BORN TO RULE: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull
Melbourne University Press, 2015, 442 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
The Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, likes to downplay his image as a privileged, wealthy silver-tail by touting his time as a flat-dwelling young boy from a broken family (his mother abandoned the family when Turnbull was only nine) but his upbringing was not all that humble, writes the business journalist, Paddy Manning, in his biography of the former investment banker.
Head prefect at the elitist and pricey Sydney Grammar, law graduate from Sydney University and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Turnbull’s remarkably soft hard times ended with his property-dealing father’s death in 1982 when the 27-year-old Turnbull, the sole beneficiary of a multi-million dollar estate, inherited well north of $2 million.
This kitty provided a hefty leg-up for Turnbull’s stellar wealth accumulation. As a lawyer and political journalist, he had come to the attention of Australia’s fifth richest man, the media mogul, Kerry Packer, who took Turnbull on as his chief legal counsel. Surrounded by money and wanting his own pile, Turnbull used $50 million from Packer and one of his corporate mates to make his private mint through merchant banking. Million dollar corporate advisory fees and commercial investments funded Turnbull’s six-figure salary and seven-figure share dividends from his bank.
The Prime Minister is now valued at $200 million, helped in part by investments squirrelled away in the Cayman Islands tax haven where the ability to defer tax on capital gains effectively reduces, in real terms, the cost of that tax over time.
Turnbull’s political career has not been quite as straightforward as his monetary one, with Turnbull playing both centre-right and centre-left over the years. Although joining the Liberal Party in 1973 (before leaving it a decade later after unsuccessful pre-selection bids), Turnbull had disagreed, for example, with the 1975 constitutional coup against the Whitlam Labor Government, writing that the Fraser Liberal Opposition was behaving like ‘political fascists’ in their haste to block supply and cajole the Governor-General (‘this unelected ribbon-cutter’) to sack Whitlam under the ‘reserve powers’ of the (monarchist) Constitution.
As late as the 1990s, Turnbull made and fielded offers to join the Labor Party, which had fewer rabid monarchists and other knuckle-dragging reactionaries, before rejoining the Liberal Party in 2000 as the natural political home for the super-rich.
The Liberal Party was also where an easier path to personal power could be bought by a seriously-cashed-up Prime Ministerial aspirant. In “the biggest branch stack since Federation”, writes Manning, Turnbull took on the sitting incumbent in 2004 for pre-selection as the Liberal candidate for Sydney’s plush eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth, with ring-ins by both candidates swelling the local branch membership to half the party’s total national membership. Turnbull’s two hundred expatriate Harvard University members helped, as did $600,000 of his own money, in Turnbull becoming, as some rudely said, the ‘Member for Net Worth’.
With Turnbull now Prime Minister, the Liberals hope to have found their more suave, more saleable, leader than their brand-damaging predecessor, Tony Abbott, with his overt austerity program and Royalist, religious and far-right hang-ups. Turnbull, the high-wealth, ‘small–L’, Liberal, wraps the Party’s core economic neo-liberalism and market fundamentalism in the more palatable packaging of social liberalism (marriage equality and the like).
As Manning relates, there is a “Good Malcolm” - clever, charming and urbane, the charity donor, the mild social liberal. There is also a “Bad Malcolm” - arrogant, domineering, capable of black rages and verbal and physical aggression, the believer that charity begins at home (claiming taxpayer-funded travel allowance for staying in the family-owned, $800,000 Canberra house when parliament is sitting).
When it comes to the class war, however, there is only the one Malcolm, the corporate Malcolm. As Manning writes, “there is nothing in Turnbull’s professional experience, or his rarefied social circle, that has prepared him to understand the problems faced by millions of ordinary workers”.
According to elementary political science, the role of the Liberal Party of Australia is to represent, protect and enhance corporate class interests. Long before the Republic campaigner hypocritically pledged ‘true allegiance to Her Majesty’ at his ceremonial swearing-in as Prime Minister, Turnbull had pledged life-long loyalty to Australian capitalism.
The political trick for Turnbull is to gain buy-in to the Liberal Party’s narrow class role from those who don’t inherit millions, live in mansions or invest in tax havens. The Abbott clunker may been traded in for the smoother Turnbull model but the class interests represented, and opposed, by both leaders remain the same.