From the moment Malcolm Turnbull looked up at the cameras with a tight smile at 8pm on Thursday, it was game on. No one’s sensibilities would be spared in the former prime minister’s first public outing.
Turnbull’s tone was perfectly controlled, and his message frame was clear. I was wronged. Look at me. You know I was wronged.
The conservatives wronged me. You know they did, and you know who they are. Oh, you don’t? Let me name them. Mathias. Peter. Tony. Scott wasn’t exactly in the thick of it, but he didn’t stop it either. Don’t ask me why it happened, ask them. Demand they tell you why: it’s representative democracy after all and these buffoons are supposed to be accountable to you.
Apart from the colleagues, Rupert Murdoch copped it. Kerry Stokes, who had been kind or crafty enough to relay a private warning to a besieged prime minister, was outed as a source.
As prime minister, Turnbull’s narrative was shaped by others, the conservatives he had to accommodate, the pitiless scribes in the employ of the moguls, with their shrieking headlines and their paint-stripping editorials – but tonight, he would be unfurling this own narrative, live and unedited.
Best stand back girls and boys, and watch the show unfold.
Turnbull’s greatest act of defiance over the hour was being beholden to no one – his own man, without apology, independent of Murdoch, Stokes, and the Liberal party. There was no debt owed to the colleagues he’d foolishly trusted, giving them the proximity they needed to land the kill shot, and there was no sense of obligation either to the people who didn’t turn on him, who remain entombed in the madhouse, and carry the scars of the insurgency.
The defiance was not needing any of them, or any of it – which is precisely why some Liberals could never countenance Turnbull as their figurehead, even when he was useful to them. It’s why his presence was a mortal offence to the tribalism they practice – because this man would always look down the barrel of a camera and assert his independence with perfect equanimity.
The captive would never submit, because he’d built his own capital, he didn’t need patronage or the protection of an institution, his family and their shared enterprise was his fortress. Not needing them was the audacious capital crime Turnbull committed that the plotters of the Liberal party can’t articulate, because articulating that would expose the lunacy of the thinking.
Turnbull declined on Thursday night, point blank, to reflect on his own role in proceedings. Thanks Tony Jones, and the aggrieved lady who thought he should have done more media, and the animated kid who thought he was miserable to Dave Sharma in Wentworth, but no thanks.
Self-criticism and introspection wasn’t the objective of the outing. If that happens, it happens in private. No one, apart from the intimates, gets the gift of his vulnerability, if vulnerability happens.
Turnbull also assembled a neat firebreak between himself and the obvious negative political impact of his Thursday night plain-speaking on Scott Morrison, the successor who prides himself on plain communication, studded with relatable vernacular, but is entirely unable to explain the succession. The question mark curls around Morrison’s prime ministership.
Turnbull contended, heroically, that former prime ministers can only hurt their successors if they remain in the parliament. Commentary from outside was different to active undermining carried out inside the 2600 postcode.
It isn’t, of course.
From Morrison’s point of view, it doesn’t matter if the ghost is happy or miserable, inside the parliament or outside.
The ghost can inflict mortal injury just by hovering and reminding the voters of Australia that the Liberal party’s greatest proficiency during this period in government is bastardry at taxpayer expense.
Turnbull can feel his own power, it hums consolingly within him, and Thursday night suggests he intends to use it, on his own terms, and in his own time.