Friday, August 14, 2009

Stop At Nothing, The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull, by Annabel Crabb

I’ve always admired Annabel Crabb’s columns and sketches for the Sydney Morning Herald, so I was heartened when I learned she’d written the most recent Quarterly Essay. How would she do, I wondered, when grappling with the 20,000 word essay format, as opposed to the pithy 800 word column?

Very well indeed, it turns out. I worried at the beginning that the essay might just end up being another one of her gag fests, but Crabb has turned out an exceptionally well-crafted essay. Crabb walks around from all angles of her subject, brush between her teeth, trying to paint a well-rounded portrait. She canvasses colleagues, friends, those who have been burnt by Turnbull, political combatants, and the great master practitioner himself, John Howard.

We learn that there is ‘good Malcolm’, the charming and engaging, and ‘bad Malcolm’, the ambitious so and so who eats people up and then spits them out again. There’s the generous and philanthropic giver to charities, the man who even dug deep into his pockets to help out MP Ross Cameron, even after Cameron had bagged him in Parliament. Then there’s the bloody-minded business man who doesn’t think twice about launching vexatious litigation to undo his opponents.

Annabel Crabb also gives us a good going over of Turnbull’s business dealings, and shows his willingness to go far and beyond what any mere mortal would do to achieve their ambitions. Chillingly, you get the impression of a man who has absolutely no scruples when it comes to getting what he wants. Those who criticise are the ‘jealous’ of this world, those who can only ‘carp’.

To illustrate her subject’s chutzpah, Crabb quotes Turnbull’s definition of the word, and says how well it applies to his own business dealings.

“Chutzpah is a wonderful Yiddish word, which is best defined as the characteristic of a man who kills both his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court on the basis that he is now an orphan.”

He’s probably right. I’d like to be rich and powerful like him, but because I haven’t got the gumption, all I can do is whinge about the likes of Turnbull.

So what’s the final conclusion that Crabb draws after her study of Malcolm Turnbull? She quotes Senator George Brandis’s opinion that Turnbull is an optimist. Then elaborates:

“But optimism seems a quaint indulgence at the moment, doesn’t it? Like Turnbull himself, optimism doesn’t seem to fit the epoch. In so many ways, Turnbull is a politician constructed for prosperity; for the golden years. For building libraries and studying the twelve great cultures and being funny and interesting and knowing who Pliny was.”

Crabb cuts Turnbull’s prospects short by reminding us that politics is not a meritocracy. There is a lot of luck and timing involved, and basically, the timing is not right for Turnbull. Let’s face it, Kevin Rudd was simply there at the right time. And John Howard, before him, was there at the right time. Admittedly, Howard did make a good deal of his own luck by simply hanging around. But didn’t he also write himself off as being Lazarus with a triple by pass? Luck actually surprised Howard too.

I’ve always felt that Turnbull wants to be Prime Minister of Australia because it would be one more toy to add to his collection. His thinking seems to be that he can simply will it into being, using his own chutzpah. But the forces around politics are much bigger than in business. He doesn’t need to persuade a group of individuals of his worth, he needs to convince a voting population of millions of his worth, and most of those aren’t interested at all in politics.

Full marks to Annabel Crabb for turning out this wonderfully written essay. She holds the readers attention with her engaging descriptive powers and imaginative leaps, which never leap too far but always ring true with the reader’s common sense.

She writes with a novelist’s care, always choosing the right word in every situation. Indeed, I was trying to think of which novelist? I don’t know at the moment, but I’m sure the answer will come to me at a later date.

This essay is probably unique amongst the Quarterly Essays in being a full bodied portrait by a perceptive and sensitive observer. Crabb has no ideological axe to grind, but is more the amused observer of power, often reducing her men and women to fascinating miniatures.

This line exemplifies Crabb’s approach. After describing how inside the party room many of the new Howard MPs elected in 1996 denigrated those with university degrees, and how Howard also gave more money to private schools, Crabb writes:

“That Howard could simultaneously denigrate university elites while defending high-school elites is a striking demonstration of his powers.”

There’s a sad and doleful tone in all of this. This line by the essayist stuck with me especially, “Politics in Australia presently has about it a sense of exhaustion.”

Or mabye Crabb is exhausted with politics? Let's hope not.

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