The secret life of Malcolm Turnbull

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(Art by Donkeyhotey via Flicka/CCBY)

Maybe, Malcolm Turnbull imagines himself greater than he really his. If so, he needs to work harder turning his dreams into reality, writes Jim Pembroke.

 “Get that marriage equality legislation drafted and tabled,” insists Malcolm Turnbull. 

“But Prime Minister, the Nationals...,” warns a senior adviser.

“It's not about the National Party. It's about human rights,” replies the PM.

“We're having a free vote. If the Nats don't like it, they can complain to the U.N”

 And Malcolm Turnbull strides out to the press conference.

Of course, it's doubtful a conversation remotely like that ever took place. But maybe, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sometimes muses about a different reality — where he isn't so scared to pursue what's right. He's worked all his adult life to be prime minister and it's been disappointing; his support is waning and he's berated at every turn.

Malcolm Turnbull's prime ministership has a 'Mittyesque' quality. In James Thurber's 1939 short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the main character is a heartbreakingly sad figure, not unlike our PM. Both Walter and Malcolm seem  victims of circumstance — henpecked and losing control. In Thurber's story, Walter Mitty has fantasies where he imagines himself to be something much greater than he is.

In the PM's secret life he would be strong, decisive and compassionate, and possess every good trait he lacks in reality.

Following his deal with the National Party to become prime minister, perhaps he daydreams and imagines himself as a brave, environmental warrior.

“We can keep Abbott's Direct Action Plan.” concedes National Party leader, Barnaby Joyce.

“I'm not selling out on climate policy,” repeats Malcolm Turnbull.

“I've said I would not lead a party not committed to climate change and I meant it.”

The future PM continues. “If you want a puppet, ask Kermit the frog to be leader.”

Confused, the sweaty, red faced man stares blankly at Malcolm.

It seems, much of the dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister stems from his failure to live up to his "own" ideals. And as is the case in Thurber's short story, it is difficult to understand how the real Malcolm and the imagined Malcolm coexist.

In the past, the Prime Minister has admitted that he has been “extraordinarily lucky”. He concedes that others have worked harder than he but have been less fortunate. How does he reconcile this with his government's constant demonising of welfare recipients? He talks about the importance of emotional intelligence one minute and sends robo-debt cops after disadvantaged folk the next. Is he blind to these competing realities or does he reconcile them by imagining himself the hero of some greater capitalist fantasy.

We could take liberties with Thurber's old chestnut and invent any number of unlikely heroic episodes where Malcolm Turnbull escapes his reality. An Australian republic, asylum seekers, affordable housing, exploited workers, Indigenous concerns and so on.

But the one incident that the PM must replay in his mind, fantasise or have nightmares about, is his humiliating telephone conversation with Donald Trump. It has been reported that the U.S President “blasted” and “berated” the Australian Prime Minister over his refugee deal. After 25 minutes, the call ended abruptly with Donald Trump dragged kicking and screaming to honour the deal.

It's likely Malcolm Turnbull was fuming after that phone call. Perhaps, like Walter Mitty, he consoled himself by imagining a braver conversation with the "Bully-in-Chief".

Whoa, Donald ! I'm not going to be spoken to like that,” the PM interrupts President Trump's rant.

In fact, we'll settle those 1200  refugees in our own country.

But keep this in mind. Our nations have always been able to rely on shared ideals.

And if this is not the case any more...

You better get ready to be 'shirtfronted' a few more times over the next 4 years.

It's not clear what actually went down between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull. But, as the story unfolded, the Prime Minister looked more and more like the hapless and bumbling Walter Mitty. Desperate for a deal and anxious for respect — but achieving neither.

Malcolm Turnbull has to find a bridge between the real and the imagined. In these uncertain times we need a prime minister who does more than just dream the best he can be. And when Malcolm Turnbull creates the ending for his story, he has a choice. It could be dramatic and lethal like the original Walter Mitty tale. Or it could be more like the Ben Stiller 2013 movie remake where magnificent fantasy meets disappointing reality and the hero overcomes his fear to rediscover his authentic self.

Read more from Jim Pembroke on his blog or follow him on Twitter @Jim_Pembroke.

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