Annabel Crabb’s Quarterly Essay profile of Malcolm Turnbull is a lively and engaging profile, written with a lightness of touch which belies the thought and research that has gone into its creation.
The profile is full of anecdotes about Turnbull, many told by him, for he seems to be a man who likes to talk about himself, and many told by enemies and supporters. There is a kind of Turnbull life narrative, I suppose, in this 12,000-word piece of journalism, which is to be expected now that Australian politicians have adopted the American cultural tradition of personal narratives that, in America, are designed to illustrate the American Dream — overcoming humble and disadvantaged beginnings to reach the pinnacle of political success.
Kevin Rudd of course has his narrative, the most poignant part of which is that his mother and the Rudd children lived in a car for a while after his father died when Kevin was 15. Turnbull has his poignant moment too, for he lived in a modest flat with his father after his mother left the family. The trouble with both these narratives is that neither Rudd nor Turnbull has anything much of great interest happen to them after their poignant moments. Or so it seems.
Rudd left the car and was brainy and hardworking and that was that. Turnbull became a quintessential Sydney — well, that glitzy, flashy, deal-making Sydney in which politics and business and celebrity are melded together — identity, smart and ambitious and on the make. And that was that. Or so it seems from Crabb’s profile. There is nothing in Crabb’s profile of Turnbull that even begins to describe the geography of his childhood. Not only that: there is no sense at all of Turnbull’s contemporary physical world. There is passing mention of his mansion in Point Piper but having never been there, I have no idea what to make of this.
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In a profile this long, it means something that Crabb thinks it unnecessary to even give us a brief description of Turnbull’s world. I mean the physical world that the writer Tom Wolfe argued the great writers of the nineteenth century used to reveal the class and status markers of their characters — the way they dressed, the jewellry they wore, the way they had their hair styled, the houses in which they lived, the streets of their neighborhoods. I think Wolfe was on to something: imagine Dickens without the physical rootedness of his characters.
Turnbull’s world, I have concluded, is alien to me in a way that John Howard’s world and Paul Keating’s world and certainly Bob Hawke’s world was not. I am not sure why this is so, except that Malcolm Turnbull is almost entirely a creature of a peculiarly Sydney elite that neither Keating nor Howard belonged to. Certainly not Howard. I could imagine Howard’s childhood geography, the lower middle class suburb in which he grew up, the feel and even the smell of his father’s small business, the rather nondescript office he worked in as a small-firm suburban solicitor. In some ways, in terms of where they came from, John Howard was the Margaret Thatcher of Australian conservative politics. Formed and forever tied to the values and the realities of small business.
Unless Malcolm Turnbull finds a way to refine his personal narrative, to locate himself somewhere beyond the sum of his ambitions and achievements, I think he will never be prime minister. For all that the revolution in communications has wrought — a connectedness that transcends all physical limitations — we live most of our lives in a small physical world, from childhood on, and in a sense we know each other only to the extent that we know that world and can relate to it.
There is much about Crabb’s profile that is admirable, but in the end Malcolm Turnbull remains a sort of alien figure, floating out there in a reality beyond geography, clever and rich and ruthless and engaging and self-obsessed, but floating nevertheless, out there, just beyond my grasp.
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