Malcolm Turnbull’s A Bigger Picture is, perhaps, the great Sydney novel.
Describing the rise to power of an eastern suburbs boy from a broken home, via a who’s who of Sydney from the 1960s to now, it’s an astonishing tale, characterised by an almost complete lack of insight into its remarkable cast of characters, including the hero.
In a way, though, this only makes its Sydney credentials even greater: as many have said about the city itself over the decades, it’s all about surface, with little penetration to what’s really going on underneath.
Of all the political figures of recent decades, Turnbull’s autobiography is the closest to a must-read, because Turnbull is about so much more than politics.
Forget the political careerism of Rudd and Gillard, or John Howard’s decades in public life. He is a remarkable figure, one of those LBJ-type characters who, if you put them in a novel, you’d be derided for being unrealistic.
His multiple careers, and extraordinary achievements in each of them — Spycatcher; hundreds of millions from investment banking; consigliere to the likes of Kerry Packer; prime minister — could fill a book each, or already have.
And Sydney is central to Turnbull’s story. With family roots back almost to the British invasion, he is educated at Sydney Grammar and Sydney University (located where an ancestor was bailed up by a bushranger).
His story is littered with names that mark Sydney’s history: Jack Lang, Neville Wran, John Singleton, Packer, Warwick Fairfax, Paul Keating, Bob Carr, the Hughes family that he marries into.
The political colleagues that feature most prominently are primarily from Sydney — John Howard, the hapless Brendan Nelson, his nemesis Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, the ultimately double-dealing policy airhead Scott Morrison.
Indeed, the best part is Turnbull’s description of his childhood and youth in the eastern suburbs, loaded with street names, beach visits and bus routes. If you can’t quite smell the exhaust from an old Atlantean double decker bus, you can still be transported to mid-century Sydney as Turnbull navigates a lonely childhood with a single father who works hard enough to give him a GPS education.
Indeed, as Nick Whitlam pointed out in his review, we could have done with more from this period of young Turnbull’s life. Whitlam notes, with great perspicacity, that Turnbull’s father Bruce “was a particular Eastern Suburbs knockabout type, more Bondi or Maroubra than Vaucluse”.
The difference won’t be clear to people from outside the eastern suburbs, but it is vast, and significant.
Turnbull adores his father — he seemed to tear up when talking about him in his 7.30 interview. Bruce’s death in 1982 in an aircraft accident is a colossal blow to his son, at that stage beginning his own family with the love of his life, Lucy.
How his unusual relationship with his single father, which he characterises as more fraternal than paternal, shaped him is never explored — especially what role it played in one of Turnbull’s most remarkable skills, the ability to cultivate close professional relationships with older, powerful men.
“Occasionally, a little voice in the back of my brain would ask, ‘Why are these grown-ups listening to me?'” is the closest the hero of the book comes either to imposter syndrome or to discussing why he is able to apparently charm those able to give him a further boost, across Sydney and, in time, other capitals.
Indeed, that’s a persistent theme. Turnbull’s remarkable tale is all on the surface.
He is lucky (as he himself readily admitted in one of the best Question Time answers I’ve ever heard), he cultivates powerful people, he works hard — his work ethic is remarkable; his university years are for practising journalism while doing his law degree with John O’Sullivan’s lecture notes, not drinking at Manning Bar, and he repeats the feat at Oxford, though thwarted by a strike at The Times.
And everything he touches, at least until the republic referendum, turns to gold.
But as plenty of critics have noted, there is much that is missing from Turnbull’s account of his various adventures, and not just the famous handing of notes to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s Peter Westaway to get Packer thrown out of the Tourang consortium.
And everyone outside Turnbull’s family are a poorly drawn ensemble serving as a backdrop to his success or, in politics, stunning failures.
There’s a recurring theme of key people who, at least according to A Bigger Picture, become disaffected with Turnbull, to the latter’s complete surprise and bewilderment.
Whitlam has dealt with his own example expertly. Another is Andrew Robb, whose rebellion on Turnbull’s deal with Kevin Rudd on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is portrayed as an act of inexplicable treachery, a “despicable ambush”.
“Many people have subsequently sought to excuse Robb on the grounds of ill health, but that doesn’t explain the deliberateness of his actions,” Turnbull says, rather cruelly.
Except that Robb had by the time of that partyroom meeting long indicated his deep unhappiness with Turnbull’s leadership style and tendency to treat those who dared disagree with him with scathing contempt. And the nearest Turnbull comes to acknowledging that his personal style in his first leadership stint was problematic is in the aftermath of its loss, when he enters a profound, almost suicidal depression (exacerbated by his self-loathing for his staggering misjudgment about Godwin Grech).
He emerges “less self-absorbed, perhaps less ambitious, certainly more forgiving of others and of myself. Glad to be alive.”
What role this more Zen-like political persona plays in Turnbull’s failings when he returns to the leadership is a question that Turnbull, again, provides little insight on (Whitlam, fascinatingly, suggests that a calmer, more collaborative Turnbull failed where the more ferocious earlier version of Turnbull would have smashed through on key issues like climate action).
We thus mostly get as little insight into Turnbull himself as we get into the supporting cast. Perhaps this is how he is presenting himself in his autobiography; perhaps he really did lack insight; he claims that, until he lost the leadership in 2009, he never really paid attention to his mental health.
And, yes, it’s true that Turnbull’s generation of Australian men were raised in, and had modelled for them by their fathers, a “suck it up” approach to mental health issues, but it’s still a remarkable admission for a man as brilliant and forensic as Turnbull.
A Bigger Picture thus turns out to have a staggering plot, but little insight into the motivations and mental worlds of its characters, including its remarkable hero.
Nor does it examine the power of the individuals concerned too closely. Turnbull has wielded power and been on the receiving end of others — usually media moguls — wielding it. He laments the malign influence of fossil fuel donors on the climate debate, and how China’s repeated attempts to interfere in Australian public and commercial life shifted his views toward trying to regulate foreign influence.
But as I’ve noted elsewhere, he remains consciously silent on the nature and structure of power in Australia and the economics that underpin it.
Perhaps an autobiography wasn’t the place for such an analysis, but Turnbull has personified various forms of power for four decades. His story is inseparable from it.
Beneath the sun-drenched, hedonistic surface of the harbour city, financial, political, media and criminal power has always swirled, often linking the most unlikely of co-conspirators, business partners, public officials, moguls and factional rivals.
A guide to that world from one who has plumbed many of its murky depths would be an immensely valuable book.
Perhaps in another decade or two, and with time for more reflection, Turnbull will provide it.