Interview with Leigh Sales, 7.30 ABC - Monday 20 April 2020

April 20, 2020



LEIGH SALES:  Malcolm Turnbull, welcome back to the program.




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Great to be with you.




LEIGH SALES:  You handed over the final part of your book to your publisher a couple of months ago.




Could you possibly have imagined how much the world would have changed in the period of time before it came out?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  No, no, it seems like a completely different world but it's important for us, for life to go on.




It is important for us to keep reading. It's an Australian book with an Australian publisher, an Australian printer and Australian book sellers who all need things to sell. So we decided to press on and stick to the date we'd set last year.




LEIGH SALES:  What are your observations as you look at what is going on in the world at the moment?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  This virus defies our very humanity. This is biology confounding politics just like climate change is physics confounding politics. Here in Australia, so far, the response has been effective and we are seeing the curve flattening.




So I think all the governments in Australia can take some satisfaction, no cause for complacency, of course, but some satisfaction that so far the measures are working but the economic shock will be massive.




LEIGH SALES:  Let's go back to a time before we were all living in this new normal when politics was politics and that was the final week of your prime ministership.




You, yourself, had set the bar of losing 30 Newspolls in a row as justification for the removal of a leader?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  That is not quite true with great respect. I wish I'd never said that but the critique I made of the Abbott government was that essentially that it was a bad government and I cited as evidence that its political cause was lost really as a means of persuading my colleagues that we had lost 30 Newspolls in a row.




But yes, I certainly mentioned it but that wasn't the reason I challenged Tony Abbott, not at all.




LEIGH SALES:  None the less, you did by citing that then give you colleagues a excuse later to say well, you live by the sword, you die by the sword?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Certainly they were able to use that but the reality is that when the coup occurred, when Dutton and the right-wing group that supported him, Abbott and others and their friends in the Murdoch media and the right-wing media generally, they overthrew my government and overthrew my prime ministership not because they thought I'd lose an election but because they thought I would win it.




LEIGH SALES:  Why do you think they didn't want you to win an election when you were leading their side?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  This is what's happened to the Liberal Party. It has become so tribalised.




There are some very key observations of George Brandis in the book which I think are among the most insightful about the way in which the right-wing have basically taken the Liberal, the liberalism out of the Liberal Party and they would have preferred Abbott and his friends and the Murdoch media, the right-wing shock jocks, they would have preferred Bill Shorten to be prime minister than me.




A Liberal Party that they could not control was not a Liberal Party they wanted to have and it is all about raw power, I'm afraid.




LEIGH SALES:  You mentioned George Brandis, he wrote you a letter after you had been dumped as prime minister talking about this tribalism and it was almost a little bit critical of you saying you didn't understand how tribal it was.




Do you think that is fair, that you somehow lacked an understanding of the very tribal nature of what was going on?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  I think, yes, I think it is a fair criticism.




I think but you know, the problem is that had I not trusted people from different parts of the party, had I not sought to work with people from different parts of the party whether it was Dutton and Cormann or Morrison or various others, then I could not have got any of the things I got done.




But the truth is that when I was prime minister, everybody told me not to trust everybody else. There was virtually nobody that I wasn't been warned against and I go through that in the book.




So you could easily, in that sort of environment, where you are 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 literally become just convulsed in a sea of paranoia and prime ministers have gotten to that shape.




Now I was determined to look past that and place my trust in everybody in order to get the job done and get things done.




You see, all my life, I've never sought to have power without purpose. Power for power's sake is what, it's what drives far too many people in politics. I would say most people in politics frankly and a huge number of people in the media.




It is just power for power's sake. It turns them on. It is an aphrodisiac, a drug whatever you want to call it.




But for me, power without purpose was pointless. The idea that you would sit in the prime minister's chair or the premier's chair or a minister's chair and not actually get things done seemed to me to be mad.




Why wouldn't you be better off sailing or paddling a kayak or reading a book?




LEIGH SALES:  Your enemies aren't sitting here so I have to try to guess what they would maybe say to that, they would say, "C'mon Malcolm, you are an ambitious guy, you wanted to be leader. You took the leadership from Brendan Nelson, you took it from Tony Abbott, you were ambitious, you did want the top job"?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  But always with a purpose.




Of course, I am ambitious, of course, absolutely, but the point was I wanted to do things and get things done and effect change and effect reform and I was able to do that.




LEIGH SALES:  When did you tweak that Peter Dutton was seriously contemplating a run at the leadership?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Oh, very late probably. It was such an absurd proposition. I never, I didn't imagine that he was so deluded as to imagine that our political prospects would be advanced by a change of leadership, and especially to him.




And it never occurred to me, frankly, that so many people would support him. I mean if Dutton had become leader, not even Bill Shorten could have lost the election.




LEIGH SALES:  What role do you think that News Corp played in it? You mentioned them before?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Oh, they played a big role. I mean, Rupert Murdoch, as I relate in the book, and in a conversation I had with Murdoch, I mean Murdoch acknowledges that one of his most senior executives was part of the Abbott plan to bring down the government with the goal of sending us into opposition so that Abbott could come back as leader after the election and bring the party back to victory in 2022.




Now, just describing that sounds unhinged, doesn't it?




But that was Abbott's agenda and as Rupert acknowledged to me, it had the support of one of his most senior and most influential editorial executives and I think it went a lot further than that.




So it was crazed and it was part of Alan Jones' agenda. I mean, they tried to foment a coup at the end of 2017 and I set out all the evidence for that in the book.




You know, these were people that were a foreign company, controlled by foreign nationals, was conspiring to overthrow the prime minister of Australia.




Now, you've got it from Murdoch's own admissions in the book.




LEIGH SALES:  Why did you choose to bring on the spill on the Tuesday of that final week?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  They were about to move, they were getting momentum, I could see that they had the support of the right-wing media, I could see it was being coordinated.




So I thought it was important to bring it to a head, and demonstrate that he didn't have the numbers - which I did.




And, you know, frankly, if Cormann had not betrayed me in the shocking way he did, the Dutton coup would have been over by Tuesday.




LEIGH SALES:  I'll come to Mathias Cormann in a second, but that spill, though, did flush out that there were 35 votes for Peter Dutton.




Did you do yourself a fatal blow by actually getting that out on the record?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, they were claiming they had a majority - 35 was not a majority.




So you see, the way the right-wing operates in the Liberal Party - and this is something that Morrison has to confront, by the way, because they would do exactly the same to him, if they thought they could - the way they operate is to basically bully and intimidate people and what they do, they operate like a terrorist.




Now, they don't use guns and bombs, I hasten to add, but it is the technique of terrorism, where you create enough mayhem, enough damage, that people in the middle say, "It has got to come to an end, how can I stop this terrible horror?"




Well, my judgement was the best way to do that was to flush it out, and as I said, I mean, if Cormann basically rescued Dutton's coup. and he did so. well, why? Why did he do it? Presumably because he wanted Dutton to be prime minister. He certainly didn't want Morrison to be prime minister, that's for sure.




LEIGH SALES:  Well again, he is not here to put his version of events but his position at the time ...




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  I set out his position in the book, I set it out in his own words.




LEIGH SALES:  His position at the time was that he felt the situation in the party room made your position irretrievable and that the longer it went on, the worse the situation would get for the party.




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  He said to me, Mathias said to me in the prime minister's office, he said, "You have to give in to the terrorists." His words, the third most senior person in the government. Actually the fourth, I should say, after the deputy PM, Julie, and he was the next, the Leader of the Government in the Senate.




He said, "You have to give in to the terrorists." Now, you've got to think about that.




So basically that is, if you believe the words of Dutton's closest friends, Cormann was in it from the outset. He claims he wasn't.




But see the way these coups work and the way people operate and you know, they are not the first people to do it like this, they try to create the impression that the disarray has come from another source and so then they can say, "Oh, well, it's all fallen to bits and so we will have to step in."




Now, the times I've challenged for the leadership, I have done so openly. So I'm not, that's not my modus operandi. I'm a very up-front person.




LEIGH SALES:  But you must have been in the approach to ousting Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott, working to shore up your position?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, the Nelson, interestingly, as I describe it, the Nelson spill came as a complete surprise to me.




It was an ambush that Brendan hatched while I was overseas and I got back literally that morning and it was all called on that afternoon.




But certainly, as far as Abbott was concerned, I go through it all in the book in quite a bit of detail.




But you know, it's interesting, it is interesting, and this is an interesting point. So, and I make no criticism, Leigh, but just observe, that what we're talking about is the tactics of the last week and not the substantive issue as to why we regard it as okay or acceptable, that elements of the media conspire with the right-wing of the Liberal Party to overthrow the prime minister in circumstances where our political position was in very good shape.




We were just behind Labor on the published polls, and ahead of them on our own polls.




And on any view, - I mean, you look at what Rupert Murdoch said to Kerry Stokes. So Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Stokes, media proprietor, owner of the West Australian and the Seven Network, goes to see Rupert and Rupert says, “We've got to get rid of Malcolm,” and Stokes says, “Why?”




And Rupert says, "He can't beat Shorten,” and Stokes says, "Well, that is not right, he is way ahead of him as preferred PM, he is only just behind on the published polls, he is in a very good position".




To which Murdoch says, "Three years of Labor wouldn't be so bad."




So think about that. So determined were there to get rid of  a prime minister they did not own, because this is all about power remember. because the one thing those plutocrats knew, the billionaire media proprietors knew, was that I did not belong to them.




So I don't think it was my concern about climate change or my support of same-sex marriage or other, you know, allegedly small-l 'liberal' agendas.




I think when you boil it down, and I say this approaching my 66th birthday and having spent much of my life dealing with billionaires of one kind or another, I think this was ultimately about power.




They wanted to have, again, a prime minister who they felt they had some control over. They had an ownership of, and they wanted to feel as they had done with Abbott, that they were in charge.




LEIGH SALES:  So your strategy in the end was that you stood aside so that Scott Morrison would become prime minister and not Peter Dutton.








LEIGH SALES:  Just explain for people how that worked?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  What was important to me was that I ensured that Dutton did not become prime minister above all.




Now, Morrison and I are different men, we have different values in some respects, but while we had differences as PM and treasurer, we're longstanding friends, we've worked closely together, I know him very well.




He has got his limitations as we all have, right, he is not perfect but he is a much safer pair of hands than Peter Dutton by far and I always regarded him as my most likely successor, perhaps not inevitable successor, but most likely successor.




What I did was, I said, "We'll have a spill motion," the motion is to declare the leadership of the party vacant, "and if that is carried" and I obviously urged people to vote against the spill, "then I will not recontest the ballot."




So I basically broke it up into two votes. So the first vote was resolved, as you know, 45/40 in favour of the spill, so I didn't run in the leadership ballot that followed and it was Dutton, Dutton finished first, then Morrison and then Julie, who didn't get a lot of votes.




She was excluded and Morrison won by five votes again, I think.




LEIGH SALES:  You write of Scott Morrison that the only conclusion you could reach was that he had played a double game that week, telling you that he supported you, while behind the scenes shoring up his position to become leader.




Scott Morrison has always denied that. Why was that your conclusion?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, his supporters say, I mean the problem Scott has to live with is close allies, I mean, people like Stuart Robert and others, have boasted about how they voted, Ben Morton and others, there was a group of them, that voted for Dutton in the ballot on Tuesday, obviously hoping that they didn't put him over the line, but they wanted to give him a big enough vote to destabilise my leadership and the bottom line is Scott, when Abbott was defeated, Scott was saying publicly he was supporting Abbott but he was working to get the numbers to vote for me.




So that's his MO, right? But he's also, and again I know Scott very well, and he is a lifelong political operator and he is a control freak.




So the idea that those people that were voting for Dutton tactically were doing so without his consent and approval is, well, it's possible, but it's unlikely.




LEIGH SALES:  You mentioned that you consider Scott Morrison a safe pair of hands. One person that you did not consider a safe pair of hands as prime minister was Tony Abbott.








LEIGH SALES:  You write that Abbott was a dangerous PM, a threat to the nation and its security. In what way?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, he basically abandoned cabinet government, as you know.




It was erratic, his whole style of government was erratic and flaky, from a national security point of view.




I go into more detail in the book, of course, but I mean, just consider this, at a time when terrorism was our biggest domestic security issue, Abbott was determined to ramp up the rhetoric in a way that was calculated to inflame animosity against Muslims, right?




And that was his, that was obviously lapped up and echoed by the Murdoch press, who were doing the same thing.




That made Australia less safe. It was profoundly dangerous.




LEIGH SALES:  You've written extensively about the way the prime minister's office functioned under Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin.




You write, "I've never known a leader more dominated by another than Abbott by Credlin. The relationship was completely asymmetrical, he worshipped and feared her. She on the other hand treated him with disdain."




Why had that dynamic developed and then how did it play out in terms of cabinet ministers' dealings with the prime minister's office.




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well you were really dealing with Peta. I mean Peta was running the country and that was obvious, and dominating Abbott.




So it was as though she felt, "I've created you, you're my creation," and she felt she owned him. It was a bizarre, a truly bizarre relationship.




LEIGH SALES:  I don't want to put words in Tony Abbott's mouth but again, to try to be fair, he would say, “You were always plotting against me, you were always undermining me from day one.” What is your response to that?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  It is untrue and as I said in the book, it is quite untrue.




I mean the Abbott government was brought down by the Abbott government.




Credlin and Abbott destroyed their own government due to their own follies and then set out to destroy mine.




So it is, you know, both of them demonstrated a forte for negativity and destruction as opposed to trying to do something positive.




LEIGH SALES:  You note yourself in the book that the criticisms of your prime ministership can pretty much be split into two groups.




We've spoken a little bit about the right and the view that you weren't really a true Liberal, that you were public enemy number one, and then there was also the criticism of the left, which was that you were a disappointment, that you didn't deliver on the socially progressive values that you claimed to hold because you pandered to the right-wing of the party.




So to address the left, when it came to, in particular climate change, and same-sex marriage, Australians were expecting you to be what you had always been on those issues, which was the opposite of Tony Abbott, and they got a continuation of the Abbott policies.




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  No, well, we had a vote on it, which had been Abbott's policy, but I don't think if Abbott had remained prime minister, we would have seen same-sex marriage legalised, let's get real.




The fact is I legalised it. So I delivered on my commitment to enable people, regardless of their sexual orientation, to be married.




LEIGH SALES:  Climate change, though, you had to sign that deal with the National Party that there would be no change to climate change policy.




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, that is right, that is absolutely right, but that was only up to the 2016 election.




You've got to remember that I was part of the government, the Howard government, that supported an emissions trading scheme and in 2007, both Howard and Rudd went to the polls promising an emissions trading scheme.




I fought as hard as I could to keep that as our policy, and I got overthrown by the right, as you know, at the end of 2009.




By the time I became leader again in 2015, we had a different set of policies, and we had a commitment to reviewing those climate policies in 2017.




So from my point of view, in order to keep the government together, it was better to say, "We'll deal with this review of our policies in 2017," which is what we did, and out of that came a bunch of measures, including the National Energy Guarantee.




LEIGH SALES:  Should you have pushed back harder on the National Party on that Coalition agreement because really, were they really going to walk away from the Coalition and also, do you regret that it gave rise to this perception that you had compromised on some of your core values in order to seize the prime ministership?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, it's, again, we're talking about tactics, rather than the substance.




LEIGH SALES:  But politics is about tactics and substance.




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  But it seems to be mostly about tactics in the Australian media.




What I wanted to do was get us to a sensible climate policy, an effective climate policy, but to do that I had to bring the party with me.




See, this is the challenge, a lot of people say about prime ministers, "Why don't you do that, why didn't you do this or that?" Well, you are not a dictator. You've got to try and keep the show together.




Now, ultimately, if people are prepared to blow it up, then it all falls.




So it was my determination to keep the show together and get us to the right place in terms of climate policy.




And you know, I mean, just something like Snowy 2.0, I mean no-one else would have done Snowy 2.0.




LEIGH SALES:  On climate change, the scientific evidence is so overwhelming and it's accepted in such a widespread manner from major corporations, like BHP...




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  And has been for years.




LEIGH SALES:  Has been for years. The Chinese government, the Conservative British government, NASA, universally just about. Why is the right-wing of the Australian Liberal Party, and people also within the National Party, so captive to climate change denialism?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, it is a toxic combination of right-wing politics, right-wing media, principally the Murdoch media, but also people like Alan Jones, although he also works for Murdoch as well, Jones and Hadley and that, it is that ecosystem, that right-wing ecosystem that supports this and, of course, vested interests in the fossil fuel sector, people like Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart, who want to make money mining coal.




Well, you can sort of understand, that's the one part of it that you can understand, you know, in the great race of life, always back self-interest, okay.




Why? For the rest of our political complexion? It is impossible to provide a rational analysis of it.




I mean, one of the key things that people need to understand about politics and it took me quite a while to realise this and I don't think I ever really accepted it, is that politicians are not rational for the most part. They are not rational.




You know, in the world of business, you could grow up in a rational environment because ultimately everything is measured in dollars and cents, right? And so if you're making money you are doing well and if you are not making money you've got to change something.




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




And so the bottom line is that they do not, the right-wing of the Liberal Party, and the National Party, do not accept the reality of climate change.




Some of them are franker about it than others, like Barnaby Joyce. Most of them, you know, use mealy-mouthed expressions, but underpinning it all is a refusal to recognise that we have a responsibility to reduce our emissions.




LEIGH SALES:  Another reason that the right of the party hated you was simply just water under the bridge, stemming from your period as opposition leader and that period included an unfortunate episode known as Utegate in which you had relied on some information from Godwin Grech to attack prime minister Rudd and it was later revealed that Mr Grech fabricated the material that you relied on.




You write that episode caused you to lose faith in your political judgement and that it rattled you for a long time. Why did it shake you up so much?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, I just felt so bad about it. I had relied in good faith on somebody that I trusted and had every reason to trust, but nonetheless I was appalled by it.




I hold myself to high standards, and I'd failed them and so that was a real failing on my part.




LEIGH SALES:  What combination did the Grech episode and then losing the party leadership have on you personally?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  I started to sink into a very, very deep depression. It was very deep and very dangerous.




I'd never given much thought to mental health before.




I'd always, I'd been aware that people have mental health issues, but I'd never really thought about it a lot.




And I felt myself, I felt these thoughts of death, of self-destruction, coming into my mind unbidden and unwanted and I couldn't get them out of my mind and I got sicker and sicker and sicker.




It was a terrible time and I managed that by, I made an announcement that I would retire from Parliament. The moment I made that announcement, I knew it was a mistake.




I then changed my mind, and ran again and I ran again in large part to survive, because I felt this was something I could do to claw my way out of this terrible hole, this black hole I'd found myself in.




LEIGH SALES:  You include a diary entry in your book from that period in which you write, "I feel at present like a complete and utter failure."




You write things like you blame yourself, you despise yourself, "Frankly I'm thinking about dying all the time."




People would find that so at odds with the very confident Malcolm Turnbull that they know from your public appearances.




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  For a while there, I was definitely faking the confidence. I was, it was, you know, it was exhausting just to get through a day. It was so bleak.




LEIGH SALES:  Reading your memoir, it appears that the two most influential figures in your life have been your wife, Lucy and your father, Bruce.




On the day you became prime minister, Lucy was at your side. Did you think about your dad?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  I did, yeah, I did. I did. He would have been so proud.




He was such a, he was such an incredible man, my father. He, well, he was incredible.




It's hard to talk about him without shedding a tear, actually..




What he did for me was provide absolutely unconditional love but the circumstances were that my mother left us when I was young, and for really critically important years of my life.




Bruce brought me up himself and he never criticised her.




And she did not, the flat we were living in was sold, the furniture went, she was the major income earner in the family at that time, and things were pretty tough for a while until he got on his feet and did, but he never, ever criticised her.




And he literally brainwashed me into believing that she loved me more than any mother ever loved a little boy, ever, that she loved me, that I was so special and important to her, and I believed it.




It wasn't really until I was an adult that it started to occur to me that if she cleared out when I was nine, she may not have been quite as maternal as my father represented her to be.




LEIGH SALES:  You talk about your wife Lucy more as an equal and as your intellectual partner than really any man of your stature that I have had any dealings with.




Why is she so integral to everything that you have achieved?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, I've always had a stronger sense of Lucy and me than I do of me.




We've been together for so long, for over 40 years, we have been married for 40 years. I think I was always meant to meet Lucy.




I used to, when I was a kid, I used to sometimes think of who I would marry, and this image of a girl who I imagined was more or less my age would come into my mind, and when I met Lucy, and I got to know her, and I saw her childhood pictures, that was the little girl.




But it was, I just, from the time I met her, I knew that this was the, you know, this was the, this was the love of my life.




LEIGH SALES:  When you spoke in Parliament after the death of Gough Whitlam, you asked, "What is the thread that emerges from history out of the humdrum of the daily grind of politics" and of Whitlam you said, "That what people remember is a bigness, generosity, an enormous optimism and ambition for Australia".




What thread do you hope emerges from the history of Malcolm Turnbull?




MALCOLM TURNBULL:  Well, you know, I was, there's always a bit of transference when you give speeches like that.




And really, for me, it is optimism, a vision of a better Australia, a fairer Australia, an Australia that can achieve even more than it has done to date.




An Australia where Australians can realise their dreams, and it's that, whether it was the innovation agenda, or Snowy Hydro, or the reforms we made to tax or the cities agenda, all of the reforms and so many others were enlarging ones, were designed to enlarge and broaden our opportunities.




LEIGH SALES:  Malcolm Turnbull, thank you.





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