It was an interview much like his prime ministership: eagerly anticipated, promising greatness, instantly polarising, but one that ultimately left us wiping away an unsatisfying taste.
Not that the revelations 7.30 host Leigh Sales extracted from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull weren’t surprising and significant.
The pair’s long history has been something of a mutual admiration society. Sales told Julia Zemiro on Home Delivery that “Malcolm Turnbull has got a lovely voice”, while Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin contained the revelation that Turnbull thought Sales was “one of the most beautiful women on television”.
A tweet from our 29th prime minister last week set the scene, sounding a bit too cheery from someone who had just emerged from a tough grilling:
My own expectations had been contextualised on an iso-walk over the weekend when I happened upon a former Turnbull staffer walking their dog. The conversation was brief but informative, a reminder of the two sides to Turnbull: the charming intellectual statesman, but also the embittered belittling angry narcissist seen behind closed doors.
Also discussed: Turnbull’s limitations as a politician. “Politics is all about relationships,” the dog walker said. “He thought as a merchant banker you could just steamroll everyone. He didn’t have a great relationship with the Australian people.”
So the scene was set for Monday night. But was this to be a hard-hitting political interview or a promotion for his memoir, A Bigger Picture?
In the end the tone was more riverside pavilion at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival than Spanish Inquisition. We got about 38 minutes of fangirling — and that was just Turnbull himself, before Sales even got a look in.
The interview started with a clunker. The standard “in your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine you’d be in a world like this..?” A corona-question everyone flubs, when there is only one answer: no.
There is no doubt this book has landed at the wrong time. In the midst of a life-threatening pandemic, the public has lost its appetite for bitter self-justifications about yet another Canberra killing season.
On the memoir’s release, Turnbull failed yet again to read the room, yet mounted a ridiculous defence reminiscent of so many awkward justifications during his premiership — as if buying an Australian book by an Australian author from an Australian publisher selling in Australian bookshops was an act of civic mindedness akin to washing your hands and flattening the curve.
Revelations quickly followed. Tony Abbott was a “dangerous” prime minister; the right-wing insurgents in his party, plus News Corp and 2GB, wanted Bill Shorten to win the election rather than him.
Some of what came out of his mouth was gobsmacking. Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin running the country and dominating the PM. “It was as though she felt ‘I’ve created you, you’re my creation’… it was a truly bizarre relationship.”
And he trashed the profession of politicians, saying they are not rational people. “They are completely heedless of the public interest or the public consequences, other than what it can do for them electorally.”
But was it also deluded? Too many of these extraordinary assertions were left unchallenged, too often the glib rejoinder “it’s all in the book” allowed to stand. Challenges were either left unasked or ended up on the cutting room floor. As did, presumably, the genuine revelations about Turnbull’s key role in the founding of Guardian Australia, which is pretty much hostile to everything the Liberal Party stands for.
The interview’s real legacy will be Turnbull’s frankness about the collapse of his mental health. “I felt these thoughts of death and self-destruction coming into my mind unbidden and unwanted. I couldn’t get them out of my mind, and I got sicker and sicker and sicker.”
Perhaps this was the real purpose: interview as therapy. Turnbull’s admission that he ran again for the seat of Wentworth after he was deposed as party leader in 2009 “in large part to survive”.
But part of me still hankered to have Turnbull interrogated by David “Continuous Interruptus” Speers, or Sarah “Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying To Me” Ferguson.
Responses to the interview will be governed by which of the three Turnbull tribes you belong: the dwindling band of true believers, the implacably opposed, or the ruefully disappointed.
It rated well, attracting 940,000 viewers in the capitals plus 406,000 in regional areas. About 1.35 million Australians watched.
But, nonetheless, such a compelling figure as Turnbull needed a more confrontational interview. And we all deserved a bigger picture from A Bigger Picture.