From the deceptive and underhanded conduct of our current Prime Minister ScMo, to the destructive impact of Tony Abbott and the far right of the Australian political and media scene, A Bigger Picture, by Malcolm Turnbull, provides an interesting insight into how he perceives the Australian political landscape.
But with only a 15 minute interview time slot we were never going to cover the full substance of the 698 page book.
While Turnbull takes a look back at his life from childhood through to the final ‘coup’ that left him, once again, ousted as Prime Minister he recognises that a politician ‘simply cannot do the job without strong self-belief’. That self-belief shines through in both the book and the interview.
Questioned about the ability of the far right to hold the Liberal and National Coalition to ransom over climate change policy at a federal level, and again in NSW, to undermine the Koala SEPP (State Environmental Planning Policy), he highlighted that coalitions were ‘always complex’, and that the National Party was no longer a party for the farmers of this country.
‘The National Party stopped representing farmers a long time ago. In the Koala SEPP, the concerns [they raised] about clearing were really raised at the behest of developers, not farmers,’ said Turnbull.
‘The National Party, and I say this as a farmer, the Nats identify with the mining industry. You would have thought that the National Party would be wanting to protect the traditional agricultural industry in, [for example], the Hunter, but no. The proposition that they [the National Party] are a farmers’ party is a joke. This is why their primary vote is declining in country areas because they [the farmers] feel that.’
Turnbull was clear that he was not prepared to give up his values or political principles, as was demonstrated by his recent ascent to, and then removal from, the position of Chair of an advisory body on climate change – the Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board.
‘I’ve always stood up for my values, political principles, and have done everything I can to pursue them,’ Turnbull emphasised.
‘Matt Keen asked me as a favour to prepare this Net Zero Economy board. If part of being the Non-executive Chairman of a NSW government board is to endorse unconstrained open cut coal mining in the Hunter Valley, well I’m sorry, that is crazy.’
But, sticking to his coalition roots he said that you couldn’t ‘really blame this on the Nats’, and pointed out that there are climate deniers in both the Liberal and National parties.
‘The real pressure was put on the state government by News Corp. That is narrowcasting to the Liberal Party base and the National Party base and they have turned coal into a values issue, an identity issue. It is so crazy, it is dangerous bad, because of its consequences for the environment and our planet. But it’s just crazy. It’s the politicisation of things that should be guided by the facts and by science.’
Like the farmers who are moving away from the National Party, he also recognised that there were many Liberal voters who were frustrated by the lack of genuine action on climate change who were now looking for independents to back.
‘I think a lot of Liberal voters will be inclined to do what they did in Warringah and vote for liberal independents.
‘The fact that there are three, small ‘l’ Liberal, female independents who are progressive on climate in rock-solid Liberal seats tells you that in those seats Liberal Party voters have chosen to vote for the candidate that they would prefer the Liberal Party to have nominated.’
Recognising that the Coalition is often held hostage by the right he emphasised that this is because of the backing of the right-wing media.
‘The biggest problem is that they have become essentially vehicles of propaganda. They run vendettas. The best example is Fox News in the United States, and that is obviously the culture of the organisation. And if you wonder if that is a problem, I tender January 6. That could never have happened without Murdoch. Murdoch has as much responsibility for the January 6 attack on the US Capitol as anybody other than possibly, probably, Donald Trump himself. Because essentially what Fox did was legitimise and promote and amplify the lies about the election. To the point now where you have got, depending on the poll, two-thirds of Republican voters who believe that Biden stole the election. This is like people believing in QAnon.’
The day we spoke was the day it was reported that MP Craig Kelly’s advisor Frank Zumbo had been charged with 18 counts of sexual assault, this on the back of the rape allegations against former Attorney-General Christian Porter. I asked Turnbull what actions needed to be taken to change the ‘ugly blokey culture of disrespecting women’ that he had referred to in his book.
‘I think the Kate Jenkins Inquiry is going to be very instructive and helpful,’ he said referring to the upcoming Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces that will be looking at the prevention and handling of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault on Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces. Turnbull thinks there is a problem with parliamentary culture.
‘The first thing that I changed in office was the ministerial code, which was hugely controversial. But the fact that it was controversial underlines how [embedded] the culture is. I think also, as the Prime Minister you have got to be prepared to hold ministers to account for what goes on in their offices, and I certainly did that.
‘So leadership is very important. But right at the very heart of it is the lack of respect for women in the parliamentary culture. As I say in the book it reminds me of the corporate world culture in the ’80s, if not the ’70s – literally. When Morrison said other workplaces are like this too, that was utterly untrue. Not that he’d know, he’s had very little experience outside of politics.
‘The point is that in comparable, big organisations – in banks, public service departments, big companies – this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Well it does happen, obviously, but it is not okay. People do not think it is okay.
‘One of the wisest things that my very wise wife has said over the years is “not all disrespect for women leads to violence against women, but that is where all violence towards women begins”. And you have that kind of culture in parliament, and that is what you get there.
‘When I used to talk to ministers about it – and I had a pretty tough conversation with Christian Porter on one occasion about his personal conduct – I know what they were all thinking, they were rolling their eyes in effect, saying here’s this old grandfather giving us another bloody lecture.
‘I mean most of these guys, honestly, have not worked outside politics, far too many of them haven’t, and they think that that little bubble there is the real world – and it’s not.’
And on Zumbo? ‘He should step down, be stood aside. These are very, very serious allegations, I mean this says a lot about Zumbo’s relationship with Craig Kelly.’
If you would like to hear Turnbull in person, he will be speaking at this year’s Byron Writers Festival on the weekend of 6–8 August.