speech Turnbull gave that Bob Ellis says he wrote), and then winged his way back to Australia to become Kerry Packer’s consigliere at Consolidated, and through that a merchant banker and general investor about town.
Turnbull became known to most Australians through the immensely entertaining Spycatcher trial, in which the UK government obliged us all by trying to silence the tell-all memoirs (the ‘all’ included a fair degree of lurid fabrication) by the former spy Peter Wright. Margaret Thatcher’s decision to send pompous bureacrat Robert Armstrong to defend the decision to ban the book in the UK — it alleged, among other things, an MI6 plot to oust Labour PM Harold Wilson at the same time as Whitlam had been ousted — was the making of Malcolm.
When he began the push for an Australian republic in the early 1990s he appeared, made himself appear, to be the coming man, creating a new sovereignty in order to be inaugural President of it.
That was not to be, and nor was the premiership, the first time round. Bumping himself into parliament via the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth — in a wrenching pre-selection battle that permanently soured sections of the Liberal Party on him — he staked his bid for the Lodge on a gotcha campaign, inaugurated by a Liberal public service mole Godwin Grech, who believed that the Rudd government was favouring certain car dealers in the subsidy ‘Ozcar’ scheme. When he couldn’t find an email establishing this, Grech concocted one, and the email trail caught him out. This all happened while Turnbull was backing Grech unquestionably. It all happened while the whole thing was being filmed for an Australian Story profile, which was delicious.
Backing Grech — a man physically ill, psychologically troubled, who showed both enormous resentment of Labor, and a desperate need for Liberal approval — was not simply a matter of poor political judgement on Turnbull’s part. It was a matter of poor human judgement, below what anyone would apply in handing out responsibilities in an office, or a footy club or whatever.
The Grech disaster finished Turnbull as a candidate for the 2010 shot at the Lodge, and it looked he was over for good. Paul Keating’s observation that Turnbull had everything except judgement appeared to be borne out.
But Turnbull had the great virtue of politics: he was willing to be lucky. When it became clear that Tony Abbott had less judgement than Turnbull, and not much else besides, as PM material, the conditions began to appear as a return. By the time Turnbull returned to them, he was a changed man, more circumspect, better able to test his environment, act with more prudence.
Many didn’t believe it, but that was in part because they had become accustomed to Tony Abbott, a man not so much rigid as petrified. Turnbull displayed one virtue that arises from the pursuit of cash, which is that the only proof of success is whether you get it or not. Money doesn’t care abut your virtues, your sincerity, your beliefs, your history. It rewards those with a capacity for reflexive action and judicious course-correction, and this appears to be something Turnbull was capable of, where other recent leaders such as Abbott and Mark Latham weren’t. Should he be able to maintain that, he can pretty much write his own ticket.
Should he fail it will be because of traits that are buried deeper than a good talking-to-self can mitigate. And it’s here that Manning (a colleague, ostensibly. Oh, and also, MUP is one of my publishers) falls short, for like too much Australian political biography, this work shows so little interest in the motivations, passions and personality of the subject that you wonder why we are being asked to read about him at 400 hundred pages length.
Forget about stories of strangling cats — nothing much is done with the central event of Turnbull’s life, the departure of his mother, when Malcolm was nine. Coral Lansbury, daughter of an English showgirl who got trapped and knocked up in Australia (and great-niece of George Lansbury, one-time leader of the UK Labour Party) was a hot-shot radio writer and actor in 1940s Sydney from her teens onward.
She wanted more from life and when Turnbull was nine, she left for the US with a new lover, where she became an English studies academic, specialising in Victorian-era fiction, Trollope above all. As Manning records, she left with barely a word to her nine-year-old son, the blow softened only by his father’s creation of a fictional temporary departure and the constant reassurance that ‘your mother really loves you’. A softening, or an embittering, the sudden withdrawal of love made into a slow parody of it.
No-one whose mother leaves them when they are a child is left unshaped by it. It’s absurd to suggest otherwise. Whatever fictions allow most of the rest of us to believe the world has a certain character — that love is honoured, that things inhere — is denied to such a child. They didn’t learn fast, they learnt all at once. If they don’t have a long shaft of ice at the centre of their being, it’s only because they have, in later life, attended consciously to warming themselves to a point where it melts away.
There’s some indication in Manning’s biography that Turnbull constructed a good relationship with his mother in later life; and every indication that her initial act lay the basis for many of the negative and self-defeating traits people identified in Turnbull: arrogance, rudeness, disdain, and an inability to read other people that arises from a lack of empathy.
Surely some attempt at an interpretation of this brilliant, driven man would have been in order? Surely we could have heard more about what he read (quoted in much of his writings), about the Sydney scene of the ’80s and ’90s, of which he and his dynamic wife Lucy were a part?
This was what we in the trade call a ‘habitus’, a certain ensemble of cultural practices and values in a certain place that is the making of someone. Turnbull’s mother is an expert on Trollope. Her abandoned son is one top hat and fob watch away from being a character from Trollope. Is there not material here — even without Turnbull’s co-operation — that would have been more interesting than the exhaustive documenting of his business minutaie?
That is not Manning’s fault alone, or even primarily. The world appears to be losing its ability to think in psychodynamic terms — apparently we have no motives — and there is a political disapproval of crediting maternal abandonment as key, arising from the addled contemporary notion that mothers and fathers are equivalent parents. And mainstream Australian political writing and thinking is terminally incurious about the mesh of personality and policy, of ambition and belief.
There is a sense of dutifulness about a lot of the current memoir-mania, as if many people feel they should be interested, but really aren’t. Since most Australian politics is now administration, that’s understandable. But when you have a character like Turnbull, it’s a chance to explore the private sources of public ambition, and that has been somewhat missed here. Turnbull’s traits are touched on, but never gathered to an overall version — even when we learn that his new calm and focus appears to arise from the intervention of a mysterious Chinese herbalist. I mean, come on. Nevertheless, its thoroughly researched, invaluable in information, and Manning is one of the most elegant prose stylists in Australian business writing, so it has much to recommend it.
You can buy Born to Rule by Paddy Manning here

3 responses to “Book review: Born to Rule by Paddy Manning — Malcolm without the muddle

  1. re your comment ‘And mainstream Australian political writing and thinking is terminally incurious about the mesh of personality and policy, of ambition and belief.’ You should look to Prof Foo Davies (Melb University) who saw personality background and politics as intertwined and elegantly outlined this in his lectures, tutorials and books. It’s a pity that people like Foo aren’t around to unpick the pieces!

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