It should have been obvious to anyone who came into contact with him that Godwin Grech was not a man whose robustness could be assumed. Apparently frail and ill from childhood, a solitary type who joined the CPS directly from university, he clearly found in public service a framework for his existence, and a meaning for a life he reasonably assumed would be foreshortened.

At some point that commitment became obsession, a disabler rather than enabler — working increasingly long hours Grech appears to have made himself hospitalisable from his chronic bowel condition on repeated occasions. Who knows why he was permitted to keep working full-time under such conditions, but one should not assume it was indifference — it may have been a form of mercy to not deprive someone of the one thing they had in life.

What is not in doubt is that he then fell into the hands of the worst people he could have met — a Liberal leader who has never been defined by any cause except his own, and shows no sign of having a non-robust moment in his adult life, and Erica Betz, the Coalition’s bloodless hatchet-man.

Most people would have spotted instantly that someone like Grech was out of his element, in crisis, that there was a point at which to stop. The true measure of the man is that his convoluted explanation for faking the Utegate email — that he wanted the Coalition to pass the OzCar legislation and thus did them a favour, that he thought there had been an email and recreated it — rings truer than any simpler explanation of spite, personal gain, etc. I don’t mean that he is necessarily lacking in guile, strategy or intelligence, but he was someone suddenly playing in the wrong weight class.

That Malcolm Turnbull didn’t see this is possibly a more damning indictment of his judgement than his increasingly obvious lack of political skills — the most recent being to have an ABC Australian Story crew follow him round with apparent carte blanche, at a time when he was pursuing a complex gotcha attack on the government. Most post-adolescents develop some basic inner sense of how far is too far with someone like Grech, some allowance for human vulnerability, and some sense of responsibility for it.

That Turnbull didn’t and couldn’t may have been his own undoing — the lack of moral insight was the flipside of a lack of psychological insight that would have rung alarm bells in a more astute person – but it also contributed to the ruination of a man whose one hope for a meaningful and rounded life, for a life that made sense, was to have been, and been remembered as, a dutiful and effective public servant. Turnbull was the stronger man. It was his fault.

The Australian Story footage caught that perfectly — Turnbull bouncing around like a manic Mr Punch, with his bizarre boiler-room of wife, daughter and gormless second-rate staff (“what’s concocted mean?”), a bunch of Bellevue Hillbillies who make the Kardashians look like Lincoln’s Civil war cabinet. Grech’s fate makes the whole thing look more tragedy than farce — a bunch of Sydney sybarites sitting around quietly dismembering someone.

Turnbull is dead. The prime bull is now a side of beef hanging from a hook. His political skills are laughable — witness his ad-hoc announcement of campaign finance reform to cut out corporate donations, a move which would destroy the Liberal Party and make the Greens the best funded party in Australia. The party organisation would rather lose half a dozen elections than corporate funding. So Turnbull has made enemies of both the inner party, and the general public, the latter regarding him as not only a dill, but as “not much of a bloke”.

“Not much of a bloke” is the Australian equivalent of the Yiddish judgement of someone that “they’re no mensch”. It’s a final judgment, because it goes to the heart of someone’s basic sense of humanity — the rough mix of respect, sympathy, humility, attention to the other, that we all try to project at the same time as we purposefully pursue our lives. Too much of it is a lack of will masquerading as morals, but an absence of it simply exiles you. Weirdly, being judged NMOAB is a worse assessment than more forcefully expressed judgements.

The trouble for the Liberal Party is that such a judgement attaches to their two most likely leaders, first Abbott and now Turnbull. Nothing in Abbott’s medieval worldview condemned him absolutely — it took a single remark about the late Bernie Banton to do that. For a Christian, Abbott couldn’t understand that there was something Christlike in the calm patience of Banton and others in the face of death at the hands of evil. Who would have blamed a dying James Hardie worker who sank a staysharp into the neck of a Board Member outside a courtroom? But they didn’t, and that was the operation of grace wherever you think that quality comes from, and the fact that Abbott couldn’t see it made it clear to everyone that, well, he was NMOAB.

Like many of a certain type of Roman Catholic, and Turnbull is the same, Abbott is a man without a soul who outsources its provisioning to the most dependable outfit around — and one that, unlike Protestanism or Islam, doesn’t demand that you make much of an effort to change your nature.

Churchill, that noted author-politician famously remarked that a conservative leader needs to be held up if drunk, covered up for if an adulterer etc etc, and “poleaxed if he is no good”. The bell tolls for Turnbull, and the party may as well make it quick and decisive. The fact that both he and the Mad Monk are out of consideration by any sane strategist actually helps the one other contender, Jolly Joe Hockey. True, he wasn’t in consideration months ago, he’s a big boofy man, retaining more fluid than the Canberra aquifer, a human beanbag who assumes the shape of the last person who sat on him.

But he is recognisably a decent bloke, and clearly the party can minimise its next election losses — which is all we’re talking about now — by assuring the public that is it not entirely composed of creepy pod-people. Hockey also has a genuine popular touch, and he’d show up Rudd’s spin-doctored faux-nomie in a way that neither Turnbull or Abbott can, because they are simply second-rate versions of him.

Turnbull will go to whatever he’s going to do next never really understanding what happened to him, Abbott drift into deeper bewilderment as the role of spiritual political leader he thought he would take is played out by a man who looks like the Norwegian Minister for Social Security, and Godwin Grech goes to invalidism with the hope that people will remember him as a man and not a fall-guy.

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%