The ‘Bully’ boys

by Bernard Lagan / 08 October, 2015
The revolving door of Australian politics began turning at the Kerry Packer publishing empire.
Cartoon Farley Katz
Cartoon/Farley Katz/The Cartoon Bank

In the late 1970s, a gaunt, angular figure, the Premier for Life, frequented the Bulletin magazine’s scruffy warren within Kerry Packer’s rambling Park St, Sydney, headquarters. He’d peer across the glass partitions and launch into an elegant, achingly funny parody of a leader modelled on the former NSW Labor Premier, Neville Wran, and the bloodied Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.

Part piss-take and part prescient – Wran stayed Premier for a decade – Bob Carr’s Premier-for-Life character could break out at any time. Carr was then the Bulletin’s young industrial relations writer and would later become a NSW Labor Premier. In 2012, he would ascend to the office he’d really always wanted – Foreign Minister, under Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Among Carr’s audience in the Bulletin office was another earnest young writer, quieter than Carr but emboldened by a towering self-confidence. Malcolm Turnbull was then leading a frenetic life. He was putting himself through law school as well as holding down a full-time writing job.

Another serious, confident and opinionated young man – a refugee from a Catholic seminary – would wash up at the Bulletin. Tony Abbott, lawyer, economist, Rhodes Scholar, boxer and rugby player, had painfully relinquished his long ambition to become a Catholic priest.

Editor Trevor Kennedy, who would later rise to the top of Packer’s media empire – and go on to make tens of millions of dollars investing with Turnbull – hired all three young men for the weekly magazine. They inveigled the company of each other to help win the women they would marry and then they took very different career paths: Carr into politics, Turnbull into law and business and Abbott meandered through journalism, the concrete business and, eventually, politics. Abbott would become a Liberal Party Prime Minister, until his old Bulletin colleague, Turnbull, ousted him in September’s coup.

Whereas Carr’s ambitions in Labor politics were always clear, Turnbull’s political aspirations were not. Indeed, Turnbull was close to Premier Wran and wrote an entertaining feature in the Bulletin mid-1977 called “Nev the Nifty Media Manager”. The article forensically unravelled Wran’s management of the Sydney news media and contained an insider’s details of how the Premier managed to deny essentially accurate leaks of forth­coming government announcements by changing minor details.

Turnbull is remembered as a quiet overachiever by his Bulletin cohorts – an eager news gatherer often out talking to his contacts.

“Like any good reporter, I was out of the office most of the time,” Turnbull told me in 2012. “I was still at law school, so I’d occasionally have to nip off to the odd lecture.”

Carr credits Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine for Turnbull’s transition through journalism and the law and into the corporate bosom of the Packer family. According to Carr, Turnbull was dispatched to Chicago to negotiate Playboy publishing rights for Packer. “Turnbull got himself into the job of going off and negotiating it,” said Carr. “It was just extraordinary self-confidence.”

Later, Turnbull would go into business with Wran, make a pile investing with Kennedy and chair Goldman Sachs’s Australian arm. A political career would follow – only to be thwarted by another of Kennedy’s chancy Bulletin hires, Abbott. In 2009, Abbott ousted Turnbull as leader of the Liberal Opposition in the Australian Parliament. Now, Turnbull has returned the favour.

When the Bulletin boys came back together at the top of Australian politics, they were no longer close. All, in the right circumstances, could have become an Australian Prime Minister. Two did. Their friendships had waned. Their ambitions never did.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

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