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Malcolm Turnbull’s last word

Apr 24, 2020 • 15m 30s

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull went on a media blitz this week to promote his new book. In the memoir Turnbull shares his brutally honest opinion on the current prime minister and senior cabinet ministers. Today, Paul Bongiorno on Malcolm Turnbull’s return to centre stage.

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Malcolm Turnbull’s last word

209 • Apr 24, 2020

Malcolm Turnbull’s last word

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

The country may be in the midst of a health and economic crisis, but that didn’t stop former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull going on a media blitz this week to promote his new book.

In the memoir Turnbull is brutally honest about what he thinks of the current Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers.
Today, Paul Bongiorno on Malcolm Turnbull’s return to centre-stage.

Paul, you caught up with Malcolm Turnbull this week. Can you tell me a bit about your phone call with him and how he seemed to you?

PAUL:

Look, I hadn't spoken to Malcolm Turnbull since a Republican movement function in Canberra at the end of last year. So I sent him a text to say I wouldn’t mind a chat about his memoir and told him I found it a racy read and that he hadn't forgotten the tabloid journalistic skills he honed as a young journo. I think he must've liked that. Anyway he called me while he was munching a quick lunch. He was very chipper and I think thrilled with the interest his book, A Bigger Picture, has created.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

And you know, I think it's shot to the top of the bestseller list on the day it was released, lockdown or not, and at the bookshop I got it there were five other people 1.5 metres apart behind me to buy the book.

RUBY:

And did he press anything on you in the call? Was there any point that he wanted to make to you?

PAUL:

Well look, the first point he wanted to make was that this book was about history, the history of the Turnbull government, from the point of view, obviously, of the key player in that project. You know, I think he's sensitive to the criticism that he wrote it as an act of revenge or that he should have held back, especially during the Coronavirus crisis, where he gives rather frank character assessments of the prime minister and key ministers handling this crisis. He made the same argument, by the way, pretty early in the conversation he had with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast.

Archival tape -- Fran Kelly:

Do you think people are going to care much about sort of political shenanigans of the past at a time like this?

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, it seems to be a fair bit of interest in the book, Fran and I guess life goes on and history is there. The book is about history...

RUBY:

Okay. Let's turn to Turnbull's book then. What is the big takeaway from his autobiography?

PAUL:

Turnbull paints a compelling picture of Scott Morrison, our current prime minister, as a master of the dark arts of political skulduggery. The book, you know, is startling in its revelations of deep mistrust between the ministers at the top of this government and of the previous coalition governments. He says both conservative and moderate ministers warned him not to trust the other side. But, he adds, they all warned him not to trust Scott Morrison.

In the book, Turnbull outlines Morrison's ambitions to seize the top job going all the way back to 2012 - that was a revelation - when he writes that Morrison was sounding me out about challenging Abbott as opposition leader. And then again in 2014 with the Coalition in government, Morrison was of a view that Tony Abbott would have to go by the middle of 2015 if his performance as PM didn't improve. And Morrison saw himself as a replacement, not Turnbull.

The book reveals Morrison and his allies had advanced plans to dump Abbott, and this was much to Turnbull's surprise. We know that Turnbull was obviously harbouring the same thoughts. Anyway, Turnbull writes that Abbott felt betrayed by Morrison's double dealing and that Turnbull himself is now convinced Morrison did the same to him, using his allies to manoeuvre two spill motions in the party room to thwart Peter Dutton, and set the stage for the then Treasurer to seize his much sought after top prize.

Archival tape -- Leigh Sales:

Malcolm Turnbull, welcome back to the program.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, great to be with you.

Archival tape -- Leigh Sales:

You handed over the final part of your book to your publisher...

PAUL:

On the ABC TV's 7.30 Show, Leigh Sales devoted a whole half hour to chatting with Turnbull, where he really spelled out the key - if I can put it this way - hand grenades that he had in the book.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

When I was prime minister, everybody told me not to trust everybody else. There was virtually nobody that I wasn't being warned against. And I go through that and the book. So you could easily, in that sort of environment where you're literally, literally being told by this person, don't trust him, that person, don't trust her, that person, don't trust any of them. You could...you could literally become just convulsed in a sort of sea of paranoia.

RUBY:

Does Malcolm Turnbull point to anyone else in his party to back up his assessment of Scott Morrison?

PAUL:

Well, Turnbull, Ruby, points to conversations he had with Matthias Cormann about Morrison's character. He writes, bitingly, Matthias regarded Scott as emotional, narcissistic, and untrustworthy, and told me regularly. Turnbull says that Cormann believed Morrison regularly leaked to the media, and couldn't be trusted with confidences, especially when it came to developing policies and tax reform proposals. This, of course, is the same Matthias Cormann who is now Morrison's finance minister.

RUBY:

Right? So has Cormann responded to those claims?

PAUL:

Cormann went on RN Breakfast and insisted that he absolutely trusts Morrison.

Archival tape -- Cormann:

Personally, I've got a very strong, positive and productive relationship with Scott Morrison both as prime minister and indeed have had a very strong positive and productive-...

Archival tape -- RN Breakfast:

But do you trust him?

Archival tape -- Cormann:

I absolutely trust him...

PAUL:

He denied that he told Turnbull he had to give in to terrorists at the height of the Dutton leadership push. Of course, terrorists is the term that Turnbull uses to describe his enemies on the right of the party.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

Matthias said to me in the Prime Minister's office. He said, You have to give in to the terrorists. His words.

PAUL:

Cormann accuses Turnbull of presenting his version of history and says it differs substantially from my recollection of events. Well, the next day, Turnbull fired back on the same show, telling Fran Kelly the exact day and minute of his exchange with Cormann.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

Matthias suggested that he never said to me that we...the government had a treasurer problem. Just to refresh his memory, he said it to me on the 17th of February 2017 at 4:39 in the afternoon.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paul, we're talking about Malcolm Turnbull's book and the media interviews he's been giving since its release. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has been Turnbull's biggest target. Has Morrison responded to Turnbull's account of his nature and rise to power?

PAUL:

Well, not really, Ruby. On Tuesday, towards the end of one of those interminable Coronavirus news conferences in the prime minister's courtyard, Morrison was asked if he caught Turnbull's interview with Leigh Sales the night before and what he thought about Turnbull's criticism of the government. Well, the prime minister was terse and attempted irony to dismiss the query.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Well, on this issue. I'm just going to remain focused on the actual bigger picture that's dealing with the coronavirus response. ...No. I’ve answered the question.

RUBY:

So he clearly doesn't want to talk about it. Will that work? Just pretending that it's not happening.

PAUL:

Well, Liberal Senator Conchetta Fioravante Wells says it's actually part of Morrison's character - she says facing up to unwelcome realities is not Morrison's way of operating. He'll try to ignore the furor in the hope that it goes away. The problem for Morrison, and Cormann, and indeed, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, is this government shares so much DNA with its two antecedents, the Abbott and Turnbull governments in power since the Coalition won office in 2013. This is the same key people in all three administrations.

RUBY:

And given that - the fact that so many of the players from that era are still in senior roles now - will there be much political fallout from this book?

PAUL:

Well, look, some believe Scott Morrison will eventually have to answer the case mounted against him by Turnbull. Credibility, after all, is the essential ingredient for political success. And I gotta say, while it's hard for politicians to have the complete trust of voters, the one who can convince them that he or she has more credibility than their opponent generally wins support.

Labor's Anthony Albanese, for one, has no intention of letting Morrison off the hook. Last Friday, there was a taste of what I'm sure will come. At a doorstop, the Labour leader tried as hard as he could to land the trust question. He said people will recall Scott Morrison standing in the Prime Minister's courtyard with Malcolm Turnbull and saying that he had Turnbull's back. Well, Albanese said he put a knife in Malcolm Turnbull's back. That's how he became prime minister. And people are entitled to know the details of how that occurred.

RUBY:

Paul, if this book is a full stop at the end of the Turnbull years, how do you think the party will look back on his time as prime minister?

PAUL:

Well, from moderates or what's left of them, particularly in the parliamentary party in Canberra, it will be seen, I'm sure, as a missed opportunity. For the conservatives, it'll be seen as it always was: as an aberration. And right on cue, from the hard right of the Liberal Party on the New South Wales division, executive member Christian Ellis is calling for Turnbull's membership to be terminated. Because, as Ellis wrote in his confidential letter to party president Phillip Ruddock, if he - that is Turnbull - continues to keep attacking the party as a member or connected in any way, he damages the party brand. Well, I got to say, Turnbull's unfazed by this. He told me that he just dismisses what he calls mad people in the party he once led.

RUBY:

And what about his prime ministership more broadly? How do you think the public will look back at Turnbull?

PAUL:

Well, look, I suspect, as a failure to live up to what was perceived as great promise - you might remember when he seized the top job, his approval ratings went through the roof. But the word that's most often used, I think, is disappointment. But, Ruby, Turnbull himself says he was able to achieve real things.

He lists marriage equality. He lists getting Trump to honour President Obama's deal to take refugees off Manus and Nauru. He lists snowy 2.0 and using Tasmania's hydro as a battery for the nation. And he also lists saving the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc from Trump's attempts to scuttle it.

But I think, as increasingly is the case, Turnbull's more honest out of politics than he was able to be in it. He said this week that for the most part, politics are not rational.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

In politics, you get people playing on irrational fears, stoking fears, stoking division, and they are completely heedless of the public interest or the public consequences other than what it can do for them electorally.

PAUL:

I guess the big question is where his leadership sat in that mix. But Turnbull himself admits that politics also involves compromise.

RUBY:

Paul, thanks so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thanks, Ruby. Bye.

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RUBY:

Also in the news…

Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy has said that tough border control measures would remain in place for at least the next 3-4 months, even as other restrictions look set to be eased in a few weeks.

Murphy made the remarks to the new Senate committee investigating Australia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said that small group activities could be allowed when the current social distancing guidelines are reviewed in three weeks.

More than 450,000 Australians have been granted early access to their superannuation savings, totalling 3.8 billion dollars in early payments, according to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

The average withdrawal is around 8,000 dollars.

The Labor Party has criticised the policy of allowing Australias to dip into their super, arguing that granting Australians access early will rob them of the compound interest built into the system.

And a 41-year-old mortgage broker has been identified as the driver of a Porsche involved in a horrific incident that led to the death of four police officers in Melbourne on Wednesday night.

It is alleged the driver was speeding at around 140km/h when he was pulled over by the police. A semi-trailer then collided with the police officers, killing all of them.

The drivers of both vehicles are in police custody.


7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show.

Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

You can find us on Instagram and twitter - just search for 7am podcast.

I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week!

The country may be in the midst of a health and economic crisis, but that didn’t stop former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull going on a media blitz this week to promote his new book. In the memoir Turnbull is brutally honest about what he thinks of the current prime minister and senior cabinet ministers. Today, Paul Bongiorno on Malcolm Turnbull’s return to centre stage.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno.

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The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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209: Malcolm Turnbull’s last word