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Lucy Turnbull — the formidable ‘sounding board’

by Rosemary Neill
THE AUSTRALIAN, 26 Sep 2015 12:00AM

Lucy Turnbull has been first lady for less than a fortnight but already she has been described as Australia’s answer to Hillary Clinton and as Malcolm Turnbull’s “secret weapon’’. Less flatteringly and more fancifully, the twitterati have likened her and her husband to the Underwoods, the Macbeth and Lady Macbeth-like figures from Netflix’s political drama House of Cards. The Prime Minister has made light of the comparison, saying: “I’ve got noth

In an exclusive interview with The Weekend Australian, Lucy Turnbull proves she is more than a match for her husband’s droll wit. She observes that the Underwoods “are like the most evil Shakespearean characters … The huge point of differentiation apart from everything else — we’re not corrupt, we don’t kill people — is that we both have a very great sense of humour and a sense of the ridiculous. I’ve never seen those Underwoods smile once!’’ Australia has never had a prime ministerial spouse quite like Lucinda Mary Turnbull, the 58-year-old lawyer, businesswoman, philanthropist, author, mother, grandmother and former lord mayor of Sydney. Her friend and admirer, the veteran Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, calls her “rounded and grounded’’, and if this interview is anything to go by, she will also be an outspoken prime minister’s wife; far more so than any of her predecessors. During our phone conversation, held yesterday while she was at home in her “trackie daks’’, she spoke frankly about everything from the NSW Carr government’s “unfair’’ and “brutal’’ sacking of her as Sydney’s lord mayor, to her dislike of the term first lady. “I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the title first lady,’’ she says. “I mean, we don’t have a presidential system. I call myself the Prime Minister’s wife or to gender neutralise it, partner.’’ What also sets apart the spouse of the 29th Australian Prime Minister is the fact she has held political office in her own right, while her political connections — her father, Tom Hughes QC, is a former federal attorney-general and her great-grandfather, Sir Thomas Hughes, was the first lord mayor of Sydney — are formidable. Turnbull may be the product of dynastic power, but she made her own mark, becoming Sydney’s first female lord mayor in 2003. This was a historic achievement, but the job turned out to be short-lived: just one year into her tenure, the Carr government sacked her and every other City of Sydney councillor in order to force an amalgamation with the loss-making South Sydney Council. This led to all-out warfare between Turnbull and her former boss turned NSW energy minister, Frank Sartor. At one point, she accused Sartor of calling the councillors “a bunch of local government pissants’’ and of threatening to “destroy’’ them. Sartor, who had been Turnbull’s predecessor at the council, denied the allegations. (When asked about this bruising public feud, she says she and Sartor have since “rebuilt our bridges’’.) In contrast, when asked whether she was disappointed her mayoral role was cut short, Turnbull launches into an extraordinary attack on the Carr government and by extension, the-then blokey, culture of the NSW Right. She says: “My role was terminated. At the time, truthfully, I was devastated.’’ She argues that when the Labor government learned her husband was preparing to go into federal politics, they held her high-profile marriage against her. “My understanding is that the then-government led by premier Carr took the view that because my husband was in politics, I could not be an independent lord mayor as I had been an independent deputy mayor and ... that cut me to the bone. “It paid no respect and regard to my independence as a woman, what I had done, how I had conducted myself in that office. It was purely driven by a perceived, I think, 19th-century idea that because my husband was going into politics (Malcolm won preselection for the seat of Wentworth), I could not be trusted to be a politically independent person. I found that devastating.’’ This feisty, driven woman says that being “sliced’’ was “probably one of the lowest points of my life. I had worked hard to get there. I was enjoying it, and just to be sliced, because Malcolm was going into politics on the opposite side to them (the ALP), I find it quite distressing.’’ Eleven years on, she still sounds upset, as she reiterates that the episode was “brutal’’ and “unfair’’. (The Carr government argued that the amalgamation was a cost-saving measure. Still, it was highly contentious, as Labor had hoped that a bigger, amalgamated council would take in more Labor-leaning wards and result in an ALP-led city council. Instead, the leftist independent Clover Moore became Lord Mayor and retains her role . Interestingly, former NSW ALP senator Stephen Loosley agrees with Turnbull that the sacking of the Sydney City Council “was a very poor decision by the state Labor government of the day, taken for entirely political reasons and did not reflect on Lucy’s tenure at all. And I’m saying that as a person who has 42 years’ continuous membership of the ALP. I think that was a very poor decision. Entirely political.’’ Although she insists she has moved on from these events, Turnbull still burns with indignation about the way she was treated. She admits the experience made her “extremely wary’’ about pursuing a political career in her own right (something The Weekend Australian understands she has no intention of doing). Her attack on the Carr government also suggests that she may be the feistiest first lady the country has seen. Given her patrician background, political experience, substantial wealth, business acumen and high public visibility, there is much speculation about what kind of prime ministerial wife Lucy Turnbull will be. People who know the family speak of an “incredible closeness’’ and a “team Turnbull’’ mentality and speculate that Lucy will strongly influence her husband’s political decision-making; others say the couple will scrupulously observe their own “separation of powers’’. Loosley is among the surprisingly varied range of figures from the left and right who have expressed their admiration for Lucy Turnbull. He says: “Lucy’s history suggests she’ll be a very popular and very effective prime ministerial wife. I’m thinking of her period as lord mayor of Sydney, where she was very thoughtful, very purposeful. She took a very broad view of Sydney and its significance not only to the country, but internationally.’’ Among her many roles, Turnbull chairs the Committee for Sydney, a nonpartisan group that advocates for the city’s future. Loosley has worked alongside her on this body, and he says she has “a genuine passion for public policy, particularly urban policy, how the mosaic fits together to make a great global city’’. He dismisses speculation this woman steeped in politics since childhood could end up being a kind of unelected cabinet minister, who affects her husband’s political decisions. “I don’t see that,’’ he says. “(But) I think she’ll be influential in terms of the close relationship she has with her husband. She’s very influential with Malcolm, there’s no question about that … I always thought it was Lucy’s influence that meant Malcolm ended up in the ranks of the Liberal Party rather than the ranks of the ALP.’’ A prominent feminist and professor of media at Macquarie University, Catharine Lumby, was a close friend of eminent art critic Robert Hughes, who was Lucy’s uncle. Lumby is acquainted with the Turnbulls through that connection, and she says: “Lucy married an incredibly ambitious man, but she’s never really walked in his shadow. I have a very high admiration for Lucy Turnbull. I think she’s a rare woman and I don’t believe we’ve had a first lady like her before. “I also think that when you’re so-called first lady, the real risk is the sexist view that women manipulate things behind the scenes, which I find really offensive. One thing we know about Lucy Turnbull is that if there’s an issue she wants to prosecute, she’ll do it openly. I think that’s really good and there’ll be critics; she’ll get criticised from the right and the left, but she knows that. She’s been lord mayor. She also knows how the media works.’’ Like Lumby, conservative columnist for The Australian Janet Albrechtsen is a fan. In fact, she argues “Lucy Turnbull has and will always be Malcolm Turnbull’s best asset, both personally and professionally. She is smart, sensible, forthright and wonderfully supportive and protective of her husband and family. Don’t under­estimate how much the love and support of a partner means, especially in the brutal business of politics.’’ But Albrechtsen dismisses the idea that she is an antipodean Hillary. “Let’s not imagine Australia is getting some kind of two-for-the-price-of one Clinton­ian package. Hillary Clinton’s over­bearing ego, for example, saw her inject herself directly into healthcare policy. Lucy is a trem­endously successful woman, but she won’t make the same mistake.’’ For her part, Lucy Turnbull is typically candid about the fact she will be a sounding board for the Prime Minister. “I think that’s inevitable in any long-term marriage where there’s a strong communication. Malcolm is a sounding board for me and I expect I will continue to be a sounding board for him … it’s a mutually, kind of supporting relationship,’’ she says. She explains there is a “huge convergence of interest’’ between her and her husband that spans issues from technology and innovation to urban development and the charitable Turnbull Foundation, which has supported the socially disadvantaged and cultural and research programs. Every first lady needs a couple of defining causes, and for Turnbull they are likely to include medical research, and combating family violence. She chairs the ASX-listed biotech company Prima Biomed (a role she is reconsidering), and says she has “a lot of interest in scientific and medical research, and that will be a key area that I’d like to promote. Of course, we have a huge issue at the moment with domestic violence.’’ She wants to champion respect for women and help get across to young men the message that domestic violence is unacceptable. Interestingly, the Prime Minister this week announced a major initiative to combat family violence. Has she talked to her husband about that? “Oh, we’ve been married for 35 years, we talk about everything all the time,’’ she says breezily. Turnbull is also involved with an advisory group set up by Angela Merkel and Tony Abbott to promote ties between Germany and Australia, and she plans to continue in that role. However, she is “evaluating all my commercial roles in light of Malcolm’s elevation as Prime Minister of Australia, and that will take a week or two … The changes last Monday week were somewhat unexpected.” She says she is being careful about any potential conflicts of interest, just as Therese Rein was with her global employment business when Kevin Rudd became prime minister. Malcolm Turnbull is one of our wealthiest prime ministers. I ask who manages the Turnbulls’ substantial joint investments and am surprised to receive an answer. “Our investments are largely managed by an investment adviser who is not based in Australia,’’ says Lucy. “As Malcolm has said, because of his political role we have pivoted our investments away from Australia over the past couple of years, which in the current circumstances, is quite a relief.’’ Was that a prescient move? She baulks at that description. “It is the right thing to do, both of us are very keen not to put ourselves in a position where our economic interests are somehow in conflict with Malcolm’s government role.’’ When asked about the comparisons being made between herself and Hillary Clinton, she seems bemused. “I find that really quite bizarre,’’ she says, “because I was in local government for 4½ years, she was secretary of state and a senator, I just don’t think I’m in that same political, high elevated domain.’’ She stresses that “my political career was not very long, and it’s been over for 11 years.’’ Nevertheless, the walloping she gives the Carr government over her sacking as Sydney lord mayor suggests a psychic wound that has not yet healed. Was that episode an insight into how merciless and cynical politics can be? “Yes,’’ comes the unwavering response. “I’ve been acutely aware of that all my life.’’