The coup that led to a Liberal dose of leadership blues

Journo 1: “Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull. Isn’t it incredible? Since June 2013, four Prime Ministers.”
Journo 2: “And Rudd twice. Rudd, Gillard, Rudd.”
Journo 1: “Quite incredible.”
Journo 2: “So much dysfunction.”
Journo 1: “So much dysfunction, or is it so much lack of care in choosing your party leaders because although the system would allow this to happen here, we just don’t tend to see it.”
That was the reaction of two news presenters on British TV commenting on the leadership coup that resulted in Malcolm Turnbull becoming the 29th prime minister of Australia this week (Mr Turnbull shown above holding grandson Jack, from left, his daughter Daisy, wife Lucy and son-in-law James Brown. AAP Photo).
In other words, five prime ministers in five years.
The ABC played the clip, along with reaction from New Zealand and other media outlets in Europe, as it waited for Tony Abbott to make his last statement as Prime Minister outside Parliament House on Tuesday.
It all happened so quickly on Monday that I barely had time to grab a legal pad and start taking notes as Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott’s leadership in front of a media mob on the parliamentary grounds. Turnbull’s attack was swift and brutal: “We need to restore traditional cabinet government. There must be an end to policy on the run and captain’s calls. We have to remember we have a great example of good cabinet government. John Howard’s government most of us served in. And yet few would say that the cabinet government of Mr Abbott bears any similarity to the style of Mr Howard.”
Nine’s political editor Laurie Oakes said Turnbull had to explain why Abbott needed to go. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake as Labor when they didn’t say why they got rid of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. Oakes said on Nine News: “Malcolm Turnbull is not making that mistake, he’s laying out his reasons for wanting Tony Abbott gone and for thinking he could do a better job.”
The media coverage of the lightning coup was good, especially at Sky News with a excellent team of presenters and people on the road and behind the scenes (they’re all good, but special mention to my friend Brihony Speed). In Canberra, there was the dynamic workaholic duo of political editor David Speers and chief political reporter Kieran Gilbert, joined by journalist and author, Kerri-Anne Walsh, and columnist for The Australian, Niki Savva, who has written two superb pieces for the paper this week, and the odd politician who could be convinced to go on camera. In Sydney, there was The Australian columnist and Sky anchor, Peter Van Onselen, and radio broadcaster and Sky presenter, Paul Murray, joined by Kevin Rudd’s former political director, Bruce Hawker, political analyst, former Labor minister, and Sky host, Graham Richardson, and Sky host of The Perrett Report and The Friday Show, Janine Perrett.
There was a bit of argy-bargy between Van Onselen and Murray, the former backing Turnbull and the latter supporting Abbott. It was understandable in a super-charged atmosphere. Perrett talked about how the latest leadership spill would hurt business, as they want certainty: “The economy isn’t going to turn overnight.”
After Tony Abbott said the messages of support were pouring in for him, and repeated a Liberal mantra: “We are not the Labor Party,” he made a last-minute appeal: “I am dismayed by the destabilisation that’s been taking place now for many, many months and I do say to my fellow Liberals that the destabilisation just has to stop … I firmly believe that our party is better than this, that our government is better than this and, by God, that our country is so much better than this.”
Graham Richardson said Abbott “did exactly what he had to do. It was pretty good. It wasn’t a Churchillian statement.” The soon-to-be replaced Treasurer Joe Hockey echoed Abbott’s remarks: “We cannot, we must not become a carbon copy of the Labor Party. We cannot and must not make the same mistakes that were made in the Rudd and Gillard years.”
Soon other Liberals joined the “We are not the Labor Party” crowd, including former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, who blasted Turnbull: “Disgraceful, selfish, he has always put his own interests first … What he’s saying is the Liberal Party is no different to the Labor Party and Malcolm Turnbull is our Kevin Rudd.” Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, hearing Liberals attack Liberals, joined in the fun: “Australia does not need another out-of-touch, arrogant, Liberal leader; Australia needs a change of government.”
But all the Liberal pleas fell on deaf ears. Sky’s sharp political correspondent Laura Jayes reported Tony Abbott had offered the influential Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, the roles of deputy PM and Treasurer, but he declined. Morrison told Sydney 2GB radio’s Ray Hadley in a testy interview yesterday that he was stunned by the offer: “I supported the prime minister, he offered me the job of treasurer hours out from that ballot. He’d never done that before, he’d never had a discussion with me before about being his deputy leader. I can’t understand why I was being offered that job when he had showed such strong support for Joe Hockey. He was asking me to throw Joe Hockey under a bus.”
From about 7pm Monday, everybody played the numbers game while the ABC broadcast news packages of the day’s events, including a profile of Malcolm Turnbull and the traditional vox pops with voters in the candidates’ electorates, Wentworth and Warringah. All the networks had reporters in the field seeking comments from commuters on their way home from work. The ABC also had a mini-profile of Tony Abbott, and of course, a reporter in Canning, the site of today’s WA by-election, as well as a comment from election analyst, Antony Green, on the possibility of an early poll. He didn’t think there’d be one. On 7.30, Leigh Sales interviewed Senator Arthur Sinodinos, back from the ICAC wilderness to support Malcolm Turnbull, because “old habits have returned” and Turnbull has “promised a more consultative style.” The excellent Annabel Crabb provided more analysis, followed by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, backing Abbott, and Senator Cory Bernardi saying he’d already received hundreds of emails from voters not wanting any change. Soon the ABC stalwarts, political editor Chris Uhlmann, chief political correspondent Sabra Lane, and political correspondent Greg Jennett joined Annabel Crabb to keep the coverage rolling, cancelling Australian Story, Media Watch and Q & A (much to the delight of some Liberal politicians).
After the usual walking into the party room by Team Turnbull and Team Abbott, the Chief Whip Scott Buchholz made it official at 9.47pm: “Malcolm Turnbull was successful 54 votes to 44, one informal vote,” and for the deputy leadership, Julie Bishop was far ahead of Kevin Andrews, 70 votes to 30. Malcolm Turnbull would be sworn in as prime minister. On Nine, Laurie Oakes offered his condolences to Tony Abbott: “You’ve got to feel sorry for the prime minister.” On Ten, veteran political analyst Paul Bongiorno said Abbott could be a lightning rod for destabilisation. Abbott, of course, denied this the next day.
At 10.41pm, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop faced the media, apologising for being late. The PM-designate was grateful and gracious: “I want to say at the outset what a great debt the nation owes and the party owes, the government owes, to Tony Abbott and of course, to his family, Margie and their daughters.” And he proposed something the previous government was lacking: “We need to have in this country and we will have now, an economic vision, a leadership that explains the great challenges and opportunities that we face and describes the way in which we can handle those challenges, seize those opportunities and does so in a manner that the Australian people understand so that we are seeking to persuade rather than seeking to lecture.”
The next day, a buoyant Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in by the Governor-General with his family around him but Tony Abbott got in first with his last statement as Prime Minister. It summed up Abbott: Honest and humble, but not particularly gracious – he did not mention Malcolm Turnbull, which was understandable. He admitted it was a tough day, but was proud of what he had achieved: free trade agreements; a spotlight shone on “dark and corrupt corners of the union movement;” responding to threats of terror, and yes, stopping the boats, which made the government “better able to display our compassion to refugees.” He was the first prime minister to spend a week a year in remote indigenous Australia, “and I hope I’m not the last.”
But the bitterness came out later, directed toward some of his leaking Liberal colleagues: “We stayed focused despite the white-anting.” And he also targeted the media: “The nature of politics has changed in the past decade. We have more polls and more commentary than ever before – mostly sour, bitter character assassination. Poll-driven panic has produced a revolving-door prime ministership which can’t be good for our country and a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery. And if there’s one piece of advice I can give to the media, it’s this: refuse to print self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to: refuse to connive at dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife.”
Whew, Tony, why don’t you say what you really think? Well, I will say what I think. At the beginning of your government I believed you could become a good prime minister. I wrote a post about it in November 2013, where I talked about your days as a volunteer firefighter in the seat of Davidson, how you drove yourself to early Sunday morning interviews because you didn’t think Commonwealth drivers should have to work on the Sabbath, your commitment to children in remote Indigenous communities, and the fact that you were a nice bloke. And I quoted Laurie Oakes, discussing Tony Abbott becoming a good prime minister with Fran Kelly on ABC’s RN Breakfast. Oakes said it was possible but Abbott lacked vision and forward thinking: “I think Tony Abbott has very cleverly repositioned himself, but he still doesn’t come across as a visionary. Tony Abbott only a few years ago said you really can’t expect a politician to be interested in anything beyond his own period in parliament. Well, that’s really a very limiting view for a politician to have. If Tony Abbott really believes that, he’ll be useless as Prime Minister. Prime ministers have to be forward thinkers, but if Tony Abbott wants to be a good prime minister, he’s going to have to think a lot further ahead than his own period in parliament, so we’ll see.”
I’m afraid we have seen. The CEO of World Vision, Tim Costello, and brother of former Treasurer Peter Costello, commented on Abbott’s capabilities on Q & A on Thursday night (postponed due to the spill): “I certainly believe that Tony Abbott was an incredibly effective Opposition Leader. You sometimes find that people are made for opposition and the step up to being Prime Minister is sometimes too great.”
But now to the new Prime Minister. What chance has he of reunifying a divided party and defeating the Great Satan, Bill Shorten, in the next election? Well, the leaks, which Tony Abbott said he has never done and would never do, have been taken up by his Liberal allies inside and outside Canberra; according to Dennis Shanahan, political editor of The Australian, “cabinet figures contradicting Mr Turnbull’s claims about promoting women have been leaked; some of Mr Abbott’s supporters have had meetings; and Liberals are complaining they were kept in the dark over the Coalition agreement Mr Turnbull signed with Nationals leader, Warren Truss.”
And as far as the promise of consultative government is concerned, a Canberra source told me Mr Turnbull still hasn’t called one of the ministers who is likely to be axed in the Cabinet reshuffle to be announced this weekend. I said: “Well, Turnbull could argue that he’s been too busy settling in to government.” The response was: “Yeah, too busy looking at himself in the mirror.”
Welcome to the prime ministership, Mr Turnbull. You have a tough job ahead of you.
PS Malcolm Turnbull’s name plaque in the photo above has a funny story attached to it. Twenty or more years ago when I was working at Channel Nine, I went to the Link Department to pick up tapes. Phil Mahoney, who ran the small office, said he had found the brass plaque in the bin, as Turnbull no longer worked at Nine (he was Kerry Packer’s lawyer). “Would you like it?” Phil asked. I looked at it, and said: “Why not? Just in case he ever becomes Prime Minister.” It took me a while to find it, but I’ve put it on the mantelpiece.

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