Malcolm Turnbull's 'born to rule' life dismantled

November 22, 2015

Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull
Paddy Manning
Melbourne University Press,2015
442 pages

Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull likes to downplay his image as a privileged, wealthy silvertail by touting his time as a flat-dwelling young boy from a broken family.

But, writes the business journalist Paddy Manning in his biography of the former investment banker, Turnbull's upbringing was not that humble.

Head prefect at the elitist and pricey Sydney Grammar School, law graduate from Sydney University and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Turnbull's remarkably soft “hard times” ended with his property-dealing father's death in 1982. The 27-year-old Turnbull was the sole beneficiary of a multi-million dollar estate and inherited well north of $2 million.

This kitty provided a hefty leg-up. As a lawyer and political journalist, he came to the attention of media mogul Kerry Packer, who took Turnbull on as his chief legal counsel.

Turnbull used $50 million from Packer and one of his corporate mates to make his private mint through merchant banking. Million dollar corporate advisory fees and commercial investments funded Turnbull's six-figure salary and seven-figure share dividends from his bank.

The prime minister is now valued at $200 million, helped in part by investments squirreled away in the Cayman Islands tax haven.

Turnbull's political career has not been quite as straightforward as his monetary one, with Turnbull playing both centre-right and centre-left over the years.

Although he joined the Liberal Party in 1973, Turnbull disagreed with the 1975 constitutional coup against the Gough Whitlam Labor Government, writing that the Malcolm Fraser Liberal Opposition was behaving like “political fascists”. He later left the Liberal Party after unsuccessful pre-selection bids.

As late as the 1990s, Turnbull made and fielded offers to join the Labor Party, which had fewer rabid monarchists and other knuckle-dragging reactionaries, before rejoining the Liberal Party in 2000 as the natural political home for the super-rich.

The Liberal Party was also where an easier path to personal power could be bought. In what Manning calls “the biggest branch stack since Federation”, Turnbull secured pre-selection as the Liberal candidate for Sydney's plush eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth in 2004. Ring-ins by both candidates swelled the local branch numbers to half the party's total national membership.

With Turnbull now prime minister, the Liberals hope to have found a suaver, more saleable leader than the brand-damaging Tony Abbott, with his overt austerity program and royalist, religious and far-right hang-ups.

Turnbull wraps the party's core economic neoliberalism and market fundamentalism in the more palatable packaging of social liberalism — supporting marriage equality and the like.

As Manning relates, there is a “Good Malcolm” — clever, charming and urbane, the charity donor, the mild social progressive. But there is also a “Bad Malcolm” — arrogant, domineering, capable of black rages and verbal and physical aggression, the believer that charity begins at home who claims taxpayer-funded travel allowance for staying in a family-owned house when parliament is sitting.

When it comes to the class war, however, there is only the one Malcolm: the Corporate Malcolm. As Manning writes, “There is nothing in Turnbull's professional experience, or his rarefied social circle, that has prepared him to understand the problems faced by millions of ordinary workers”.

The role of the Liberal Party is to represent, protect and enhance corporate class interests, something that comes naturally to Turnbull. The political trick for Turnbull is to win support for the Liberal's narrow class interests from those who don't inherit millions, live in mansions or invest in tax havens.

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