Turns out Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t just wearing yarmulke on Four Corners out of respect for the Jewish community he was visiting — he’s one of them! At least according to his local rag, the Wentworth Courier, which reported yesterday that he has strong Jewish supporters, he has visited Israel and that — seriously — some of his best friends are Jews.

It also offered the rumour that his mother had confessed on her deathbed to being Jewish. As last words go, “I’m actually Jewish” aren’t exactly up there with “Et tu, Brute” or even “Bugger Bognor”. Coral Lansbury was a writer, after all. No wonder Turnbull specifically said the story was rubbish.

Still, didn’t stop the Courier from running with “Politics, pot and my possible Jewish roots.”

You mean he didn’t confirm their religion before sleeping with them?

Turnbull has some big fans in the Jewish community, which he has assiduously courted in Wentworth. Some say there’s a particular clutch of Turnbull fans who would dearly love to claim him as their own. His Catholicism might normally suggest he’s already spoken for in terms of faith, but fandom knows no reason. Perhaps Turnbull can become the first Jewish member of Opus Dei. That’d drive ‘em wild on the grassy knoll.

It’s Turnbull’s past as a banker that is of more immediate moment to him. A successful career in a merchant bank has, in the space of about a week, suddenly become the political equivalent of a criminal conviction. You’d reckon that’s one of the reasons why he seized with glee on both Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd refusing to demand that banks pass on all of the looming interest rate cut. Banks are plenty profitable and can pass on the whole lot, Turnbull reckons.

Getting bagged for that by the Australian Bankers’ Association — a group with all the popularity of a bunch of kiddy-fiddlers — will please him immensely. But as Phil Coorey noted, Turnbull has changed his tune somewhat, having said in January that banks should be allowed to charge whatever the market will bear.

And that was a couple of months before Brendan Nelson went further and said:

I think the responsibility for those of us who lead in a political sense is to remind Australians that the strength of our financial services sector in our country, and the strength and profitability of our banking sector in particular, is absolutely essential to our security, notwithstanding the concern, if not debate and argy bargy about what individual institutions may do from time to time… one thing that is important — whatever our attitude to movements by banks outside those of the Reserve — whatever people think about banks making a profit, there is one thing that is worse, and that is a bank making a loss.

Such high-minded sentiments are now being repeated by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, in the basis that the credit crunch has driven the cost of money higher. And also, presumably, on the basis that neither can afford to demand that the banks pass on the full rate cut and then see the banks ignore them. That would be a bad look, in particular, for Wayne Swan, just as he has started to seem more authoritative in the role as he fronts up to the financial crisis.

The crisis is now sufficiently dramatic that there is virtually no room for Turnbull to exploit it for political gain; he needs to be in lockstep with the Government as long as it sticks to economic orthodoxy. Interest rates offer the only area in which to take issue with the Government, and Turnbull will run with it as far as he can. But it’s a tricky argument, to try to assure everyone that our banking sector will stand firm amid the international crisis, while recommending they take a cut in profits.

Peter Fray

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