For all we know about the Turnbulls, we don’t know much about Malcolm’s mum.
What most people do know is she left Turnbull with his father, Bruce, at the tender age of eight. From the young boy’s point of view, his mother’s departure was sudden: she took the furniture, she took the cat, and soon moved to New Zealand. She was gone and, being sheltered by Bruce from the divorce, he didn’t really understand why.
Turnbull himself has explained that Coral’s mother’s shock departure goes part-way to explaining his will to achieve, telling Australian Story in 2009:
“If I look back, you know, perhaps I was thinking to myself, you know, if, even if unconsciously: if I work harder and do better, will she come back? You know, is it something about me that has caused her to leave?”
Right from the beginning, Coral had huge ambitions for Malcolm. A 1984 profile of Turnbull revealed Coral used to joust with one of her peers, Dame Leonie Kramer, about whose child would be prime minister first. Turnbull felt the weight of her expectation all his life, again telling Australian Story:
“Prime Minister would have been, probably would have been good enough for her but… (laughs) but maybe, maybe it wouldn’t have been good enough.”
So a part of Coral’s legacy is Malcolm Turnbull, PM – but only a part. Lansbury’s own career, particularly as an academic, and her contribution to Australia’s intellectual life, is also undergoing something of a reassessment.
Melanie Nolan, head of the Australian National University’s National Centre for Biography, has recently updated Lansbury’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and has written an unpublished paper on her challenge to Australia’s blokey bush legend.*