Varun Ghosh reviews 'Born to Rule' by Paddy Manning

Since deposing Tony Abbott on 14 September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull has dominated Australian politics like a colossus. Turnbull's triumph, though long expected, happened quickly. The sense of national relief that followed was profound. The preceding eight years of Australian politics – scarcely the apotheosis of democratic governance – had produced intense public frustration. Turnbull's ascension brought hope for new leadership and a less divisive tone in Canberra.

Paddy Manning's timely biography, Born to Rule, tells the story of Turnbull's early life, career, and seemingly inexorable rise. Turnbull's mother left the family when Malcolm was nine, a devastating event that led to difficult years for Malcolm and his father, Bruce. At various stages in his political career, Turnbull has emphasised the family's modest means following his mother's departure, as an antidote to perceptions of immense private wealth and to suggest the basis for his oft-professed egalitarianism. Manning gently challenges this narrative; the Turnbulls' circumstances, he reveals, were hardly straitened. By the time Malcolm was in his twenties Bruce Turnbull's fortunes had improved substantially; when his father died in 1984, Malcolm received a multi-million dollar inheritance.

As a student at Sydney Grammar, traits of the adult Turnbull were already clearly visible. He was a star debater and actor. As head prefect, he was domineering and sometimes alienated his fellow students. Rob Hirst, Midnight Oil drummer and contemporary, observed that Malcolm at school was 'a plummy brew of eloquence, imperiousness and un-humble pie, plus a kind of sighing, saturnine resignation that his job necessarily involves being constantly surrounded by cretins'. It is a description some of Turnbull's parliamentary colleagues may recognise.

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Published in December 2015, no. 377

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