Paul Bongiorno
Morrison and the Kelly outbreak

A snapshot of where we are as a parliamentary democracy came last weekend at the G20 summit in Argentina. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was caught checking who Scott Morrison was in the potted biographies of world leaders as the new Australian prime minister sat beside her for their “pull aside” chat. She was just as puzzled as President Donald Trump about the instability in Australian politics that makes our government leaders so disposable.

It was the Scottish poet Robert Burns who famously prayed, “Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us”. That Power was evidently at work in Buenos Aires. Trump was more direct than Merkel – he sought an explanation from Morrison on why Malcolm Turnbull was no longer the PM. Morrison later admitted he “ran through what the events were”, offering Trump an explanation of our parliamentary party system. The indications are, though, that he gave a bit more than that. It looks like it was a favourable gilding of Morrison’s lily at Turnbull’s expense.

The president, who in the formal handshake after their brief meeting looked like he would rather be somewhere else, said he knew Morrison had done “a fantastic job in a very short period of time”. He went on: “You’ve done a lot of the things that they wanted over there and that’s why you’re sitting right here. And so I congratulate you.”

If he was referring to Morrison’s willingness to follow Washington’s example and move our embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or whether he was aware that Morrison is closer to his thinking on climate change than Turnbull, the president didn’t say. The prime minister explained the remark more in terms of the closeness of the relationship with the United States and mutual interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Morrison pushed hard for the meeting with Trump and was squeezed in at the last minute when the president cancelled on Vladimir Putin. It is a moot point whether a glowing endorsement from this president carries as much weight in Australia as Morrison might hope. But keeping the alliance in good repair is a bipartisan project. Morrison’s people say the meeting lasted 25 minutes, the Americans say 15 minutes – either way, not a lot could have been discussed once the PM gave the president a civics lesson on Australian governance.

Morrison may have been in Buenos Aires but his focus was squarely on events back home. He had his number-cruncher, Special Minister of State Alex Hawke, lobbying the New South Wales executive of the Liberal Party to save the preselection of right-wing warrior Craig Kelly.

Whatever assurance he gave Trump about the stability of his government, Morrison was rattled by the defection to the crossbench of Victorian Liberal Julia Banks. The prime minister denied the intervention was in light of Kelly’s implied threats, made to several media outlets, to similarly quit the Liberals if he was disendorsed. It is the most logical explanation, although some in the party suspect Morrison is far more sympathetic to Kelly’s climate change scepticism and social conservatism than he lets on.

Just as the ghost of Malcolm Turnbull hung over the G20, the dumped prime minister spectacularly materialised to thwart Morrison’s Kelly rescue mission. Over the weekend, he began phoning executive members, urging them not to reward Kelly for his treachery in playing a key role in Turnbull’s demise. Kelly, a staunch ally of Tony Abbott’s, was a consistent critic of every attempt Turnbull made to end the climate wars. He used his frequent appearances in the media, particularly on Sky News, to attack Turnbull’s agenda.

Turnbull obviously misjudged a leading member of the moderate faction, NSW state minister Matt Kean, who gave a colourful version to The Australian of a phone conversation he had with a furious former prime minister. Kean said Turnbull remarked that Morrison was refusing to hold an election in March because he wants to “keep his arse in C1 [the prime minister’s official car]”. Turnbull does not deny it.

The former PM’s view is that the federal government should go to the people ahead of the NSW state election, to give the Liberal government a fighting chance. It’s a none-too-subtle assessment that the Canberra Liberals are a lost cause. Meanwhile, Turnbull’s factional ally, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, is leading “an excellent government” that, in his view, doesn’t deserve to wear the opprobrium voters have in store for Morrison.

After journalists called him for comment, Turnbull took to Twitter on Sunday night: “… rather than wait for their version of events to be published tomorrow, I can state that I am strongly of the view that the normal democratic process should proceed”. What should not be missed is the hypocrisy of the conservatives on this. Led by Abbott, the conservatives within the Liberals have campaigned long and hard to make preselections more democratic at the local level, not less. Turnbull followed up with another tweet saying capitulating to Kelly’s reported threat “to bring down the government” would be the “worst and weakest response to such a threat”.

The next morning, Turnbull gave an extended interview to Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast. She put it to him that he had broken his promise not to be a “miserable ghost”. His reply spelt big trouble for Morrison and the government right up to election day, whenever that may be. Turnbull said that unlike Abbott and Kevin Rudd, who both stayed in parliament “and did everything they could to overthrow their successor”, he has quit parliament and is “not even eligible” to be a threat to Morrison. But as a citizen and a member of the Liberal Party he is “entitled to express his views” and he will.

Turnbull rejected claims that he is responsible for the government’s current woes “as absurd”. The people who should take responsibility, to his mind, are those who removed him as prime minister. And he never tires of naming them – Peter Dutton, Greg Hunt, Mathias Cormann and other cabinet ministers.

If Morrison thought saving Craig Kelly would calm the ship of state it was another miscalculation. The move only sparked more internal bloodletting with another Turnbull ally, Sally Betts, attacking her factional leaders – federal MP Trent Zimmerman and Matt Kean – for “capitulating to conservatives”.

In an email leaked to The Sydney Morning Herald, Betts said “you supported Kelly – a thug, a bully and a disgrace and you need to explain that to the moderates”. She rejected Zimmerman’s explanation that once Turnbull’s activities became public he had no choice but to save Morrison from an embarrassing defeat by supporting the current prime minister rather than the former.

Zimmerman’s explanation is an example of the moderates not being prepared to blow up the Morrison government – a stark contrast to the uncompromising attitude of Abbott, Kelly and a few others on the right. Turnbull twice this week said a “small cabal” of conservatives held his government to ransom and eventually destroyed it.

But many Liberals fear the ex-prime minister is now hell-bent on returning the compliment by doing everything in his power to see the government he once led defeated. Turnbull believes he was foolishly and unfairly rejected and his former colleagues deserve to bear the consequences. One Liberal says Turnbull’s call that Morrison going to the people sooner rather than later is the party’s best option is disingenuous. “It’s like a turkey calling for an early Christmas,” he said.

On Tuesday, Turnbull was a star attraction at a Smart Energy Summit in Sydney. He did not miss the government. He claimed that there are “a significant number of [Liberal] members who do not believe in climate change” and they are demanding Australia quit the Paris emission reduction agreement. He lamented what he called the derailing of energy policy by “ideology and idiocy”.

Turnbull’s interventions make Rudd look like a positively restrained saint when he undermined Julia Gillard – at least according to the wry observation of one Labor frontbencher. There’s no doubt these interventions are unhelpful. But they are damaging to Morrison precisely because they so accurately sum up the reality feeding public perception that the Liberals and the Nationals are half-hearted about addressing climate change. Here, as in so much of Turnbull’s thwarted agenda, he is more in line with mainstream sentiment than his erstwhile colleagues. It’s a situation that mightily benefits Labor.

At least on one issue Morrison had finally got the message that the public was fed up with the revolving door of prime ministers. On Tuesday night, with half an hour’s notice to the party room, he ditched his own earlier rejection of the need for the leadership reforms Labor introduced six years ago. Now it will take two-thirds of the Liberal Party room to sack a prime minister who has led the party to an election win.

Labor’s Tanya Plibersek scoffed at the idea the rethink will deliver stability to the government this side of the election. On the continuing evidence, it is hard to disagree.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "The Kelly outbreak". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.