Months of darkness and depression after losing the Liberal Party leadership in 2009 made Malcolm Turnbull a wiser and calmer person, he writes in a new book which goes much deeper than the superficial personality conflicts of politics highlighted in recent media reports.
Months of darkness and depression after losing the Liberal Party leadership in 2009 made Malcolm Turnbull a wiser and calmer person, he writes in a new book, which provides a thought-provoking insight into the personal and political conflicts of his time in Canberra.
Before his time in parliament, Mr Turnbull had achieved success in business and law, including founding an investment bank and through the Spycatcher trial.
But serving as federal opposition leader was an excruciating experience, he said, one of many issues he covers in colourful detail in the book.
In 2009, Mr Turnbull had been badly damaged by an attack on the then Rudd government over a scheme providing financing for car dealers, relying on information from Treasury official Godwin Grech that turned out to be false.
He also endured major pressure on his leadership over the party’s position on climate change.
That led to Tony Abbott beating Mr Turnbull by one vote in a 2009 leadership spill.
Mr Turnbull's reflections, although brief on the matter, shed a light on the stress that many politicians experience.
“I feel at present a complete and utter failure,” Mr Turnbull said in the book, quoting a 2009 excerpt from his personal diary.
“I blame myself for losing the leadership, a job which by the time I lost it had become one of excruciating pain and daily humiliation.
“The Grech affair had me despise myself for allowing myself to be connected, no matter how innocently, with something as vile as a forged email.
“Then having lost the leadership I sank deeper and deeper into depression, couldn’t make up my mind whether to stay or go and was finally persuaded to say I would go when it was obvious I should stay.
“Now I have engineered a rapidly closing window of opportunity where I could backflip… but for what? More humiliation? A rebirth? Unlikely.
“The answer is the pain will end at some point - suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary (we hope) problem.
“But frankly I am thinking about dying all the time.”
Having been knocked off as leader for taking a principled position on climate change, Mr Turnbull was stunned only months later when then prime minister Kevin Rudd dropped his policy on an emissions trading scheme, rubbing salt into the wound.
However, he said support from wife Lucy and his kids had kept him afloat.
And after achieving success in business, serving in parliament continued to appeal, Mr Turnbull said.
He said his experience with depression had made him wiser and calmer, and taught him to be aware of his mental health.
“Exercise and sunlight were always important but also simply counting your blessings, which in my case were too many to number,” Mr Turnbull said.
“And while I’d felt at times as though I was literally clawing myself out of the deepest pit, I also recognised that my depression had been preying on the self-absorbed side of my character.”
Mr Turnbull had a reputation as a combative businessman formed over decades working with the likes of media mogul Kerry Packer and in investment banking.
But that persona seemed to melt away in his years serving in shadow cabinet, then cabinet, under former prime minister Tony Abbott, and during Mr Turnbull’s second run at leadership.
It has been reported that he was more relaxed as prime minister and in better control of his temper.
However, as the Abbott government hit early trouble, Mr Turnbull said he was still haunted by the feeling he’d let people down in his stint as opposition leader.
“I cannot help think that if I hadn’t f****d up my time as opposition leader with Grech and then over climate then maybe I would be doing it … I know I would be a better, more contemporary, more liberal PM than he is,” he wrote, again quoting a diary extract.
As early as late 2014, Mr Turnbull says Scott Morrison had approached him about removing Mr Abbott from the leadership, while in a cabinet meeting in early 2015, Peter Dutton had warned Mr Abbott that the party would “not go off a cliff with him” and that Mr Turnbull was “the only option”.
While it has been reported in some media that Mr Turnbull was critical of former colleagues, his book shares both compliments and criticisms.
Although he acknowledged the widely accepted view that then treasurer Scott Morrison had allowed supporters to undermine Mr Turnbull’s leadership, he also noted he had supported Mr Morrison’s candidacy.
“Morrison was my natural, most likely and best qualified successor, and while more conserative than me on social issues, I believed was a safe pair of hands,” Mr Turnbull said.
“Had I run in a ballot with Morrison and Bishop there was the real risk we’d repeat the experience of 2009; the other two would get knocked out early and I’d end up in a final ballot against Dutton and lose.
“... the risk of Dutton winning was too high.
“So essentially, I sacrificed my own chances, such as they were, to make sure Morrison prevailed.”
That attracted criticism at the time from some in the media but has worked in Mr Morrison’s favour.
His earlier experience with depression after losing the leadership in 2009 had meant he sought a swift exit from parliament after the 2018 spill, Mr Turnbull said.
"He's a professional politician who understands marketing and messaging better than most," he said.
"His cringeworth daggy dad persona is perhaps more exaggerated than entirely contrived, but in net terms it probably helped.
"All that aside, however, the truth is that Labor lost the election that the coalition, after the August coup, didn't deserve to win."
Mr Turnbull said he took a different approach dealing with US President Donald Trump compared to many other world leaders, informed by his time working with Mr Packer and other billionaire businessmen.
Advice from the bureaucracy had been to flatter and suck up to Mr Trump, but Mr Turnbull said he felt standing his ground would be more likely to win respect.
There were two successes on that front.
One was when he convinced Mr Trump to retain a deal to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru that had been made between Mr Turnbull and Mr Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.
Mr Trump did so begrudgingly after details of a tense phone call had been leaked.
The second result followed a prolonged battle to achieve an exemption for Australian steel and aluminium from new US tariffs, which was secured.
“Melania, do you know Malcolm has two thousand of the worst terrorists in the world locked up on a desert island and that fool Obama agreed to take them?” he said.
“Can you believe that? And now Malcolm has talked me into taking them too.
“He got me to do something I promised never to do.
“He’s a tough negotiator.”
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