Elected chair of the iconoclastic Australian Republican Movement in 1993, Turnbull led a controversial referendum on the subject six years later. In 1994 he backed one of the first internet service providers, Ozemail, which was parlayed into a $40 million payday before the dot-com bubble burst.
In the same year Turnbull debuted on the BRW Rich 200 List with a $65 million fortune, which would be subsequently revised upwards to $200 million care of a spate of successful trades, including the sale of Webcentral to Melbourne IT in 2006 and enterprise search provider ISYS to Lexmark in 2012.
Allegedly Turnbull's biggest earner was, however, more conventional when in 1997 Goldman Sachs's 2IC John Thornton selected him to run the Australian office. (The late Sam Chisholm boasted to this columnist that he was actually responsible for alerting Thornton to the future prime minister's potential.) Securing a coveted partnership shortly thereafter, Turnbull was speculated to have banked equity worth as much as $70 million when Goldman Sachs listed itself on the New York Stock Exchange.
While the young man in a hurry generated hundreds of millions of dollars during the 1990s, he selflessly traded away his immense income-earning capacity for a career in politics in 2004 at the age of 50. Knowing what we do today, who would dare follow in his crazy-brave footsteps? There is no question that the 14 years since thwarted any chance of Turnbull joining the exclusive ranks of Australia's 40 or so billionaires.
Winner in the real contest
Sworn in as prime minister in September 2015, Turnbull's most important political asset was precisely his essential point of difference vis-à-vis his colleagues: that he had never been a professional politician lacking, as most of the class does, any real world experience. Turnbull was the anti-politician who had proven over and over again that he was a winner in the contest that matters most – life.
And yet this was also Turnbull's greatest liability: if he traded away his authenticity, ideas and commercial judgement and conformed to the internal political consensus, he would become yet another irrelevant commodity – a "hollow man" incapable of action because of the eviscerating, mean-reverting influence of the need to satisfy the lowest common denominator.
Australia would have been much better off had we experimented with allowing Turnbull to run the government as a CEO would a large corporation for a single, three-year term. Rising above the politicking that seemingly suffocates all leaders these days, Turnbull could have put in place the most far-reaching and important reforms since federation.
There is certainly a credible case that Turnbull would have been a more effective prime minister as leader of Labor, pulling it to the right, rather than trying to shunt the calcified and increasingly irrational, anarchist conservatives to the left. And Labor would have been arguably much more comfortable with Turnbull's progressive reform agenda.
His son, Alex, put it best with the pithy summary: "My father fought stupid, and stupid won." That logic is hard to fault.
While a handicapped Turnbull as prime minister never remotely realised his potential – and was in the end assassinated by the far-right's suicide bombers who blew themselves, and the party's immediate political prospects, up in the process – he did stealthily achieve a great deal.
Some signal successes include:
- Undermining the conservative's xenophobic redoubt by actively promoting Australia's position as "the most successful multicultural society in the world" (no OECD country has more residents born overseas), underlined by a strong immigration intake;
- Combating Labor's class warfare and misleading inequality propaganda with a constructive, albeit less tractable, narrative on aspirational entrepreneurship that celebrates, rather than immolates, tall poppies;
- Shepherding the biggest cumulative budget deficits since the middle of the last century towards surplus while slashing taxes through record jobs growth and above-trend real GDP growth;
- Developing a desperately-needed $75 billion infrastructure program to support Australia's world-beating population increases, including a second Sydney Airport, the Melbourne-to-Brisbane inland rail system and the landmark renewables investment in Snowy Hydro 2.0;
- Restoring defence spending to credible levels after Labor crushed it to the lowest share of GDP since the second world war (though I question the decision to buy French subs!); and
- Legalising same-sex marriage to the horror of his conservative comrades.
Since Turnbull is only 63, he has much more to contribute in life after politics. He will presumably once again burnish his entrepreneurial abilities while eventually re-emerging as a critical voice mediating the great debates of the day.
Hope for successors
And while the insurgents left his party in tatters, there is hope that Turnbull's successors, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg, will cauterise the wounds. To the scorn of pundits, I previously argued Morrison was prime ministerial material, although the speed of his ascendancy surprised all. The good news is that the 47-year-old Frydenberg is a freakish talent and possibly the single best person in the party to run the treasury portfolio.
If Morrison can delay the election until May next year, he should be able to contest it with the budget in surplus on a rolling 12-month basis. In a world in which Australians are more indebted than they have ever been before, and deeply sceptical of Canberra's jejune antics, backing rhetoric with actions via a surplus could be a surprisingly powerful tailwind. This is borne out in polling showing voters would prefer their government pays back public debt rather than cut taxes and waste the windfall.
And if Morrison pulls off a miracle and wins the next election, his deputy, Frydenberg, has a shot of becoming our most successful treasurer since the inimitable Peter Costello via the delivery of a string of strong surpluses.
The author is a portfolio manager with Coolabah Capital Investments, which invests in fixed-income securities including those discussed by this column.