Turnbull 

By Michael Crick (New College, 1976) 

My Oxford generation contained several obvious future stars.  The future Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, was President of the Union in my second term, and gave me my first paper speech. Colin Moynihan had been Union president just before I arrived, and was busy winning blues, or half/blues in rowing, boxing and golf, before quickly winning a silver medal at the Moscow Olympics and becoming an MP and Sports Minister by the age of 30.  And in 1979 I myself was Union President when the young William Hague arrived.
 
malcolm TurnbullBut to this day Malcolm Turnbull, a Rhodes Scholar at Brasenose from 1978 to 1980, remains the most dynamic and successfully ambitious person I have ever met.  In those days he hung around the Union - a friendly, grinning face you’d often see drinking in the bar, or intervening in debates.  I don’t think he ever stood for a committee or Union office, but there’s no doubt he would have become President had he tried, even though he was only in Oxford for two years. 
 
He was almost 24 when he arrived, but Malcolm already seemed well ahead of his age.  It seemed extraordinary that he had already managed to work as a TV reporter for Channel 9 back in Australia, while a student at the University of Sydney.  
 
Then one evening at the Oxford Union he quietly drew me aside and told me he’d been down to London for the day to meet the editor of the Sunday Times, Harry Evans.  I wasn’t to tell anyone, Malcolm said, but Evans had given him a job as a full-time reporter on the paper.  He planned to carry on doing his BCL at Brasenose and hoped the college authorities wouldn’t notice.  I’m not sure how he hoped it work.  Wouldn’t the authorities at Brasenose spot his by-line in the paper?  Malcolm was hardly the type to write anonymously or use a pseudonym.  Perhaps he hoped they’d think it was another ‘Malcolm Turnbull’.

It didn’t seem credible. This was in the pre-Murdoch era when the Sunday Times was undoubtedly Britain’s most prestigious newspaper.  Students didn’t simply walk into reporting jobs on national newspapers in those days, even after they had left Oxford.  Yet here was Turnbull managing to secure a meeting with the biggest editor in the country and landing a full-time job on a paper - all while planning to carry on with his academic studies.
 
In the end it wasn’t a problem, since printers at Times Newspapers almost immediately embarked on a notorious strike which closed the Sunday Times down for eleven months.  So Turnbull had to do very little work, and handed in his resignation not long before the strike ended.  I’m not sure his law tutors at Brasenose ever did learn of his moonlighting in London.
Michael Crick 
Above: Channel 4 News' Michael Crick with old sparring partner John Prescott
 
Malcolm was always incredibly well-connected, and exploited those connections to the full.  Hence the TV reporting job - obtained, I seem to recall, through his close connection to Kerry Packer, and hence his introduction to Harry Evans.  When I was President of the Union in 1979, Malcolm strode into my office and asked if I’d be interested in having the former Attorney General of Australia, Thomas Hughes, speak in one of my debates.  It sounded a good catch, though nobody in Britain would have heard of Hughes.  Malcolm fixed it up.  Hughes came and made a pretty unmemorable speech.  It was only years later that I realised Hughes was the father of his girlfriend Lucy, whom he soon married (and father, too, of the famous Australian writer and art critic, the late Robert Hughes).  I might have had second thoughts had I known the debate invitation was an effort to impress Malcolm's future father-in-law.
 
Malcolm was a great debater, quick on his feet, hugely outspoken and provocative, and he seemed to go out of his way to mix it with opponents.  One night he got into blazing row in the debating chamber with the Liberal MP Clement Freud.  Their argument continued over drinks in my office after the debate.  The two men almost came to blows and had to be separated.  I wish I could recall what the row was all about.  Malcolm’s recollection - years later - of how it happened, was very different from mine.  The original dispute should be on the Union’s recordings of debates, if they still exist.
 
Less than six years on from Oxford, Turnbull found himself the most famous lawyer in the world.  He was recruited to defend the publication of 'Spycatcher', a memoir by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright.  The British Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong was forced to go out to Australia and try to defend in court the government’s legal attempts to ban the book.  And then Turnbull famously forced Armstrong to utter the phrase about being “economical with the truth”, by far the worst gaffe of Armstrong’s life.  Turnbull
 
The case, which the British Government lost, made Turnbull a darling of civil libertarians everywhere, even though Peter Wright was very right-wing and thought the British intelligence agencies were riddled with communists.  (The Spycatcher case also involved another future star.  Wright’s book was co-written with the ITV producer Paul Greengrass, who has since achieved fame as a Holywood film director.)
 
It seemed astonishing to me that the Australian legal system allowed someone so young to conduct such a high-profile case.  Turnbull was only 31 when he grilled Armstrong, an age when even the most brilliant and promising of British barristers are still toiling away in minor courts.
 
And afterwards, having achieved worldwide fame for his interrogation, and making a mockery of the British establishment, Turnbull jacked it all in.  He later told me he had realised that whatever else he did as a lawyer, even if he became the highest judge in Australia, nothing could ever match the pinnacle of success and fame over Spycatcher.
 
MalcolmSo instead he set up an investment bank.  Like you do.  Once again Turnbull made use of his connections, teaming up with Nicholas Whitlam, son of the former Labour Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and the just retired Labour premier of New South Wales, Neville Wran.  Strange bed-fellows for a future Liberal Party leader - Australia’s Conservatives, you might think, but Turnbull has always been a pretty left-wing Liberal, and is very proud of his family's socialist past.  His great-great uncle was George Lansbury, leader of the British Labour Party from 1932-35, and probably the most radical leader Labour has ever had - even more left-wing than Jeremy Corbyn.
 
The investment bank Whitlam Turnbull & Co prospered, of course, but Turnbull made money in other ways too - heaps of it.  He served as chairman of OzEmail, the early Australian ISP.  A stake he bought for A$500,000 in 1994 was sold for $57 million five years later.  In the meantime Turnbull had acquired another highly lucrative job as Chairman of Goldman Sachs Australia. And his wife Lucy was thriving as well, becoming the first-ever female Lord Mayor of Sydney.
 
Perhaps the biggest blemish on the Turnbull CV was his leadership of the 1999 republican campaign in the referendum over whether Australia should ditch the monarchy.  Australians told me at the time that Turnbull's abrasive character hadn't helped his cause. And Turnbull put off going into parliamentary politics until dangerously late. He was almost 50 when first elected an MP in 2004.  He quickly became a minister and in 2008  became leader of his party, only to be deposed after 15 months in a revolt over his green stance on climate change.  
 
So this is his second stint as Liberal leader, after bringing down the man who deposed him - Tony Abbott (Rhodes Scholar, Queen’s).  Colleagues clearly see Turnbull as a vote-winner, the Liberals’ only hope of winning the next election.  But given his left-leaning positions on climate change and in gay marriage, and his strong republican views, Turnbull may again struggle to hold on beyond the next election, whatever the result.
 
I've always felt that Australia was too small a stage for Malcolm.  He could do so much more in America or Britain.

And after his premiership, who knows?  He enjoyed great success as a journalist, a lawyer, a banker and a politician.  There must be a career or two left for Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.   
 
 
Footnote
On hearing last week that Malcolm Turnbull had become Prime Minister of Australia, I tweeted that Brasenose College could now boast two Prime Ministers.  “Is this a record?” tweeted back Suzanne Franks, wife of the new Principal of Brasenose, John Bowers.  I had to disappoint her.  Between 1980 and 1984 Somerville also had two sitting PMs - Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi.

Images © Malcolm Turnbull via Twitter

Comments

By RH Findlay
on

I don't believe that Malcolm Turnbull will ameliorate the far-right policies of the Australian Liberal Party. However, he will sell the the Australian Liberal Party to Australians far more effectively than the former PM, Tony Abbott whose style in public was too easy to ridicule. Malcolm Turnbull has "charisma", whatever that glib word means, and so I expect that he will serve a minimum of two terms as PM.

The article intimates that Jeremy Corbyn's policies are extreme left-wing. I note that the policies he advocates, with the exception of abolishing Britain's nuclear weapons, include policies that were retained by the Conservative governments of Sir Anthony Eden, Sir Harold MacMillan, Lord Douglas-Home, Ted Heath and also by the Post-Atlee Conservative government headed by Sir Winston Churchill. Policies involving an efficient, unified, nationalised railway service, a properly run NHS and the ending of the type of austerities that worsened the Great Depression can hardly be called extreme left-wing, unless they are compared with the socially destructive right-wing notions of Margaret Thatcher and her followers in subsequent governments.

By Allan Hughes
on

Tom Hughes QC and ex Commonwealth Attorney- General and Robert Hughes Art Critic for Time magazine are brothers not father and son. Neville Wran former Premier of NSW is dead not retired.

Allan Hughes St. Antony's 1979

By John McCarthy
on

Malcolm Turnbull is a talented individual and a graduate of the Kerry Packer school of media and business thuggery. He has shown an ability to undermine everyone who has had dealings with him both in business and now in politics. He undermined Brendan Nelson as Opposition leader, sold out Liberal party principles on the Rudd climate policies, stuffed up the Grech corruption claims against Rudd and was thrown out of the Opposition leadership for his arrogance and incompetence. His current rise to the Prime Ministership is based on treachery and the white-anting of the Abbott government.
Michael Crick's admiration of him at Oxford is not shared by most Australians who have seen him operate over a longer period than his brief time at Oxford..

By Robert Dunn
on

Too bad and how sad Turnbull has turned out to be just another self-serving republican intent on destroying Australia's constitutional monarchy.

By James Adams
on

Fascinating stuff. Have not read the OT comments for a long time. Have clearly missed some good material.

By Guy Robinson
on

Three comments on some very misleading comments.

To RH Findlay - "the far-right policies of the Australian Liberal Party" - there is precious little difference between Australia's Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Opposition (apart from the latter's attachment to the trades unions). Describing the Coalition as "far-right" is a distorted description that I think few living in Australia would recognise. And "efficient, unified, nationalised railway service" - surely this is an oxymoron? Perhaps the inefficiencies and failures of nationalised industry in Britain in the 1970s were just a dream! As for "the socially destructive right-wing notions of Margaret Thatcher", it has been the Labour Governments of Blair and Brown that have seen far greater and more destructive social inequity created in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn's politics of envy and hatred are likely to exacerbate this inequity.

John McCarthy - I don't think you can substantiate your assertions about Turnbull's rise being "based on treachery and the white-anting of the Abbott government". One of the more remarkable aspects of Turnbull's rise to the Prime Ministership is that he did NOT indulge in white anting of the Abbott government, of which he was a key part as Minister for Communications. Abbott lost power because his own Party, and certainly the majority of the Australian public, thought he was doing a poor job as Prime Minister and that he would lose the next General Election. It can be argued that Turnbull was 'treacherous' in deposing a sitting Prime Minister, but then Abbott himself had deposed Turnbull as Opposition Leader in his own act of "treachery" in 2009. Since becoming Prime Minister, Turnbull has demonstrated many of his fine qualities to good effect in raising the level of political debate in Australia and connecting with the middle ground of Australian politics. This does not mean he will have a smooth ride towards re-election in 2016, but he will give the Coalition a much better chance of success than under his predecessor.

Robert Dunn - "Turnbull has turned out to be just another self-serving republican" I can't see how pursuing a principled position that Australia should be a republic is "self-serving". Turnbull has maintained his stance on this issue for several decades. It is a position that is well respected across the political spectrum in Australia.

Michael Crick is correct in assessing Malcolm Turnbull as an ambitious and dynamic individual (and extraordinarily successful in several different spheres). He brings a new dimension to Australia's Prime Ministership - not guaranteed to succeed, but certain to provide fascinating political spectacle.

By David Price
on

Thank you for your article on Malcolm Turnbull. Readers may be interested to note that Malcolm Turnbull lost his first stint at the Liberal Party Leadership by one vote. Not a resounding win for Tony Abbott. Turnbull's second stint as Liberal Party Leader was won more convincingly. Now that our previous 'dueling' prime ministers (Rudd, Gillard, Abbott) have all 'lived and died by the sword' we may have a more stable parliamentary government with a prime minister who is more succinct in policy explanations. The Republican cause is a minor issue in comparison to this.

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