Malcolm Turnbull’s fictional memoir

Keep up social-isolation but stay abreast of current affairs: the Notebook is FREE and full of independent information. Nick Whitlam reviews Malcolm Turnbull; Why politicians should write more memoirs; Publishers are making big bucks from big names; Helen Keller, blind and deaf, praised books; Headlines the media would rather forget; Trump tells whopping lies; Bernie Sanders’ May Day message


Malcolm Turnbull’s fictional memoir

When former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote his recently published book, A Bigger Picture, its chief objective was to “get square” with the right-wing conservatives who ended his prime ministership.

The book is littered with poisoned references to his opponents – in his own party, the business world and the media. Readers are supposed to be interested in the countless affronts, nasty comments and malign gossip that prevented Malcolm – I see him as Little Lord Fauntleroy – from becoming the Greatest Prime Minister in Australian History.

Instead the book itself, and the manner of its writing, tells a quite different story. He emerges as a man consumed by vanity, self-delusion and his own mythology. Not a bad man, but someone who is so consumed by ambition that everyone he meets is merely a stepping stone on his relentless pursuit of power and even greater wealth.

To me the bigger question, not addressed in this memoir, is how do contemporary politicians, many of good faith, finish up becoming such absolute shits? They lose their idealism and passionate convictions and become servants of private vested interests, party factions and private media tyrants.

Nick Whitlam and Malcolm Turnbull in happier (banking) days

Nicholas Whitlam, son of the late Gough and Margaret Whitlam, has reviewed Turnbull’s book with brilliant perception and imperious understanding.

“Malcolm can exercise considerable charm,” Whitlam wrote in his review published by John Menadue’s current affairs bulletin, Pearls and Irritations, on 28 April 2020.

“ABC viewers will have seen this on the Q&A programme, where he enjoyed a residency for several years. [Everyone can thank Tony Jones for that.] Charm, however, is not part of his DNA. Turnbull uses it as part of a transaction. He is inconsistent and, as his colleagues have found out over the years, he is inauthentic. He lacks sincerity and is untrustworthy; according to his book, this last quality is one shared with many of his parliamentary peers. He is wily but not wise.

“The truth is that he is very difficult to work with. He had four chiefs of staff as PM. Why has he lost so many supporters over the years? It’s because he lacks empathy.”

Whitlam’s critique is relentless: “He is sanctimonious too; Malcolm writes about his ‘office bonking’ ban, but people who knew him as a young man find this hypocritical.” Maybe he grew up? But this explanation isn’t pursued.

“As most readers would hope, the book is littered with names dropped and stories of his engagement with the rich and famous: Kerry Packer, of course, plus Robert Maxwell [aka the “bouncing Czech], Robert Holmes à Court and Alan Bond, and his political pals David Cameron, John Key and the yet-to-be-indicted Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Turnbull as head-kicking banker

Whitlam, who once shared his ownership of a merchant bank, Whitlam Turnbull, with former Labor Premier Neville Wran as chairman, gives an intimate picture of their three years in the firm. “Malcolm has convinced himself that he brought in most of the business; he says so in his book.”

Whitlam described Turnbull’s approach to merchant banking as “Trump-like, it was all about winning: go for the jugular; do whatever it takes; if you see a head, kick it. And he was good at it.”

When the merchant banking partnership split, Dr Kerry Shott, a senior NSW public servant, left too. In a parting shot, a young Rhodes Scholar (not named) told Turnbull: “I know, Malcolm, you think that you are the smartest person in the room here at Whitlam Turnbull: let me include you in a secret: you are alone in that belief.”

Whitlam concluded his book review with this lament: “Few have the privilege to be Prime Minister. I expected Malcolm Turnbull to be a good and successful PM. He had been a success as a solicitor and as an investment banker. As Prime Minister, however, he was a failure.”

Politicians should write more books

Because I have given such a glowing endorsement to Nick Whitlam’s review of Malcolm Turnbull’s egregious memoir, I would hate Notebook readers to think that I believe that Turnbull should not have written his book. I won’t be buying a copy but I was impressed by the former PM’s plan to give away any profits to charity. (After publisher Hardie Grant cop their whack, of course.)

I am a huge fan of political biographies. I have encouraged politicians of all persuasions to write books on their careers. I have a home library full of political biographies and I would own more if I had the cash.

Rodney Cavalier: memoir worth reading

The authors need not be Prime Minister nor Premiers either. Some of my favourites are Liberal Andrew Tink’s Honeysuckle Creek, a part-autobiography and part-space thriller, and Labor biographies by Carl Scully (Setting the Record Straight, 2017), Ron Mulock’s Inside the Wran Era, 2015, Rodney Cavalier’s detailed demolition job, Power Crisis, The Self-Destruction of a State Labor Party 2010, and the late Fred Daly’s From Curtin to Kerr, 1977.

A NSW politician who has been working on a memoir since his retirement 10 years ago told me that publishers in Sydney and Melbourne had turned down his manuscript saying: “We can’t accept your book. It won’t sell. Nobody’s interested in books by retired politicians. What sells these days are sports memoirs, books about cooking, self-improvement through yoga and cat books. Can you work any of that into your manuscript?”

This surprises me because the best-selling books around the world are political memoirs. Admittedly, they are written by world-famous people whose books are bought by other statesmen and women and go into parliamentary, university and academic libraries by the thousand. I’m thinking of memoirs by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s For the Record which has chalked up 21,000 sales in just a few weeks and Tony Blair’s account of New Labour called A Journey which sold 92,000 copies in its first four days in the bookshops in 2010.

Big bucks for big books

The greatest money-earner in the past year is Michelle Obama’s heavily sanitised Democratic Party tripe which sold more than ten million copies within the first five months of publication. Her husband, Barack, hasn’t finished his manuscript yet – but a team of highly-paid “ghosts” are working on it. The book trade expects him to make many millions of dollars from the book which is due out this year – before the US presidential election in November.

Michelle Obama: bestseller

The biggest selling book in recent times has been Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book first published in 1964. Statistics from China are “rubbery” as we all know but an estimated 800 million copies were sold in China and then around the world. I’ve still got my copy bought during a demo in London in 1968.

When copyright expired in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf sales began to take off. In the US, more than 15,000 copies were sold last year to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and bikie gangs.

The top-selling book of all time remains the Christian Bible. More than five billion copies have been given away or sold. American evangelists spend millions of dollars each year buying copies and shipping them to Asia and Africa where they are given to people who can’t read or write English. The people just smile, take the books and when the US aid workers have gone, use the pages as toilet paper or kindling.

In praise of books

The remarkable Helen Keller, 1880–1968, was deaf and blind. She was the first American to hold a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) which was awarded at Harvard. Her tuition was paid for by an admirer, Standard Oil magnate Henry Rogers and his militant wife, Abbie. Keller’s introduction to the Rogers family was made possible by another admirer, Mark Twain, 1835–1910, author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, The Adventures of Hucklebury Finn (1884).

Keller was an outspoken member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies” saying that parliamentary socialism was “sinking into a political bog”. She campaigned against imperialism, war and racism and helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V Debbs in each of his five campaigns for the US Presidency: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920.

Helen Keller, reader

Keller adopted a myriad of socialist campaigns, including women’s right to vote and opposing imperialist wars. In 1911 she wrote: “The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.” It sounds awfully like she would be virulently opposed to the “we-are-all-in-this-together” crowd of 2020.

In later life Keller adopted a series of positions on Chistianity with which I profoundly disagree. Her passionate socialist beliefs were air-brushed away. In a reconstructed narrative she was painted as “The Miracle Worker” which became the name of an eviscerated Broadway and Hollywood show.

Her archival letters, books, diaries, drawings and photos were destroyed in the Twin Towers attack on September 11. How did all her papers get there? No one is saying – yet!

Keller once said: “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.

Fickleness of public debate

In 2018-19 there was only one issue dominating public discussion in the UK – Brexit. Every headline, talk show, editorial and column was devoted to the UK vote to leave the European Union.

As Lord Jonathan Sumption observed in his 2019 Reith Lecture: “The irony of Brexit is that until the referendum, membership of the European Union was very low down on most people’s agenda.”

All other news was given the shove; readers, listeners and viewers couldn’t find out what was happening anywhere else in the world because Brexit was “the big story”.

Suddenly, a year ago, things changed. Prime Minister Theresa May resigned amid tears that she was leaving the leadership of “the country I love” and Boris Johnson, the former London lord mayor, swept into No 10. There was no election and not even a vote in Parliament. It was a very English coup.

Boris Johnson: media focus

Johnson became the media’s new “pin-up” boy. Millions of words were written about his tousled hair, his ill-fitting clothes, shoes, bad manners, Etonian and Oxford exploits, atrocities by his all-male drinking club, the Bullingdon, his editorship of The Spectator, invented columns for the London Telegraph, his overweight figure and diet and his exotic sex life.

As Johnson dominated the news, Brexit faded from view. At the beginning of this year, however, a new public discussion emerged – COVID-19. The media cast everything aside and began to focus on the killer pandemic.

For conservative politicians everywhere, coronavirus presented unique problems: how to save lives and how to save the wealthy elite. The problem that arose was this: it suddenly became apparent that saving lives required a nationalised, universal health system like Britain’s NHS while saving the wealthy elite meant rescuing capitalism. Could the conservative political leaders do both or would saving capitalism become more attractive than saving lives?

What followed was a frantic and somewhat chaotic rush to junk austerity and support the opposite – budgets which allocated trillions of pounds, dollars, francs and Euros to large, medium and small business. The idea is that the trillions of Budget dollars will “trickle down” (here we go again!) and newly-inflated businesses will provide “jobs and growth”. Prize-winning world economists don’t believe it and nor will anyone in their right mind.

Headlines that papers would rather forget

“Get a grip America: The flu is a much bigger threat that coronavirus” – Washington Post

“Coronavirus is scary: but the flu is deadlier, more widespread”  – USA Today

“Want to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus? Do the same things you do every winter” – Time magazine

“We should de-escalate the war on coronavirus” – Wired online magazine

Telling lies in America is natural

“What distinguishes Trump as a liar compared to other liar US presidents is that Trump is unbothered by the consequences of being caught lying. Trump is not extraordinary in the sense that he believes he is above the law – that’s par for the course for most US presidents – but he is extraordinary in his belief that there are no consequences for being caught lying. This makes Trump different from most of our well-known liar US presidents. Even the consummate liar Richard Nixon sensed that being caught lying was not a good thing. Not Trump.”

  • Bruce E Levine writing in the US magazine CounterPunch

News you may have missed

More than 1,300 Federal prisoners in the US have tested positive to coronavirus, including more than 300 prison staff members. One of the worst outbreaks is at a Federal Medical Centre (FMC) at Fort Worth in Texas where a total of 241 inmates have tested positive to COVID-19 and three have died. At the prison, makeshift masks made from thin cloth are being handed out to prisoners because proper masks, hand sanitisers and other protective items have not been made available

Facts about World War 1 revealed

German soldiers shot pigeons over the Somme believing they were “British spies” carrying secret messages to “fifth columnists” in Germany. Many of them ended up cooked in pies. Delicious.

Bernie Sanders’ May Day message

“In America we have more wealth and income inequality than any major country on earth. While the threee wealthiest people in America own more wealth and the bottom 50%, nearly 20% of our children live in poverty. While the top 1% owned more wealth than the bottom 92%, more than half of our workers are living paycheck to paycheck. While nearly half of all new income is going to the top 1 per cent and CEOs are making over 300 times as much as the average worker, over half a million Americans are sleeping out on the streets or in homeless shelters on any given night. While 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured, the health care industry made $100 billion in profits. If we stand together in solidarity – Black, white, Latino, Native American and Asian American – we can create a nation of economic, social, racial and environmental justice. Yes. If we stand together in solidarity, we can stop spending trillions on weapons of mass destruction, and create a world in which all people live in peace and dignity.”

  • Senator Bernie Sanders on May Day 2020



  1. It was handy to get Nick Whitlam’s assessment of The Turnbully’s memoir, Alex – it “complimented” my own. Oh, and I just love your satirical, alternative heading for the book: ‘Me, Myself and I’. Luvly.

  2. While I appreciate Nick Whitlam’s critique of Turnbull’s memoirs, and of Turnbull himself, it’s difficult nonetheless to give huge weight to Nick Whitlam given his own hubristic business career, not least his role in the demutualisation of the NRMA. While I agree Alex that Turnbull most likely lacks empathy, what I find interesting is the sense of entitlement that people like Turnbull and Whitlam have. Clearly neither of these men is stupid, nor are they always wrong, but to put it politely I wouldn’t care for their company.

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