It used to be said that the Great Wall of China was the only human artefact large enough to be seen from the moon. Satellite observations have cast doubt on this idea, but in any case the Great Wall has been superseded by a new contender: Malcolm Turnbull’s ego.

This monstrous construct has just devoured the parliamentary Liberal Party in a ceremony Turnbull described as “humbling” — presumably he meant for the Liberal Party. He himself has long been immune to such human weakness and undoubtedly sees his most recent elevation as just another small step towards the conquest of the universe.

Even his best friends admit that Turnbull can be an abrasive character, and not always a predictable one. I had a chance to study him reasonably closely during the republican convention of 1999 in the old parliament house in Canberra. By the final day the convention had disintegrated, just as John Howard had designed it to, there were factions of factions of factions, none of which could agree about anything.

But as I wrote in The Australian at the time, there was still one motion which would have been carried by acclamation if anyone had proposed it: a declaration that Malcolm Turnbull was a thug, a bully and a general all-round a-sehole. This was in no way a reflection on his dedication to the cause, which was generous and untiring. But it did rather suggest that he was less than a team player — a gilt-edged egomaniac, in fact.

Then there is the story of the cat, noted by the disgraced Canadian publisher Conrad Black in his memoirs and resurrected by Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald at the weekend. It is said that when Turnbull was ditched by a girlfriend in his student days, he took revenge by strangling her cat and leaving it on her doorstep. This may well be a libel, although Turnbull has never taken action over its publication. But the mere fact that many of his colleagues find it utterly convincing goes some way to explaining why they still have their doubts about entrusting him with their future.

Turnbull has tried to assuage their fears by playing down his Mr Moneybags image — why, he once lived in a flat, albeit in Double Bay. But his current lifestyle and his portfolio of hugely expensive real estate are not reassuring. While it is true that the Rudd family is also very well off the Prime Minister doesn’t flaunt it and indeed makes a point of mixing with the homeless. So he can get away with it; nobody calls him a silvertail. Few call Turnbull anything else.

Turnbull has also made a point of not dumping the policies he inherited from Brendan Nelson, even the really silly ones like the five cent reduction on petrol excise and the $30 a week single pension increase, not to mention a host of other unfunded promises. This, like Rudd’s insistence on honouring all election promises, is presumably to give the impression of honesty and consistency, but it is also bad policy. The fact that Turnbull, the self-styled policy wonk, feels compelled to maintain it in the interests of party unity demonstrates just how serious the doubts about his leadership really are.

It is worth noting that despite the utter despair about Nelson, Turnbull only got up by a very small margin and the fact that he got up at all is a testimony to the impotence and irrelevance of Peter Costello. Costello openly backed Nelson, but nearly all his erstwhile followers shifted to Turnbull, pushing him over the line. Costello, like his memoirs, has been remaindered.

At least that’s one less worry for Turnbull — if, in fact, he ever saw Costello as a worry, which he probably didn’t. Those who know they were born to win can recognise born losers at forty paces.

Meanwhile Kevin Rudd has decamped to the United States to observe the demise of capitalism in its spiritual home.

Actually the sight of rugged individualists demanding to be bailed out by taxpayers as soon as they get into trouble will be familiar to him. After all, it was the Australian Country Party, now the Nationals, which first espoused the philosophy of privatising gain and socialising loss. For many years the farming organizations have demanded and received, special subsidies, protection and relief in times of trouble. There is nothing wrong with this, but we could do without their insistence that they are sturdily independent, unlike the city softies.

Similarly George Bush is totally justified in using public money to save failing investment companies, however shonky; while the institutions themselves may have done nothing to deserve salvation, most of the people affected are ordinary citizens who invested directly as customers or indirectly through their insurance companies, retirement funds or whatever. It is hardly their fault that they have been let down by the gung-ho free-marketeers who have always railed against government intervention — until, of course, they needed it.

These should now be confined to the public stocks for periods directly proportional to the size of their salary packages and pelted with as much rotten fruit as their former clients can afford. When released, they should be made to write out a thousand times each:

I will not criticise public welfare with my own snout in the public trough. Pure capitalism does not work any better than pure socialism. Economic rationalism is not rational. A mixed economy is the only kind that makes sense.

They could then be re-employed in jobs commensurate with their talents, such as fence posts on rural properties or speed humps in suburban roads. After all, a caring capitalist society has a place for everyone, even the proven failures. Just ask Peter Costello.

Peter Fray

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