You can learn a lot about someone from an interview. But can you learn more over a drink? The Australia Letter introduces “Beer With Bella,” in which one reporter who hates beer but loves chatting meets interesting Australians over a beverage.
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Earlier this month, I clicked into a Zoom call, drink in hand, with Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s 29th prime minister.
Malcolm was speaking from his Point Piper home in a crisp white shirt and blazer, looking unflappable. (My Zoom background was a scenic bamboo forest.)
A former investment banker known for his wealth, intellect and moderate conservative positions, Mr. Turnbull has written a book, “A Bigger Picture,” that is a meticulous, feud-by-feud accounting of his years in public life. It recounts his triumphs but also touches on the ideological factions among conservative lawmakers that ultimately led him to be the third leader ousted over climate change policy in recent years.
Over a lengthy call, we explored his thoughts on the relationship between Australia and China, the “terrorism” of the right wing and his exercise routine.
Mr. Turnbull favors Longjing tea from the Chinese city of Hangzhou — a taste, he notes in the book, that he shares with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, though he had forgotten his drink the day we chatted. Come on, Malcolm!
I made do with a green tea that I purchased from a cafe downstairs.
In your early days, you read as relentlessly ambitious, from Rhodes scholar to barrister. Where does that ambition come from?
I’m not great at psychoanalyzing myself. I don’t think I was unusually ambitious, but I was possibly unusually persistent. I’ve never been afraid of failure. That’s probably the most important thing, because a lot of people are scared of falling at the first hurdle. They don’t even bother to start.
History is made by those who turn up. And unless you are prepared to have a go, you’ll never find out. You’ll never fail, but you’ll never try to do anything.
Let’s dive right into something recent: Australia’s relationship with China. How have you seen China’s diplomacy changing? And what’s the path forward for Australia to manage frictions that are emerging?
China has become more assertive, aggressive in its regional foreign policy.
We came under a lot of pressure at different times, but I took the view that you have to be courteous, obviously. But don’t be bullied — by anyone, frankly, certainly not by China.
Australians have got to recognize that China does not trade with us because they want to do us a favor. They’re trading with us because it’s in their interests. And we should have the confidence to believe in ourselves.
Our region in particular is not a series of spokes going into hubs in Beijing and Washington — more like a mesh. A key part of my foreign policy was to build stronger relations, in particular, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan. Just being mesmerized by the two superpowers, I think, is a very risky approach.
That’s right. We had a very rowdy call over the Obama refugee deal. He wasn’t happy about doing that. But he agreed not to put tariffs on our steel or aluminum.
I have decided to give him credit for having listened thoughtfully to the case that I put. If you want to have fair trade, from his point of view, you cannot get a better trade deal than you have with Australia, where you have low tariffs, no quota.
I’ve dealt with big bullying billionaires all my life. Sycophancy and sucking up to people, it won’t get you what you want. The way to deal with those big personalities is to be respectful and persuasive.
Do you see the relationship between Australia and the U.S. continuing forward as it has for much of this century as allies?
The Australian-American relationship goes well beyond the president and the prime minister. It’s millions of people, it’s families, it’s businesses, shared culture.
Trump’s deliberate unpredictability generates fear rather than respect, anxiety rather than certainty. America may be stronger in economic and military terms, but its influence is diminished. In fact, under Trump, America seeks less influence, not least by rejecting many of the global institutions created after the Second World War.
Nature abhors a vacuum. And China will gladly fill that vacuum.
What I wanted to do, and still do, is ensure that the countries in the region take up the mantle and build greater trust between each other.
If you look at East Asia, you’ve got the third-largest national economy in Japan and G-20 members South Korea, Indonesia, Australia. Vietnam is a growing powerhouse. The idea that China has got some right to dominate our hemisphere is simply wrong.
You positioned yourself as a socially progressive Liberal leader, with some of your voters looking for faster movement on climate change. Could you have been stronger on it?
The problem is that for the populist right of politics, climate change has become an ideological issue.
There remains this denial of the science. It is supported here by essentially the right-wing media, mostly belonging to Rupert Murdoch and obviously the vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby.
The right in the Liberal party no longer accept the fundamental premise of being in a political party.
The premise is that you get your members in a room, you debate issues, you come to a consensus.
What the right says is that on issues that matter to them, like climate policy and energy policy, they will not go along with the majority and they will blow the joint up if they don’t get what they want.
This is essentially the tactics of terrorism. I hasten to add, they’re not using guns and bombs. But a terrorist says to society, I will keep blowing things up until you give in, and if you want me to stop blowing people up, you do what I want.
That’s the tactic that they used against me in August 2018. And it was backed ferociously by the right-wing media, particularly Murdoch. It was a corrupt and degrading parody of democracy.
The only thing that will make them change is if they feel that the policies they have will result in electoral defeat.
You wrote that there are some people in government that would never vote for a female prime minister.
It’s getting better, but it’s got a long way to go. The culture in Parliament is still very blokey. It reminds me of the corporate culture of the 1980s. There are many men there who are very uncomfortable about women in positions of authority.
The ideal would be to have a Parliament that was half men and half women.
How do you think Prime Minister Morrison is going right now?
I think he’s going pretty well, actually. The hardest part is yet to come dealing with the economic consequences. It’s been a collective effort. Overall, they have managed better than many other countries, in particular the U.S. and the U.K.
Australian media is one of the most concentrated in the world. What do you think of the polarized landscape?
The media’s problems are much bigger than Rupert Murdoch. The media space has become much more competitive. Much of what we used to call the mainstream media is now utterly partisan and has very little regard for the facts.
Sky News in Australia, particularly in the evenings — total propaganda. That’s why I think it is fair to describe Murdoch’s news empire now as a political organization.
You can now make a living with an audience that is very narrow. You can make stuff up. You can use the media to defend your friends and attack their enemies.
A Fox News relationship with Trump is like the relationship of state-owned media in an authoritarian regime. Fox will defend the president, attack his enemies. I mean, what’s the difference between Fox News and the Global Times?
Have you achieved what you set out to do?
I would have loved Australia to have become a republic. I wished we could have had an integrated energy and climate policy, but no one can say I didn’t give that my best shot on several occasions at a great cost. Same-sex marriage, I wanted to legalize that. I had to go about it a rather unusual way. It was Bismarck who said the public should not be able to see the way sausages or laws are made. At the end of the day, we’ve got the sausage.
So what keeps you up at night these days?
I’ve always slept pretty well. When you’ve got a big job like being prime minister of Australia, it’s important to sleep and exercise.
What’s your preferred exercise?
Well, living on Sydney Harbour, as I do, I like kayaking. I walk most often with Lucy. I try to do 100 push-ups a day — I was quite religious about that when I was prime minister — not all in one hit, I hasten to add.
Well, there we have it.
I’ve never done 100 push-ups in one hit.
We will make sure to clarify that.
I don’t want people challenging me to push-ups.
The Drink Verdict
“I’ve had nothing to drink here. This has been very abstemious,” Malcolm said, promising to do the real thing with me one of these days. “So now I’ll go and have a cup of tea.”