Exceptionally candid and compelling, A Bigger Picture is the definitive narrative of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership. Turnbull’s life has been filled with colourful characters and controversies, success and failure.
With revelatory insights on the workings of Canberra and the contentious events of Turnbull’s life, A Bigger Picture explores the strengths and vulnerabilities of one of Australia’s best-known and dynamic business and political leaders. Read an extract below.
A moment’s calm and concentration. There aren’t many in a prime minister’s life and they’re cherished. Thursday 11 May 2017 found me alone in my office quietly reviewing the reception of that year’s budget.
Budget week is always the most exhausting of the parliamentary year. From the moment the budget is announced at 7.30pm on the Tuesday, the prime minister and the treasurer are working in a frenetic tandem of speeches and media interviews, all trying to sell the budget in that narrow window of attention before the Australian public (and their faithful servants in the press gallery) lose interest.
The parliamentary week always ends with the opposition leader’s budget in reply speech at 7.30pm on the Thursday. Parliament is adjourned at 5pm as attention gets ready to shift to what the opposition has to say.
Just as the opposition had politely listened to Scott Morrison on Tuesday night, so we would now with, I hoped, equal decorum listen to Bill Shorten describe how our budget was heartless, reckless and financially illiterate, demonstrating our complete and utter unfitness to occupy the Treasury benches… and so on.
But the tranquillity of the moment was short-lived.
Sally Cray and senior media adviser Daniel Meers appeared, more worried than usual.
The Daily Telegraph’s political editor, Sharri Markson, had rung Meers to say she’d learned that Barnaby Joyce and his press secretary, Vikki Campion, had been spotted together at a Canberra doctor’s surgery. She’d insinuated that Vikki was having a pregnancy test. A “please explain”, she told Daniel, had been given to Barnaby’s office but no response had been forthcoming.
Barnaby is a complex, intense, furious personality. Red-faced, in full flight he gives the impression he’s about to explode. He’s highly intelligent, often good-humoured but also has a dark and almost menacing side — not unlike Abbott — that seems to indicate he wrestles with inner troubles and torments.
Barnaby had been a dramatic change from Warren Truss. Where Warren was dour and deliberate, Barnaby was wild and unpredictable and generally shot from the hip. He had no interest in detail but often showed the capacity to distil issues down to their essence and in language people in the bush would relate to.
Prior to coming to see me, Sally and Daniel had spoken at length with Barnaby’s senior staff. They’d been doing their best to keep a dysfunctional office on the rails.
The gossip was clearly becoming an issue so I asked Barnaby to come round to see me. At the time he and I had a strong level of trust. We were very different people — the media liked to describe us as “yin and yang”– but the partnership was working.
Barnaby had become aware of what Markson was chasing so I asked him what was going on. He gave me an unequivocal assurance he wasn’t in a sexual relationship with Vikki.
We then moved on to how he was going to handle the Markson enquiries. He told me Vikki was lonely, didn’t have family to support her and was concerned about her health, so to provide moral support he’d accompanied her to the doctor for some check-ups.
Without questioning his assurance, I reminded him, just for the record, that it was simply not defensible for him, as deputy prime minister, to be having an affair with one of his staff. It could only end badly, I told him, and he agreed.
We left the meeting on good terms. Barnaby’s office didn’t comment to Markson but advised her on background and off the record what had occurred and she decided not to run with the story.
It wouldn’t be true to say that I had no doubt he was lying to me as there’ve been examples of very intense relationships between ministers and staff that aren’t sexual in nature. That said, over the years I’ve been accused by colleagues of being too trusting on matters of this kind.
In any event, he was the deputy prime minister of Australia; he’d been around long enough to know that as the leader of a conservative political party, being a champion of traditional marriage while practising traditional adultery — and especially with one of his own staff — was dynamite.