We don’t have to think any more, or imagine how things will play out; the death rites have revealed themselves to us over the longest decade. We who chronicle these eruptions can sense the inchoate rituals of encirclement and execution even before they become evident.
Malcolm Turnbull’s last stand was in his courtyard. The stone courtyard at the rear of the prime ministerial suite has become the designated place of final farewells. The courtyard is monumental in scale. It’s exposed, yet enclosed, surrounded by walls of fortress height and bulk. It radiates heat in the summer and the wind whips through it in the winter, when prime ministers stand at their lecterns, minus their coats and comforts, willing themselves not to shiver. Julia Gillard’s hands were always tinged blue in that courtyard during the winter, but the prime ministerial flesh refused to flail.
Turnbull came twice to the courtyard during the final days of his prime ministership. It was more than twice, actually, but he came twice significantly, brimming with intent. The first visit was to outline the terms of his execution—terms that slowed the putsch against him and cost Peter Dutton the leadership of the Liberal Party, allowing Scott Morrison to come up through the middle. The second visit was to accept his fate, to accept, with grace, his expulsion from the office behind him.
He appeared calm on both occasions, entirely resolute. The first display of calm was weighted and lethal, the return of a familiar character that had been largely masked during his prime ministership. The second expression of calm was lighter, as if a burden had been discharged.
By early afternoon on the Friday, the adventure of Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister of Australia, was at an end. This was all irrational of course, but what could you expect? It was all a form of madness, and he, Turnbull, was the rational actor caught in the maelstrom, surrounded by panic merchants and mouth-breathing populists encroaching on his sanctuary. How else could this story possibly end but with a retreat to Point Piper?
When it ended, Turnbull was phlegmatic. Wife Lucy, who joined him at the midpoint of the farewell, brimmed with tears; daughter Daisy, dimpled, grounded, seemingly unruffled, watched her father and her lively children and the press pack gathered to officiate.
Over in the corner of the courtyard, the staffer charged with recording the proceedings stood sentry. The young man was masked as political aides are, with a stiff spine, until the moment his boss stopped speaking, turned on his heel and retreated to the private office for the last time; then his young face, pale from endless hours entombed in the shrinking spaces of the Turnbull prime ministership, crumbled, and he wept at the finality of things, at the brutality of the coda, and at the imperviousness of the world that was moving on relentlessly around him, composing the obituaries, rendering a formative experience nothing more than a postscript.
• • •
The walls began to close in on Malcolm Turnbull on election night in 2016. That election, which followed the member for Wentworth taking back the Liberal leadership from Tony Abbott late in the previous year, was supposed to deliver the clear mandate he needed to assert his authority on a riven, mulish Liberal Party. The Australian people were supposed to be the Turnbull caucus. But the voters deserted him at the end of a long, winter campaign where Turnbull had roamed far and wide in search of communion and validation, but had found the Australian people in a different headspace.
The global financial crisis had disrupted politics everywhere, and Turnbull saw the times as delivering conditions to thrive in. Economic transformation, social transformation, dislocation and change for him were opportunities—it’s the atmosphere in which entrepreneurs thrive.
So he projected what he felt: ebullience, supreme confidence and optimism. But fortune favouring the brave fell flat in a community buffeted by constant change and craving comfort. Bill Shorten’s big-government appeal touched the zeitgeist. Shorten connected on the trail while Turnbull looked out of step pretty much everywhere but the incubator hubs, where the T-shirted tech heads, the winners in the global labour market, welcomed him as a fellow winner.
As well as relishing conditions lesser mortals feel compelled to fear, Turnbull looked confused by the organic unreason every political leader encounters out on the hustings; swinging voters in interminable people’s forums with their questions that don’t always make sense. His instinct was to explain when the times required empathy. He lacked small talk. He couldn’t relate. He couldn’t pivot out of the tight corners.
Turnbull’s fury at the result on election night spoke volumes about the opportunity that had presented, shimmering before him, only to vanish on a collective whim of the voting public. This rejection seemed cruel when he had reconfigured himself after the personal nadir of 2009, after the Liberal Party had thrown him ignominiously onto the street for the crime for trying to face up to the practical challenges posed by climate change.
He absorbed that humiliation, being deposed by colleagues, took the ‘shattering blows’ (as he described the experience in 2012), and stayed, despite racking up the highest opportunity cost of public service of anyone in the Australian Parliament. There was a dignified life on offer outside, with creature comforts and plenty of stimulation, but he stayed, gluing himself back together, because he wanted a second chance.
People respond in different ways to being torn out of political leadership, as we’ve seen over the past ten years. The lesson Turnbull absorbed was the imperative of being more collegiate. If he got a second chance, he would have to lead differently, against his natural instincts. He wanted to show his colleagues, and the world, that he had that capacity for evolution in him; that things could be different.
Turnbull was held hostage by that instinct for much of his prime ministership. He was the general fighting the last war. His friends in politics told him that his enemies inside the Liberal Party were implacable, and they would take acts of contrition as a sign of weakness, that he couldn’t trust them; but some of the truth tellers found themselves edged out. He distanced himself from some of the people prepared to be good enough friends to give that advice. He also drew his enemies closer—close enough to do damage.
As well as rewarding his captors, he also trusted them, a development that worried his political friends more than the submission. People warned Turnbull about the young guns with the sharp elbows who would go on to form the core of the internal move against him—people such as Greg Hunt, Alan Tudge, Angus Taylor and Michael Sukkar—but the bearers of cautionary tales found themselves on the outer.
The sum of the parts was a long, slow shrinkage. With no succour from the voters, with the prime minister stripped of the dignity and protection of being the obvious people’s choice, the Liberal Party’s relatable leader, Turnbull’s internal enemies were handed the most advantageous conditions: government, by a whisker, everyone a kingmaker, a leader they didn’t trust in a position of supplication.
From the moment he prevailed with a majority of just one in the House of Representatives, Turnbull became a client of the conservative faction—although it’s wrong to characterise some of them as conservatives. A number are reactionaries.
He could occupy the prime ministerial office and sit at the head of the cabinet table only as long as Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann allowed him to continue sitting there, with Tony Abbott howling outside like a junkyard dog. If Dutton wanted an elaborate American-style home affairs apparatus, Turnbull’s answer would need to be yes. If Cormann wanted big business tax cuts that were political poison for a government with little working capital, it would have to be big business tax cuts, long after it was sensible to have them.
He might have been constrained, but Turnbull is a creature of perpetual motion. Submission was never absolute. While he understood the limits of his authority, the kept prime minister would never fully consent to his encirclement. Perpetual motion creates an imperative of inching forwards, and there were flourishes suggestive of a desire for a personal legacy.
Turnbull would proceed to legislating same-sex marriage, but through the preferred methods of conservatives, ensuring the prime minister who got it done received absolutely no credit. He persisted with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ignoring America’s decision to abandon its economic connection to the region in which China’s rise was casting a long shadow, persuading the Japanese to keep the trade deal alive.
Then there were climate change and energy. Turnbull ratified the Paris agreement, pushing that treaty through as quickly and quietly as possible—a framework that would necessitate accompanying action. There was a genuine passion project, the expansion of the Snowy Hydro scheme. There was also the long process of trying to unwind the unconscionable debacle Tony Abbott created when he dismantled Labor’s carbon price, a development business now comprehended was a mistake.
Briefly there was a hope emissions trading could be tolerated in the electricity sector. That was, of course, impossible, given the fractious internals, so other options were summoned. A clean energy target, designed over months by the chief scientist, then discarded. Then the last throw of the dice—the national energy guarantee.
Was this hubris on Turnbull’s part, thinking the Liberal Party would ultimately bow to the power of experts and persuasion and the wisdom of external stakeholders, and accept the weight of scientific evidence about the necessity of emissions reduction? Was it naivety? Or was it bravery, persisting with a policy that colleagues were prepared to kill you over?
Possibly it was all of these things. What-ever it was he persisted, round after round, as the conservatives and their shrieking spirit animals in the media gathered in plain sight for the final offensive against the obnoxious progressive lurking, unreconstructed, in their midst.
Turnbull fought until the last, trying to keep the policy alive with frantic, mostly incoherent, desperate activity, before losing his nerve and lying prostrate before his enemies, in the hope that abject surrender would save him. It didn’t, of course. Given this was war, with no rules of engagement apart from winner takes all, they thanked him for his submission and then proceeded to roll their tanks over the top of him.
• • •
In the final week, when Turnbull was invited to fight for his political life as gladiatorial spectacle, with the live action event com-prising a prime ministership ebbing away in ten-minute updates on the live blogs, and the cursed text messages read out on Sky News, the energy seemed to drain from him.
As the reckoning drew closer, the parliament sequestered itself for the defenestra-tion, rather like a cursed castle from a fairytale, time accelerating and yet standing still. With the animus unable to be contained, the House of Representatives adjourned, and the chamber waited, empty, in a solemn silence, preparing for the victim to lie in state.
The enervation was omnipresent and strange, something new. The parliamentary precinct has throbbed with the unhinged adrenaline of leadership coups for a decade, injecting them with drama and kinetic purpose. This was different. There was barely enough oxygen to breathe, and MPs who weren’t entering and exiting offices possessed of various purposes and obligations, principally back stabbing or front stabbing, took themselves off to surrounding bars to drown their sorrows.
As the baby-faced plotters went about their business, counting numbers, pencilling names in columns, the tempo and desperation levels increasing as Turnbull’s resolve to disrupt the progress of the hurricane hardened, Peter Dutton began his strange, mildly surreal, levitation.
Dutton had first telegraphed his interest in the top job in April, at the time the government lost its thirtieth Newspoll. So did Morrison. Turnbull, evidently, didn’t take the positioning seriously. Perhaps, with his reflexively robust sense of self-worth, he catastrophically underestimated the threat.
While the ‘never Malcolm’ faction had been dreaming for much of the year of dispatching him, Dutton became the chosen one of the conservative firm after the LNP’s disastrous showing in the Longman by-election. The party craved a Queensland saviour, a happenstance that joined the panic merchants and the plotters in shared busy work.
In the week when everything accelerated and Turnbull was forced to face his fate, Dutton broke cover and began his expansion, accepting his co-option, processing the notion of his ascension, experimenting with an explanation of why this might be plausible.
This happens sometimes in politics. Waves suddenly crest, and people rise higher than their station, either by accident or by design, opportunity presents; then they warm to the notion of themselves occupying larger public space: leader, deputy leader, not just a cabinet minister. Once that Rubicon is crossed it’s hard to shrink back, to reclaim lost modesty and have it comfort you.
For the best part of a week, Dutton allowed himself to inhabit the possibility of a prime ministerial Peter Dutton. He understood this transition required the projection of a more complex personality. To have designs on the Lodge, he would need to be leadership material. Dutton, putative prime minister, thought he might smile more. He unfurled that aspiration before mildly incredulous journalists as a down payment on the required self-actualisation. He even arranged his face into an expression he regarded as more pleasant. Like a sports star visualising the game-making play before it happens, he imagined voters seeing a different, softer Peter.
Leadership coups are brutal things, with the worst of human nature on grim display, but there was an innocence about Dutton’s super-charged journey of self-discovery, an unselfconscious optimism that his identity as a public figure could shapeshift from the predestined pantomime of the political hard man, cuddling up to no-one apart from Ray Hadley in the musty sock-strewn locker room of Sydney talkback radio, to someone who might plausibly participate in a Women’s Weekly profile.
The feelings, once unleashed, were copious. He would have loved to take those poor wretched souls off Manus and Nauru, had the portfolio imperative been less of a straitjacket. ‘I’d love to get everybody off there tomorrow. If I could have brought them to Australia on a charter flight overnight I would have,’ Dutton 2.0 mused, rashly, on Sky News. He felt power prices could be lower if the government he led removed the GST from power bills, never mind the states and their pesky objections, and why not have a royal commission into the power companies while we were at it?
Thinking at this point was strictly optional. Turnbull did nothing but think, and what had that delivered anyone? A government, going out backwards, led by a stranger in their midst who might be contained but not, ultimately, co-opted. His presence was permanent provocation.
Turnbull must have wondered—before he briefly reacquainted himself with the ruthless character he spent a prime ministership containing, and blocked Dutton by demanding the plotters produce 43 signatures—why his prime ministerial journey had to end so ignominiously, with the risk of losing the crown to the one-dimensional Queenslander with the joke-shop smile.
It must have seemed ludicrous, but here it was: the expiration. The way things end.
• • •
Turnbull stood aloof at the end as the moderates deserted him on the final Friday of his prime ministership to block Dutton and help deliver Morrison the prize. Julie Bishop couldn’t take the longest walk with her old friend, because she was contesting the ballot. She walked to the contest alone.
Turnbull was isolated, with the institutional forces of his political organisation moving decisively around him, like tectonic plates unlocking, shifting and relocking. These forces were always slightly mysterious to the late-life political convert, given that in Turnbull’s pre-politics life, alliances to deliver outcomes were built on transactions and nimble networks rather than animated by generational blood feuds.
He was isolated, but he wasn’t alone. He was accompanied to his final party room meeting by Craig Laundy, another independently minded outsider, from a family of Sydney publicans, and by an archetypal insider, Arthur Sinodinos, who, despite his own health struggles, fronted in Canberra for the vote, perhaps knowing a little something about the calling of comforting leaders facing dark nights of the soul.
Laundy told a talkback radio host immediately after the vote that he felt ‘absolutely annihilated’ physically, mentally and emotionally. ‘Um, I just, I have sat back this week and I have watched the party I love tear down a great man and a great friend and, geez, wow.’
He had stayed with Turnbull through the twists and turns of the final week. ‘I’ve had the privilege of having a seat at the table all week … and I think this is probably his barrister background, but in the middle of a crisis, mate, you know, he just stayed calm the whole way. He’d turn to me and look at me and say, “They’ve lost their mind, haven’t they?” and I’d say, “Mate, I think they have, but you know we’ve gotta keep working through.”’
Australia’s twenty-ninth prime minister was always a one-off: not of the tribe in a time where tribe trumps everything, an unrepentant individualist in a herd game intrinsically hostile to outsiders, an implacable logician in a vocation brimming with animal spirits, an avowed technocrat in an age of reactionary populism.
Turnbull came to the job not really comprehending that politics had changed, that something had broken and he wasn’t the person to fix it. He assumed that dispatching Abbott from the Liberal Party leadership would turn back the clock, that Australian politics could return to the time before the member for Warringah ripped up the rules of engagement in order to tear down a Labor government. He was wrong.
Politics had changed. The business now was crueller. The cycles of destruction had become hard wired. The public, too, had become impatient. Turnbull attempted to be a rational actor in irrational times. The adventure had not panned out quite as hoped. But this was Malcolm Turnbull. He would back himself to have more adventures. If the inclination struck, some scores could also be settled, in time.
Turnbull farewelled his political self by observing it had been a ‘challenging time’ to occupy the office of prime minister. But he believed his government had worked, and got things done. ‘It may surprise you on a day like this but I remain very optimistic and positive about our nation’s future, and I want to thank the Australian people for the support they’ve given me and my government over the last nearly three years.’
He said the Turnbull government had been ‘progressive’. It had faced the future, and he was proud of that record. ‘I wish you all the best. Above all, I wish the new prime minister–elect the very best and his team. Thank you.’ With that, Turnbull, straight-backed, greyer, more angular, less ebullient, departed, with his loved ones, to face the future. •
Katharine Murphy began her career in the Canberra parliamentary press gallery in 1996. She is political editor of Guardian Australia and Adjunct Associate Professor of Journalism at UC.
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