5 October 2015
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.
But 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.
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.
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.
So 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.
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