Friday, 29 June 2018

What motivates Malcolm Turnbull?

In 2009 Malcolm Turnbull was the federal member for Wentworth and the leader of the Opposition when he was ousted from the Liberal Party leadership through a party room coup by Tony Abbott, the member for Warringah, a federal division on the north shore of Sydney. Then in 2015 Turnbull returned the favour and retook the party leadership, this time along with the prime ministership. Since then he has narrowly won an election and been instrumental in having legislation passed through parliament that gives tax relief to richer Australians as well as mid-sized corporations. Tax cuts for larger corporations have not yet passed through the Senate.

His energy policy is more progressive than anything that Abbott would have proposed but many in the community view him as being as bad as his predecessor, though I tend to give him credit for such things as guiding the marriage equality plebiscite to a successful conclusion. Still, rumblings continue from people on the left of the political spectrum, often centring on his wealth and the possibility for a conflict of interests that arise in relation to it.

On 26 June, at 5.12pm, Stephen Koukoulas, managing director at private research firm Market Economics, highlighted the extent of the problem when he tweeted, “The business acumen & success of Mr Turnbull is truely [sic] admirable. Good on him! He has personal wealth of $250 - $300 million, which means a moderate 6% return on investments gives an annual income around $15 million (before tax). He clearly is in not in politics for the money.”

Turnbull is nothing if not a self-made man, although he did inherit a small sum of money from his father, but he’s also a bit different in style from other right-wing warriors like Abbott. Turnbull at least refuses to hide his roots, unlike Abbott who bungs-on a fake ocker accent in order to appeal to the voters of western Sydney.

Turnbull grew up in Vaucluse, which sits in his electorate, and went to Sydney Grammar School. His mother left home when he was nine years old. His father’s apartment, a two-bedroom unit in a typical red-brick block of flats, was about 200 metres up the road from the gift shop my mother and grandmother ran from the time my family relocated from Melbourne in 1962 until the mid-90s when they closed it due to competition from Bondi Junction department stores. Around the corner from his apartment block was Vaucluse High School, a state school that has now been demolished to make way for residential units for the elderly. Across the road from this is the old cemetery and a few streets further east are the cliffs and the ocean, an unbroken field of water, corrugated here by swells propelled by predominantly north-easterly breezes, that stretches all the way to Chile.

Out the front of the apartment block is Vaucluse Bowling Club, where older residents still play games against a scenic backdrop with at its centre the rugged, leafy flanks of the headland where exclusive Mosman sits nestled amid the olive green of the eucalypts. The slopes running down the hill from the bowling club to the eastern shore of the harbour are covered in streets and houses. I lived in one of them, on a blip in the coastline called Gibson’s Beach where the pilot boat used to berth in the days when docks in Sydney Harbour were still a destination for container vessels transporting goods from all over the world. The pilot boat would go out to the heads at all hours of the day and night to guide ships into the harbour. When it returned to its jetty, from my bedroom at the front of the house I could hear the rhythmic soughing of the waves as they restlessly brushed up against the sand.

At the bottom of the garden dad kept his boat. I had mine there too. We would go out in our boats on weekends to race. I sailed my boat in the school competition at Cranbrook, where I was educated. Dad raced out of the Vaucluse Yacht Club in Watsons Bay. I loved sailing but I was also good at languages and for the HSC in my final year I got 137 out of 150 in French. I had wanted to drop French and do art, because I was good at drawing as well, but dad had other ideas. I still remember the phone call I made at the time to him as he sat in his office in Waterloo. It was a big office with an en-suite and a desk with armchairs in front of it where people he would meet with sat to talk with him. His secretary was stationed at a desk in an outer foyer behind a glass door in the hallway. The rooms were carpeted with dull blue carpet squares. (His secretary married a man named Wright and dad joked that she had quipped with her boss about finding “Mr Right”.) On the day I called him about dropping French he was firm but calm. Very firm. Very calm.

For dad, going to university was mandatory. He had grown up in poverty in suburban Melbourne and his father, a migrant from Africa, spoke broken English. His mother, Phyllis, had had a child out of wedlock in obscure circumstances. She had been working as a governess in Adelaide, where she had been raised by her grandmother after her mother had died in childbirth, in Sydney, and then she had gone missing one day. There is a record of a report by her family to the Adelaide police. Next thing anyone knew she was living in Melbourne in a boarding house with an infant and no husband. My cousin thinks that Joao Luis met Phyllis in the boarding house and, wanting to stay in the country, agreed to marry her and adopt the child as his own. On his daughter’s birth certificate his name is written in the field reserved for the father’s name. Dad never knew any of this.

He left school at 14 because he didn’t like the way he was treated by a teacher and became a carpenter’s apprentice working on building sites. He travelled north to visit his grandfather in Sydney one year when he was 16 and, inspired by youthful animal spirits, dived into the Parramatta River at Gladesville, hit a submerged rock with his head and failed to surface. He was rescued but then went to hospital as he had broken his neck. He spent a couple of years in a brace that covered the whole of his upper body and when he was finally released from this confinement he went back to night school to finish his secondary education. He had been working as a draughtsman and his boss had suggested he become an engineer, which he proceeded to do. He married my mother in 1955.

Education was always an integral part of his life, and through proximity he had come to despise the know-nothing boofheads he found on building sites who had tormented him, just like the street urchins had tormented him because of his name when he had been a boy. He always hated Ginger Meggs. As a young man he loved Beethoven. My inclination toward the arts was fine by him as long as I graduated from uni.

Cranbrook always valued the arts and we had inspiring teachers in the art rooms where there was also a fully-functioning kiln so that boys could use their hands to mould objects out of sticky, damp, brown clay that could be fired until they were hard enough to take home to show to adoring parents. The school also had no entry test, unlike the more exclusive Sydney Grammar School. Abbott attended primary school at St Aloysius' College at Milson's Point, before completing his secondary school education at St Ignatius' College, Riverview. Both are Jesuit schools.

When I was growing up a coarse piece of doggerel circulated on the buses and trains we boys caught home from school: “Get a woman if you can, if you can, but if you can’t get a woman get a Cranbrook man.” We hated this slur on our honour, which was particularly loathsome as none of us had had any say in the decision that had led to us attending the school, but looking back I now hold it up as a point of pride because it showed that the school’s emphasis on the “whole man” was as foresighted as it was fun. I had friends who lived in nearby Paddington, including Barnaby, the son of the painter Charles Blackman. I would go and stay the night at his house on a dark, leafy street laid out east-to-west and when we felt inclined we could go up the road to a park and play at being NRL footballers. We tackled and passed the ball and feinted passes like the pros we wanted to be like, all the while delivering a running commentary of the performance out of our mouths for our own enjoyment. Another friend, David, lived with his mother and sister in a terrace house further down the hill. His father had been a cricketer for Sri Lanka and David was very gifted at sports. On some Friday nights if I stayed over, David and I would go to a local community centre where pool tables were set up for local kids to use and the stereo played the Bee Gees loudly. Stayin’ alive!

The eastern suburbs had other things that distinguished it from the sterile, conformist north shore, Abbott’s heartland, that we loved to hate. Jews lived in the east, in houses on streets stretching from Bondi and Dover Heights to Rose Bay and Vaucluse. They had the Hakoah Club in Bondi for socialising and a synagogue where they could walk on Saturday mornings to pray and listen to their rabbi. In Double Bay there were cafes with tables where people could easily go and find people they knew to talk with, or to make appointments to meet with friends.

In mum’s gift shop where I worked most holidays for pocket money doing routine things like wrapping gifts, making change, putting new stock away on the storage shelves out back, and serving customers, the two women in my family had their regulars who would come in for a chat during the week when they had free time. They considered these women to be their friends. When mum got home and it had been her week to work in the shop, and when the family was sitting around the dinner table in the evening, with mum at the north end of the table, dad at the south end and my brother at the west side (with me at the east side) she would tell us what they had been up to, who had fallen out with whom, and who had come in that day. Just gossip. Out the big front windows behind mum’s chair you could see the pilot station and the beach, with the rest of the small village strung out behind it along the echoing shore.

The shop itself was on the corner of the suggestively-named Petrarch Avenue, a short street that connects New South Head Road and Hopetoun Avenue, two long roads that lead to south head. I don’t know who chose the name of the street but the name of the suburb, Vaucluse, is also redolent with meaning for those versed in western civilisation, for it was in the southern French region with that name that, living with the exiled papal court in the later Middle Ages, the poet Francesco Petrarca (1304 to 1374) had written the love sonnets he is still famous for today. William Charles Wentworth (1790 to 1872), on whose land the suburb was ultimately built, and whose name was adopted for the federal division Turnbull represents in the Parliament in Canberra, was a colonial humanist and statesman, and his mother had been a convict. He gave the area its name because of the importance of the poet to western culture. Petrarch was notable because for the first time a major literary practitioner had written exclusively in the vernacular, in Italian, eschewing the distant Latin of the academy and the Church, a language removed from ordinary people by the formidable barriers set up by university education and the money that it cost to attain.

Given his pedigree, Turnbull’s support for marriage equality was quite unsurprising for me. He is an entirely different creature from the Catholic-educated Abbott with his stiff-necked, retrograde, conservative social values.

I wish however that Turnbull would place Wentworth’s example a little closer to the place where his heart is located. Early intervention in childhood for children at risk of abuse and neglect is just as important an indicator of success as is tertiary education. And homelessness can strike at anyone, regardless of where they grew up, for any number of reasons. I can understand Turnbull wanting to twist the dial and change the bias to more strongly and quickly reward private enterprise. We are all richer when one of us is richer. And failure can foil even the best-laid plans. But it is wrong to reduce the tax burden for the wealthy while cutting funding to important services such as schools and hospitals. We live in a commonwealth. We are all interconnected. Turnbull should pay more attention to making sure every boat rises on the tide of prosperity that has fortunately touched our country, and that promises to continue to do in the future.

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