It is amazing, in the real sense of that word, what makes it onto the front page of newspapers sometimes. Last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph was one such example. ‘Malcolm’s Mates’ ran the headline, accompanying an ‘exclusive’ by Glenn Milne with claims by former Labor grandees and staffers that the Opposition Leader, at the time of the 1999 Republic Referendum, approached them wanting to join the Labor Party and become a key frontbencher in Kim Beazley’s opposition.

So why shouldn’t this be a front page story? Two reasons. One it’s been said before. One of the people quoted in the story David Britton, who had some involvement in the republican movement but who was not on the 1999 Referendum campaign team, ran a similar claim up the mast back in 2000 when Mr Turnbull announced he was joining the Liberal Party. It made front page news in The Australian at the time but the story didn’t go anywhere.

But the more substantive reason as to why the Sunday Telegraph story was not worthy of front page billing was that it does not gel with the memories of some of us who were with Turnbull at the time.

I was not involved in every telephone call, email exchange or face to face meeting Malcolm had with Labor or Liberal politicians retired or active, during the seven months I worked for him as campaign director of the Yes Referendum campaign, but I am certainly aware of tension between Labor people and our campaign and that Malcolm expressed interested in joining the Liberal Party just after the Referendum despite he, and many of us, feeling less than charitable about the leader of that Party’s role in wrecking the dream of an Australian Head of State.

On more than one occasion Labor members told me during the campaign that they were less than enthusiastic about getting involved in the grunt work of the campaign because Turnbull and I were Liberals — at that time I was. I never heard any Labor person, and I dealt with some very senior people, floating the idea of Malcolm being one of theirs.

In late 1999 and early 2000, in other words around the time it is claimed that Turnbull was making approaches about the ALP, I introduced Jason Falinski to Malcolm. Falinski was, and is, a talented moderate Liberal, and now involved in local government in Sydney but who was at that time living in the Wentworth electorate, Turnbull’s backyard. Malcolm was keen to get to know key Liberals and Falinski was a friend of mine.

Falinski and I discussed, again on more than one occasion between ourselves and with at least one other very senior New South Wales Liberal official over a Saturday morning coffee in early 2000, that Malcolm wanted to get involved in the Liberal Party and that he had expressed that interest to both of us. The rest is history of course, because Turnbull rolled his sleeves up with his customary enthusiasm and is where he is today.

Oh and a final word. I do not claim to have had any role in helping Malcolm rise to the top of the Liberals — he did that himself. But what I do know is that the Sunday Telegraph’s story was not what I would call a hard-edged earth shattering piece of news. Nothing of the sort.

Greg Barns was Campaign Director for the 1999 Yes campaign and took over as Chair of the Australian Republican Movement from Malcolm Turnbull in 2000.

Peter Fray

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