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Turnbull to Shorten — it’s about class, old sport

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For several years after the release of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, I periodically found myself donning a tux to attend another Gatsby-themed party. The dress requirements always went unstated, but it was clear from the invitation’s embossed lettering and gold leaf edging that these nights promised to be filled with Gatsbyesque decadence.

A night to forget one’s own lowly class and crushing economic burdens and pretend, if only temporarily, that we inhabited the world of the super rich – a world in which caviar is generously smeared on those mini-toasts with reckless abandon and Cristal is guzzled like goon. At one of these soirees, fed up with my inability to tie a bowtie and anticipating the dry-cleaning bill I’d be left with after spilling my $12 bottle of cabernet sauvignon down my front, I greased up my hands, donned a pair of overalls and went dressed as George Wilson.

I felt like I was intruding on a collective fantasy – many of the guests seemed to have erased the hapless mechanic from their memory of the book/film. Gatsby, for them, wasn’t about the unjustness and inhumanity of a class-based societies, it was aspirational. In everyday life, almost all the guests were Myrtle Wilson’s – they wanted to inhabit the worlds of East Egg or West Egg and some of the youngish bankers and entrepreneurs probably would someday. But most would likely remain miserable and dejected at never having achieved their dreams,perpetually trapped in the Valley of the Ashes under the constant gaze of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.


For the Wilsons, the distinction between the old money of Tom Buchannan and the new money of Jay Gatsby is irrelevant; both represent a world foreign to theirs. But for Tom, the difference is everything. Class is self-evidently hierarchical, but for Tom, it also speaks to one’s character. Thus, no matter how much money Gatsby makes, he will never be Tom’s equal.

The subtext of Turnbull’s attack was that Shorten, because of his class background and work as a union organiser, is delusional in the same way as Jay Gatsby.

As the Prime Minister exchanged barbs with the Opposition Leader in question time the other day, I couldn’t help but feel I was listening to what amounted to a debate about the respective merits of acquiring real estate in West Egg over East Egg and vice versa.

Malcolm Turnbull, seemingly annoyed with Bill Shorten’s efforts to smear him as ‘Mr. Harbourside Mansion’, responded by calling him ‘a great sycophant of billionaires’ and a ‘parasite’ that aspires to have his own harbourside mansion. While the criticism of Shorten as a union leader who got ahead by selling-out his workers is entirely accurate and should have forestalled his political career long ago, the thrust of Turnbull’s attack was of a different nature – it was more personal.

The accusation was that the Oppositional Leader doesn’t know his place; that he is a ‘social-climbing sycophant’. He, in other words, aspires to be like the very man spluttering the invective. The subtext of this was that Shorten, because of his class background and work as a union organiser, is delusional in the same way that Gatsby is – that it doesn’t matter how high he rises or even if gets his own harbourside mansion, he’ll never be Turnbull’s equal.

For most people – the Wilsons of the world – the speech was more of the same infuriatingly meaningless drivel that’s long characterised question time but that has, in recent years, subsumed politics entirely. They weren’t arguing over any substantive policy issue that promises to make the lives of those trapped in the wasteland between their respective worlds any better. They were arguing, instead, over the sliver of imagined difference within their own political caste. And while this difference may be all consuming for the Tom and Gatsbys of this world, for the Wilsons, drowning in debt and trying to keep their head above water in a world of growing insecurity and precarity, it’s inconsequential.

Yet, these disputes are chronicled, analysed and, based on what was said and how each party responded, predictions are made. These journalists are the Nick Carraways of the world and, tellingly, they are much closer with the Gatsbys and Buchannans than they are with the Wilsons. And that closeness colours their judgments; they’re too involved in this world to see just how morally depraved it is. Nick may question certain things, but he is incapable of seeing that the very foundations on which it’s built are rotten and no amount of manicuring at the edges can redeem the whole decaying project.

This disconnect from reality, the unquestioning acceptance that politics is something confined to the exercise of state power and the received wisdom that the masses ought to simply tolerate whatever self-serving, half-baked policy is implemented on their behalf is what leads to tweets like this, from Patricia Karvelas.

It’s worth recalling that Turnbull bankrolled his own party’s election campaign to the tune of $1.7 million. But for Karvelas, that is seemingly unrelated to the question of class. The ‘millionaire stuff is low’ because it transgresses the bounds of polite political discourse; ‘class baiting’, one therefore assumes, is analogous to criticising a politician on the basis of his or her race or religion.

The assumption is that the rich are, by definition, hard-working, intelligent and resourceful, while the poor are slothful, uncreative idiots.

In this conception, class only exists in the abstract and the resultant institutional inequalities and divisions are negligible. In this imagined classless world, one’s wealth or, conversely, one’s poverty or indebtedness is not a mark of one’s privilege, but of one’s character. An attack on a politician’s class is, therefore, too personal. The assumption that underlies this imagined reality is that the rich are, by definition, hard-working, intelligent and resourceful, while the poor are slothful, uncreative idiots.

About an hour after arriving at the Gatsby-themed party, the host – an acquaintance more than a friend – asked if I’d not understood what was expected of me. It was meant to be a black tie function, albeit at a share house in Fitzroy. I had, dressed in my mechanic’s overalls, broken an important social taboo.

It was fine for Tom to have an affair with Myrtle – he was simply exercising his right as a member of a higher class. But it was unconscionable for George to think that he could ever conceive of himself as Tom or Gatsby’s equal; he was consigned to live so they could exploit him. Subconsciously, the Georges of the world know this, but admitting it to oneself can be despair-inducing. So, feeling less like a renegade and more like a pariah, I took my half-drunk bottle of wine and left the Gatsby-themed party, lest the other guests be forced to ask why Georges are never welcome.


Tim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

34 responses to “Turnbull to Shorten — it’s about class, old sport

  1. It appears that the Xavier College educated Lawyer Bill Shorten is probably as aware as the rest of us that the Prime Minister was brought up by a single working class Father as has been so publicly broadcast over the past few years. So Malcolm Turnbull is himself only one generation removed from the working class yet oh so ready to fill the Moat and pull up the drawbridge to stop the Social Climbing Sycophants from latching onto the entitled. Peta Credlin created the term “Mr.Harbourside Mansion” as a way of privately vilifying Malcolm Turnbull and appeasing Tony Abbott who strangely after 30 years of Political life still had a Mortgage. What we should all be enraged about is the PM vicariously invoking the name of a deceased man of whom the LNP supped so heartily.After all, his widow is still living. Donations from the Pratt organisation to the LNP are order of magnitude larger than those given to the ALP, and finally the only thing we have ever seen the PM get hot under the collar about is the unpalatable gall that a member of the ALP would aspire to a better life. He has disgraced himself and as time comes to pass we shall all see how heartily he did so. The Cake was sweet but now comes the indigestion.

    1. If I remember correctly Turnbull’s father was in Hotel management and made enough money to send him to an expensive Sydney private school. Hardly a working class single father.

      1. He father worked his way up into Hotel management from a working beginning. Became wealthy enough to become Middle class wealthy. Malcolm has pointedly applied “Social climbing sycophant” as a derogatory term for Bill Shorten but it can be widely applied to anyone who “makes it”, the PM has given us all permission it seems. I suppose the next thing to do is either reject it or confirm it. If it is confirmed as a valid statement, it can then be applied retroactively, so why should Malcolm’s entitled background be any different. So in terms of education from Tot to a Bachelors the only thing that really differentiates these two is that they chose different Political Paths. Malcolm has painted his wagon Chartreuse with one of the most personal and elitist sprays ever recorded in Australia, he is stuck with it now.

    2. Turnbull had a working class father? Who happened to be able to send him to Sydney Grammar as a boarder? I think you left out a word – “not”. And I don’t think you mean “vicariously” – maybe “viciously”?

  2. Thoroughly agree with you, Tim, old sport. But Malcolm will wonder what you’re on about. People born into privilege are blind to their advantages, because they’ve never had to do without them. How I long for the days when we could at least pretend that Australia was a classless society.

  3. All of the bastards would think mig welder was a Spanish bullfighter but they are the best we can get. I think we get people who want to make Australia a better place but they get caught up in not saying anything THEY can use against them at the next election. Maybe we should limit all of them to 3 terms. Get some turnover in the joint.

    I do know what a mig welder is and I used to drive one. I don’t get invited to Gatsby parties, thank Christ.

  4. Shorten has ‘egged’ Turnbull into truly revealing himself… full of pi** and wind, signifying nothing, a tawdry bit of vaudeville showing how he is leading a ship of fools with their desk thumping and passing around of coal. Jay was a delusional romantic, Tom a narcistic exploiter and George us – the exploited.

    1. I note the piece of Coal brought a Prop into Parliament, one Scott Morrison. That is not allowed under Parliamentary rules.

  5. Actually Coral Lansbury was the mother, An academic,.Lansbury lectured at Uni of NSW in the 1960s.

    Let’s face it the politics of envy is always with us so stop grizzling .

    Some fine examples of people “rising above their station in life”( cute expression )include Keating and Rudd .

  6. I’ve always called the Liberals and their Country Party coat tail hangers, the “right to rule party”. No further confirmation required.

  7. Patricia Karvelas, have you been on the moon? Australia is class riven and getting worse as private schools, privatization and greed is good ethics have changed our world. Malcolm is an inheritee and his hissy fit the other day was very Freudian. “Social climbing Bill? Parasite? Patricia, back to Animal Farm and other parables about how privilige develops and poisons a community.

  8. Has anybody looked at how Turnbull made his money, selling a broke insurance company to HIH which then went broke, his dubious logging company in the Solomons, his dubious defence and sycophancy to one Kerry Packer. Hard working alright, but paid out of all proportion to his efforts. Please tell us how his business activities contributed to the national well being.

    1. yes, John Murray, turnBull’s duplicitousness was well-reflected in his company’s logging of old growth tropical rainforest on Guadalcanal whilst holding the position of Environment Minister under Howard. We should not forget that Kerri Packer sacked him…. artists who boycotted the Sydney Bienniale (remember Transfield?) were nominated as ungrateful peasants who should bow at the feet of their corporate ‘Betters’. Yes, Mister prime minister is deeply class oriented towards his ‘Betters” interests.

    2. They have not, and neither has anything he has done since assuming power.The Polls say it, this Government is charcoal at the next election.

  9. It was ad hominem abuse of the toxic undergraduate kind so beloved of many universities (particularly USyd) in the 70’s. It never was an argument. It does the man no credit at all. Our politicians need to stop looking at their navels to notice the shameful divisions they are creating in our country, of gender, class, generation, race, religion and ethnicity.
    Get to work you clowns and make a Bill of Rights for Australians, so this cannot happen again, without consequence. Let the kids not be imprisoned and abused, let women not be abused for their religious preference, let the asylum seekers have their rights – not your bodgy restrictions that were always corrupt. You have even corrupted our rights to the the Magna Carta, when you imprison the mentally ill. Take the 170Bill away from defence, the 50Bill from your aspiration for corporate mates, start governing for the people, not your selfindulgences!

  10. I remember Turnbull at university – so brash, so crudely ambitious, always flaunting his affluence. I wasn’t the only person who thought of him then as a Gatsby figure. In absolute terms he may have come from a wealthy background but in comparison with some of his fellow students at Grammar and Sydney Uni he was a parvenu.
    The attack on Shorten shows that for all his wealth he still doesn’t know how to behave in public. Shorten is indeed aspirational, mixes too well with the oligarchy who are the real rulers of this country, but at least he knows how to behave.

  11. Malcolm Turnbull benefited not just from a private school education but from the considerable inheritance he received from his very wealthy mother, Coral Lansbury. At no time was he poor, and his father was a well paid professional. The act that he puts on about being a self-made man is deeply embarrassing for those who remember his parents, as my father did, who worked with Coral at Sydney’s ABC Radio in the 1950s. But Bill Shorten did get where he is by selling out his workers whom he was paid to represent. As Robertson points out, ‘this should have forestalled his political career long ago’. But Malcolm’s tirade was poor form and unbecoming behaviour for a Prime Minister. And yes, class divisions based on old and new money are of no interest to the large proportion of the population who are struggling with the cost of living. It is a shame that the bulk of politicians are, as others have said, ‘unrepresentative swill’.

    1. It’s easy to become a self made man when you start with so much secure inherited wealth behind you. Failure is an option.

  12. It’s a wonderful article, thank you Tim. There’s a real worry when diatribes against a person, rather than debate about issues impacting the electorate are lauded by parliamentarians and take up time and space in what is already a short parliamentary year. This is not what we pay pollies to do and merely highlights the winner/loser, us/them, right/wrong, privileged/underprivileged, worthy/unworthy simplistic dualities that are as intellectually rigorous as mouse droppings and as futuristically and creatively appropriate as, well, a lump of coal past from one coalition hand to the next. All we really want is for the planet and inhabitants to be respected and cared for. Cannot we at the very least spend parliamentary debate time working towards laws that will put us on this trajectory?Certainly a personal verbal bashing doesn’t convey that intent.
    Elizabeth Farrelly wrote well about Turnbull’s motivations too:

  13. There is scarcely a name at the top of Aussie politics over the past 50 years which does not feature in my family tree – my family out of various rural English, Scottish and Irish corners. Including Keating, Rudd and Turnbull. Some of the family connections know how to read – indeed some of the chaps can knot a bowtie – while others have no real interest in the niceties of style and in which location to reside. Fancy Malcolm blaming Bill for the “Harbourside Mansions” reference – we all knew this was from Tony’s sidekick! My personal hero was an early to mid-19th century warrior/teacher in Japan who preached a mix of equality (in one of the most rigidly hierarchical of societies) and exhortations to diligence and focus and being with “good” associates. (By their friends shall ye know them.) He (YOSHIDA Shōin 1830-1859) offers as good as any other a yardstick by which to measure our politicians – the chortling Barnaby, the mirth of Morrison and the Cheshire Pyne rolling around on the bench behind Malcolm clearly showed the kinds of crowd with which our PM runs. Not pretty at all!

  14. It was an extraordinary attack. Seriously, Turnbull the banker, with a family background in realestate calling anyone a parasite is jaw dropping.

    Then there’s the archaic nature of the insults. I can’t remember when I last heard “upstart” used as an insult. The most recent I can think of is my snobbish Liberal voting grandmother using it to describe Gough in the 70s. I wondered if “upstart”, “bounder”, even “poltroon” could be far away.

    A strange speech from a strange man.

  15. Turnbull’s father was born in Tumut & grew up in the Hunter Valley. Originally trained as an electrician, at some point after 1953 he became a real estate salesman, then a hotel broker in about 1972. He is the real “self made man” in the Turnbull family. (Paddy Manning article in SMH 25 October 2015 and On 20 February 1953, 23 year old Coral Lansbury married her 66 year old Godfather, George Harold Edwards, who died of liver disease on 28 August 1953. He left a third of his estate for her use but only until she remarried. Malcolm Turnbull was born in October 1954. She challenged the Will and was awarded a bit over 3,000 pounds. She married Bruce Turnbull in late 1955. I haven’t found a copy of the decision but assume the case was started after she met Bruce Turnbull and they put off marriage until the Court awarded her the money. Most of this in article by Glenda Korporaal in The Australian 19 December 2015. Malcolm Turnbull was the child of an electrician and a radio actress, born out of wedlock in 1954 when that was kept quiet (note lack of date of marriage in Wikipedia). His parents both deserve to be called “self made”, not Malcolm. They provided him with a good education at a top school and universities but he was definitely more parvenu than patrician

  16. Great article but the anger of Turnbull was because Shorten nailed him on the fact that Motherhood and Apple Pie Turnbull was actually making a million families worse off financially.
    Shorten is a much better speaker and gave an impassioned and effective speech. Does he write his own speeches?They are excellent even poetic. See the condolence speeches on the opening day. Very frustrating that yet again the press reported the tip of the iceberg and decontextualized Turnbull’s speech and why it was so vehement.
    Shorten did him like a dinner. Jealousy is the bane of narcissism and poor Turnbull was suffering. He was out of control with anger and lucky he stopped when he did .
    These plebs are so ungrateful. Also ne mention of the punch line which was that Labour does not do economic management. In light of the LNP efforts since 2013 this belief is delusional but the commentariat propaganda obligation is so entrenched that Turnbull’s speech was accepted without demur.
    The facts speak for them selves but the reporting was so incomplete and distorted that Turnbull’s people were reassured by his conduct.
    On another note no wonder we have so much domestic violence when behaviour like this is applauded as macho/tough guy conduct. Hopeless

  17. The speech itself was dishonourable, but not frighteningly so. The hypocrisy of Malcolm was frightening, and the glee of the senior members and backbenchers of the LNP was revealing, in that it showed them in a terrible light.

    But the response of the msm, believing somehow that a character attack was in some way substantial, was the most revealing of all. Tim’s right I suspect, the vast majority of us couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss, and most of us don’t care about any of it other than the one substantive point made, that Shorten did sell out his members for union coin some time ago.

    But this class politics, references to class warfare and politics of envy only show up the LNP for the vacuous twats that they are. they thought this was an attack of substance, that this poor working man’s advocate somehow aspired to get above his station. It’s only ever those who are firing all the shots and winning all the battles who refer to ‘class warfare’.

    The politics of theatre, when we need policy and far-sightedness.

  18. Actually, most lefties I know these days are pretty well off, live in good suburbs, send their kids to private schools and enjoy the best of arts and culture. Meanwhile they do hold on to unsupportable moral shibboleths – the sort Shorten exhibits so perfectly well!. Turnbull nailed the truth (sadly this critique is way off the mark – in the way that modern lefties can’t see the deep hypocrisy is their attitudes and lifestyles – like making Neville Nobody in the ‘deplorable’ suburbs pay for her and his solar panels on their city pads – and always shuffle around for some wayward theoretical squib…)

    1. Terrific piece. I don’t agree though that Shorten is a union leader who got ahead by selling out workers. Thanks to Tony Abbott’s attempts to get Bill Shorten and Julia Gillard through a Royal Commission we got a chance to listen to Bill Shorten speaking at length about his time as a union leader. It went somewhat unregarded at the time but was an impressive display of Shorten’s character. Ironic that Malcolm Turnbull should attempt to smear his opponent on this very score.

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