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A Bigger Picture : review by Trevor Moore

A Bigger Picture

Malcolm Turnbull, Hardie Grant Books, 2020, ISBN 9781743795637, 704pp A review by Trevor Moore

I am not really sure why I bought this book. In general, my view is that the only biography worth reading is one that is published some years after the death of the subject. It’s important to allow for reflection on a life and to set any assessment of the worth of that life against some historical context. I recall that when I saw that Kevin Rudd had published his memoirs, I thought that 800 pages of self-justification was more than a body could bear. So, quite why I thought that buying what was bound to be another apologia, although admittedly one slightly slimmer than Rudd’s 800 pages, I cannot say. Perhaps it was that Booktopia was advertising signed copies for sale. Well, you really can’t miss an offer like that can you? So, when the book was delivered last Tuesday I looked eagerly for the signature. I found it; but to say I was underwhelmed would be overstating my reaction.

I saw in the Guardian this morning that the initial print run of 45,000 had been cleaned out and that two further 15,000 print runs were on their way. Sales of the book may well have been helped by its pre-publication leak (or at least an electronic copy of it) by a man in the prime minister’s office. I do not tweet very often, but I felt compelled to offer my views on this to the Twittersphere.

Less than a year ago Morrison had said, in the context of Chinese policy practices, “Intellectual property theft cannot be justified”. Yet for some reason there has been no mention that the person concerned has been fired or has resigned. You can see in the picture of my tweet that it was liked 46 times and retweeted 27 times. For me this is a massive reaction, unprecedented (to use a word that should be banned) in my twitter career, which is not extensive.

The question is whether you would be wise to invest your $50 (or close to it) on this tome. Perhaps the reason I bought it was that I was sort of interested in the comparison between the two men that are Turnbull and Morrison. I suspect that I bought it because I am constantly appalled by Morrison’s lack of empathy, lack of leadership capability, inability to communicate and his innate superciliousness. I was not always 100% with Turnbull’s politics but he is at least interesting, communicates reasonably well and seems moderately genuine. We do not get to politics proper until about a quarter of the way through the book. But by this time Turnbull seems to have met and dealt with nearly everyone who mattered; that is, mattered either in the context of Australian politics or who would matter to himself.

One of the reasons I buy biographies is in an attempt to understand why successful (or perhaps I should say notorious) people are successful (or notorious). What, for example, are the characteristics that made Stalin or Mao what they were? Or, what was it about Churchill – who does not always seem to be the most balanced individual – that made him the man on whom Britain pinned its hopes in 1940? Reading Turnbull’s book brought to mind Geoffrey Robertson’s 2018 autobiography Rather His Own Man. Much seemed to happen for Robertson at university; he seemed just to meet the right people (and to date Nigella Lawson). Turnbull was the same; he seemed to connect with people. He was – and is – clearly a people person. It is perhaps arguable that being a people person is not a good skill for a politician. Perhaps the problem with empathy is that it enables you, like Mr Arabin in Trollop’s Barchester Chronicles, to subscribe to each side of an argument with equal fervour.

In the end I was less interested in the political machinations of what Turnbull refers to as “The Coup” than I was interested in his earlier life. This accounts for only 105 pages of the book. There are three hunks of the story here: his time in the media, the Spycatcher trial and his time as an investment banker. The Spycatcher trial, as Turnbull remarks, was bigger in the UK than it was in Australia and I can confirm this; I remember it well. The trial arose as the British government attempted to prevent publication in Australia of the memoirs of Peter Wright, a former MI5 officer. The impact of the trial in the UK was the greater because its outcome seriously discomfited the Thatcher government and gave rise to one of the most wonderful pieces of bullshit that a British civil servant ever uttered. Turnbull quotes the exchange, which was a huge thing in the UK media at the time. Turnbull is the questioner and Sir Robert Armstrong (then the Cabinet Secretary) is the answerer:

Q: What is the difference between a misleading impression and a lie?

A: A lie is a straight untruth.

Q: What is a misleading impression – a sort of bent untruth?

A: As one person said, it is perhaps being economical with the truth.

Turnbull does not tell us that the phrase “economical with the truth” was not Armstrong’s own – it was first used by the philosopher Edmund Burke, as Armstrong told the court. But it was too late. The damage was done, and the exchange would have done credit to an episode of the BBC’s Yes, Minister. Turnbull devotes a chapter to this, and it is good reading.

That it is good reading is probably due to the years Turnbull spent as a journalist. The man is a good and engaging writer and I suspect that the editorial team at Hardie Grant Books did not have a lot to do by way of wordsmithing. I suspect the legal team was more exercised in checking that no one was going to sue or be sued. I did not know of his time with Kerry Packer and this is also an interesting piece of Australian media history, even if perhaps only a footnote.

What interested me most about the book was his time as an investment banker. The idea that you can start an investment bank with almost no money is an idea that I struggle with though my son, who is an investment banker, would probably not be fazed by this. I suspect that the trick is always to use other people’s money. But he was, without a doubt, a successful banker. He pulled off some seriously complicated deals and made himself a lot of money in the process. He could not have done this without some highly tuned stakeholder management skills. In his ABC 7:30 interview with Leigh Sales he remarked that someone had told him that he should trust no one. Yet that advice is not only relevant to politics; it would also be relevant in banking and especially banking with international stakeholders. I cannot help concluding that he was a better banker than politician.

So, back to the ultimate question: should you spend your $50 on this book? Well, it’s a good read … and it’s an easy read and it tells a good story. But it’s a contemporary story so if you are going to read it , then you should read it now because in a year’s time probably no one will care very much. The story will still be there, but we will be further from the detail. In twenty years’, it will be even less relevant. A dusty copy will be pulled from the shelves of the National Library by some researcher and may provide a quote for a PhD thesis.

But today? Well, we’re all locked down. What else are you going to do?

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