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Malcolm's outrageous slings and arrows

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Mr Malcolm Turnbull has long portrayed himself as a man of great dignitas and auctoritas capable of standing above the fray of Australian politics, capable of doing great things, thereby casting off the shackles of the past and leading Australia to a better future.

In his own mind, he is a ‘man of destiny’, someone special and who will be remembered by posterity for his great achievements.  Observing the Member for Wentworth, I have sometimes wondered if he views himself as a sort of reincarnation of W C Wentworth, the man who did so much in the colonial period to secure self-government for New South Wales.

Alas, Mr Turnbull has now had two attempts at demonstrating that he is a ‘man of destiny’ and on both occasions he has failed.  In 1999 he led the Australian Republicans to a crushing defeat in the referendum on the republic.  In 2018, he has lost office as Prime Minister, not least because he has pursued what is in his mind the noble cause of climate change.


On neither occasion did he respond well.  His great claim to fame in 1999 is his statement that John Howard will be remembered as the Prime Minister who broke the nation’s heart.  In the case of 2018, history will record the Machiavellian schemes used by Mr Turnbull to attempt to foil his opponents.

There is a strong contrast here between Mr Turnbull’s perception of his own nobility and the less than noble way in which he responded to defeat.  A man of true dignity, such as Charles 1, accepts his fate and wears an additional shirt at his execution, concerned that shivering might be mistaken for fear.

In Mr Turnbull’s eyes he can only see himself as a ‘man of destiny’ who was brought down by much lesser mortals.  In 1999 it was Kerry Jones, who ran the Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy campaign extraordinarily effectively.  In 2018 it was Mr Dutton, a conservative from Queensland.  How could he possibly lose to such people?

Well, in 2018, he explains it all in terms of a conspiracy hatched by a group of thugs who then harass and bully their colleagues into voting against their noble leader who has achieved such great things for the country.  These conspirators just cannot recognise greatness.

Mr Turnbull’s explanation of events reads as if it came out of the Social Justice Warrior handbook for how to portray oneself as a victim while pursing a campaign of dirty tricks.

Mr Turnbull now may like to consider himself a victim but I wonder how past victims of Mr Turnbull’s scheming think about such a portrayal.  Mr Turnbull has a long history of doing ‘whatever it takes’ to achieve his personal goals.


One of the most notorious episodes was his campaign against Mr Peter King, the Member for Wentworth, so that Mr Turnbull could win preselection for the seat.

This campaign was described hilariously in John Hyde Page’s The Education of a Young Liberal, a book which, alas, is now very difficult to obtain.  It includes a wonderful chapter in which the ‘man of destiny’ struts around his office enunciating his vision in the manner of Napoleon.

But the loftiness of the vision was matched by the crafty methods used to unseat Mr King.  As in 2018, it is if these two facets of Mr Turnbull are locked together in an endless dance.

Mr Turnbull’s government lasted the same length as that of Mr Whitlam back in the 1970s.  There appear to be some similarities between Mr Turnbull and Mr Whitlam; both regarded themselves as ‘men of destiny’.  Certainly, both men shared a high level of hubris. However, it is difficult to detect much in way of Machiavellian guile in the actions of Mr Whitlam.  He was a decent man who believed in the processes of Parliamentary government.

In the face of his failures, Mr Turnbull may well be tempted to portray himself as a tragic figure just as Manning Clark portrayed Mr Whitlam as a tragic figure brought down by lesser men.

It may be possible to portray Mr Whitlam as an Othello destroyed by Iago.  But in the case of Mr Turnbull the problem is that he is simultaneously both Othello and Iago.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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