Turnbull Quick To Turn On Libs
by ROSS FITZGERALD
It hasn’t taken the former prime minister long to work out that his successor had a role in his downfall. The spill vote against Malcolm Turnbull carried 45 to 40. The leadership vote went to Scott Morrison over Peter Dutton 45 to 40. Do the sums: Turnbull had 40 votes; Dutton had 40 votes; but Morrison had five votes that he first used against Turnbull and then added to Turnbull’s votes to make himself Prime Minister.
But that’s politics, as Turnbull should know, having played it hard against the person he deposed to become prime minister in the first place.
When Tony Abbott was knifed in September 2015, he declared there would be “no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping” and, until the 2016 election, he was as good as his word. In comparison, the victim reaction to the latest political execution has been far less statesmanlike. In his final media conference as prime minister, Turnbull said he was “optimistic and positive” about the country’s future under Morrison but then attacked a “determined insurgency” by people who “wanted to bring my government down”. Two months on, it’s clear it was the country he felt “positive” about, not his successor.
Almost from day one of the Morrison government, there were leaks against the Prime Minister that could have come only from well-placed sources that didn’t want the new government to succeed. There was the leak about the GST row that Morrison supposedly had with the Tasmanian premier; and the leak about Morrison previously opposing in cabinet his government’s later decision not to raise the pension age to 70. There was the immensely damaging leak of the religious freedom report during the last week of the Wentworth by-election and the leak of the WhatsApp exchange between Marise Payne and her Indonesian counterpart over moving our embassy in Israel (from a message group that Turnbull was supposedly part of).
While in New York, Turnbull was too retired from politics to tweet a message of support for his successor’s new government in Wentworth but he was still on Twitter long enough to “like” a post from the Liberals’ independent challenger who eventually won the seat. Last week, despite being sent to Bali as a peace offering to represent the government at a climate change conference, Turnbull disagreed publicly with Morrison about moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem, then waded into the resultant controversy to suggest the Prime Minister was misleading people.
After saying other former prime ministers still participating in politics were “miserable ghosts”, this week Turnbull is doing a whole hour as the sole guest on the ABC’s Q&A.
Last Friday, a prominent commentator said: “Turnbull stands accused of being the new Tony Abbott.” If only! After losing office, it took Abbott six months to say anything remotely controversial about domestic politics — and that was merely that he was “flabbergasted” new submarines wouldn’t be operational until the mid-2030s. It was more a comment on the lethargy in defence procurement than an attack on government. In response to three excoriating books from Turnbull sympathisers, Abbott merely published three essays in Quadrant to state his case.
During the 2016 campaign, Abbott quietly campaigned and fundraised for marginal seats where the local members thought he could help. It was only after a discussion with Turnbull late in 2016, where the then prime minister had indicated that Abbott would never again be in the cabinet, that Abbott started to speak out on policy issues. Unlike Turnbull, Abbott wasn’t a minister and couldn’t leak out of cabinet. Indeed, to curb the culture of background briefing against col¬leagues and because he took the view that “you shouldn’t say behind someone’s back what you wouldn’t say to their face”, Abbott has consistently spoken on the record. Post-election, as David Speers recounts in his recent book, Abbott responded to Turnbull that he would “do his own thing” and that Turnbull had “more to lose” than he did.
There’s no doubt Abbott’s policy interventions, especially on energy, hurt Turnbull; but it was Turnbull who fatally damaged his own authority by abandoning the national energy guarantee a few days after declaring it had overwhelming partyroom support.
When Turnbull rolled Abbott, he justified the political assassination of a democratically elected, first-term prime minister on the grounds that he’d lost 30 consecutive Newspolls and had no clear economic narrative. When Julia Gillard had done the same thing earlier to Kevin Rudd, her reason was “a good government had lost its way”.
Not wanting to provoke his predecessor, Morrison has been coy about why Turnbull had to go, even though it should always have been pretty obvious.
In 2009, when he first lost the leadership, it was trying to do a deal with Labor on emissions policy. Likewise, the national energy guarantee needed the support of the Labor premiers. Not once but twice, Turnbull lost the leadership because he wanted the Libs to be closer to Labor. In his final media conference as PM Turnbull declared he’d led a “progressive” government. And why wouldn’t he be proud of bringing the Libs closer to the other political party that Graham Richardson always maintains he’d tried to join? Turnbull’s basic problem was that his colleagues’ default approach to the other side was always to beat them, not join them.
Turnbull has shown he was never really a Liberal by refusing to robustly support the Liberal candidate in Wentworth. He’ll con¬firm it by failing to support the re-election of a Liberal government. In this sense, the ex-prime minister he most resembles is Malcolm Fraser, only it took many years, rather than a few months, for Fraser to abandon the party he once led.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 40 books.
The Australian 5 November, 2018, p 12.