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As Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership collapsed, with Scott Morrison replacing him, members of his own cabinet threatened to ‘open the bottom drawer’ and release a dirt file they believed would force him out of the leadership. By Karen Middleton.

‘We know where the bodies are buried’

Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House, Thursday.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

As Malcolm Turnbull stalled on a second leadership vote on Thursday, by demanding those betraying him identify themselves, some of his conservative colleagues were threatening to release damaging information about him to destroy his career.

“We are ready to open the bottom drawer,” a senior MP told The Saturday Paper on Thursday, after key cabinet members had withdrawn their support for Turnbull but before any second vote had been confirmed.

“We know where the bodies are buried.”

The conservative MP, who was among those quitting their ministerial positions to try to force Turnbull’s hand, said the group was prepared to empty the dirt file they had compiled on him if that was what it took to remove him from the office.

The MP refused to say what that meant or to describe the nature of the alleged information. But the brutal threat indicated the level of desperation that had been reached, as Turnbull’s opponents declared they had the numbers to force him out of office and he refused to go without a fight.

The blunt warning also confirmed the rebel conservatives had been planning and quietly organising their campaign against Turnbull for some time, and that they were determined not to stop until he was gone. That campaign has led to accusations that people outside parliament – especially News Corp media organisations – had been part of the strategy to tear down a prime minister.

The MP’s threat also effectively confirmed this was a scorched-earth strategy to destroy the existing version of the Liberal Party and rebuild it in a more conservative image.

When the vote finally came on Friday, the party room meeting elected Scott Morrison by 45 votes to Peter Dutton’s 40.

Having been accused of lacking political acumen, Turnbull pulled off arguably his finest manoeuvre to ensure the job he could not save did not go to those he called “the wreckers” of the hard right.

And with the elevation of Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg – Turnbull’s partner in prosecuting the case for the national energy guarantee, the policy that sparked this leadership crisis – the conservative putsch was roundly defeated.

At his farewell news conference, a composed Turnbull confirmed he would quit parliament soon, a move that will prompt a byelection in his Sydney seat of Wentworth and potentially create difficulties for his successor in sustaining majority support in parliament.

Turnbull congratulated Morrison and Frydenberg on their elevation and wished them well.

The outgoing prime minister blamed Dutton and former prime minister Tony Abbott explicitly for his demise, saying they had “chosen to attack the government from within ... because they wanted to bring the government down”.

“Australians will be just dumbstruck and so appalled by the conduct of the last week,” Turnbull said.

“To imagine that a government would be rocked by this sort of disloyalty and deliberate insurgency ... deliberate destructive action … I think many Australians will just be shaking their head in disbelief at what’s been done.”

He also took a direct jab at the conservative commentators who had campaigned for his removal, saying the insurrection had been “backed by powerful voices in the media”.

Having entered the race as a kind of Turnbull proxy to provide an alternative for those Liberals who did not want Dutton and his conservative colleagues to seize the party’s ideological heart, Morrison’s success now spells trouble for the rebels.

At his first news conference as prime minister elect, Morrison pitched directly to the disillusioned electorate, promising: “We are on your side.”

A main theme was unity – in the wider community as well as his own party.

“We are an optimistic, we are a passionate and we are an ambitious people, full of aspiration for ourselves, for our families and, of course, for our great nation – for all of us,” Morrison said, borrowing an old John Howard election slogan.

“That is what we believe as Liberals. Our plan – my plan – for this country is for an even stronger Australia.”

Morrison said Dutton was welcome in his ministry and that Julie Bishop would also remain, suggesting she might get to choose her job – by inference leaving open the possibility that she may stay in foreign affairs.

Emphasising values, Morrison reiterated his support for lower taxes and tough border protection and emphasised the importance of social cohesion – a contrast with Dutton, accused recently of fomenting racial divisions. He also chose to make the drought a central part of his early program as prime minister.

“My plan … is to keep our country together, to not pit one group of Australians against another,” Morrison said. “To ensure that one can succeed and all can succeed." Both Morrison and Frydenberg paid tribute to Turnbull, Morrison insisting that both his party and his country would recognise and be grateful for his service.

 

The Turnbull government imploded on Thursday morning when the then prime minister’s key backer, finance minister Mathias Cormann, announced he had withdrawn his support.

Flanked by communications minister Mitch Fifield and employment minister Michaelia Cash, Cormann said he had told Turnbull it was time to go.

“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that we went to see the prime minister yesterday afternoon to advise him that in our judgement he no longer enjoyed the support of a majority of members of the Liberal Party party room and that it was in the interests of the Liberal Party for the prime minister to help manage an orderly transition to a new leader,” Cormann said.

He said he had hoped to support Turnbull as prime minister “for years to come”.

“But I can’t ignore reality,” Cormann said. “When I have five cabinet colleagues telling me that they supported Malcolm on Tuesday ... but that they’ve changed their position, that is not something that I can ignore.”

Before the ministers’ intervention, an exasperated Nationals MP, Kevin Hogan, declared that regardless of who won he would quit the Coalition and sit on the crossbench if there was another leadership spill, creating a potential new headache for the Liberal leader.

Other crossbench independents Cathy McGowan and the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie suggested they may not uphold with a new Liberal leader the agreements on supply and confidence that they forged with Turnbull.

What followed was arguably the greatest political debacle the Australian parliament has seen in decades.

Dutton and his supporters demanded that Turnbull call another party meeting to allow a leadership vote – the second in a week, after speculation about an imminent strike prompted Turnbull to spring a vote on them in the regular weekly meeting on Tuesday.

Although he won it by 48 votes to 35, the margin was not considered enough to stop the pressure, requiring only seven MPs to change sides for the result to be reversed.

Two days later, as it struggled to manage the crisis, and with Turnbull refusing to accede to the demands of his own ministerial colleagues to call a ballot and preferably resign, the government used its numbers to shut down the House of Representatives hours before it was due to rise.

As Turnbull sat in the House the government voted as a bloc to terminate the parliamentary sitting in light of the crisis.

Shouts from Labor MPs of “shame” and “disgraceful” echoed across the chamber.

The government was not able to do the same in the Senate, because it does not command a majority. There, Labor sought unsuccessfully to move a no-confidence motion in the government and demand that Turnbull visit Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove to call an election immediately.

In a blistering speech condemning the shutdown of parliament, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten declared Australia had a prime minister “in name only”.

“This is a government whose conduct is selfish and shocking,” Shorten said. “It is a narcissistic government, consumed with their own jobs and their own struggles and they have forgotten the people of Australia.”

Soon after those scenes in the House, which reflected the visceral anger and high emotion coursing through parliament, and left some MPs in tears, Turnbull declared he would not bow to the demands for a special party meeting unless he saw the names and signatures to prove that a majority of his colleagues – 43 – supported his removal. He later delayed a second party room meeting while he had his whip call each name on the petition and be assured of their position.

“The reality is that a minority in the party room, supported by others outside the parliament, have sought to bully [and] intimidate others into making this change of leadership that they’re seeking,” Turnbull said on Thursday.

“It’s been described by many people, including those who feel they cannot resist it, as a form of madness, and it is remarkable that we are at this point when only a month ago we were ... just a little bit behind Labor on the public polls and on our own polls a little bit ahead. But on any view, thoroughly competitive.”

Turnbull emphasised one factor he hoped would delay the end of his prime ministership and possibly rule Dutton out of what had become a race between multiple candidates as the parliamentary week closed.

High among his reasons for waiting until Friday for any party meeting was that he said Liberal MPs and the nation deserved to know the substance of legal advice being sought from the solicitor- general, Stephen Donaghue, on whether or not the primary challenger, former home affairs minister Peter Dutton, was eligible to remain in parliament.

Dutton has faced questions over whether his family child-care centre investments conflict with provisions in section 44 of the constitution banning MPs from having pecuniary agreements with government.

“This issue of eligibility is critically important,” Turnbull said. “You can imagine the consequences of having a prime minister whose actions and decisions are questionable because of the issue of eligibility. Are they validly a minister at all?”

While not conclusive, the advice Turnbull finally received said Dutton was “not incapable” of serving, although it said only the High Court could decide for sure.

 

Having promised three years ago, on the day he seized the prime ministership from predecessor Tony Abbott, that he would return to proper cabinet government, Turnbull insisted that’s exactly what he had done.

“The cabinet has worked very, very cohesively and confidentially,” Turnbull said when he fronted the media on Friday afternoon. “It has been a very good cabinet and I want to thank all the cabinet ministers.”

He defended his achievements and insisted the economy was travelling well and that this was the work of people conducting “an internal insurgency” for their own reasons.

He said such an insurgency was very hard to stop.

But the way Turnbull has managed his relationships within government is among the reasons being given for the move against him.

One of those involved in the insurrection – former minister Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells – said Turnbull had not respected conservatives and their views and priorities enough, nor heeded their advice. In a withering resignation letter to Turnbull on Tuesday, Fierravanti-Wells accused him of ignoring advice that the party was “moving too far to the left” under his leadership.

“Our conservative base strongly feel that their voice has been eroded,” she said. “They needed some demonstrable indication that there are some conservative voices around your cabinet table.”

Fierravanti-Wells revealed she had urged Turnbull to dump Julie Bishop – her senior minister – as deputy Liberal leader and replace the foreign minister with the conservative Peter Dutton. She continues to argue this might have stemmed the growing anger in conservative ranks but says that

instead it has become a move against Turnbull that reflects the battle between the conservative and moderate wings – a battle for “the heart and soul of the Liberal Party”.

Liberals are fond of deriding Labor for its faction-based politicking. But one former minister, who served in John Howard’s cabinet, told The Saturday Paper that the Liberal Party’s lack of organised factions has meant it “didn’t ever develop a thing to deal with this”.

Now out of parliament, the former minister pointed to Howard’s practice of finding ways to accommodate the ideological divisions in his parliamentary party, ensuring he allowed the moderates to have enough policy victories to protect him from revolt.

The former minister said: “He was masterful at chairing cabinet.”

As the leadership crisis unfolded this week, former New South Wales state Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski expressed a similar sentiment about the party’s lack of structure to manage its division.

“I actually think we’ve got to the stage where the Liberal Party needs to formalise factions,” Chikarovski told Sky News on Wednesday.

“Because within the Labor Party when the election is over, they know how many people are on the left and how many people are on the right in their formal factions and they know how ... the spoils of war are divided up.”

She observed that when the Liberals elected a leader, those who didn’t share that person’s ideology always complained their group was not being represented, arguing a more formal allocation of positions would help ease those tensions.

On the Nine Network, political editor Chris Uhlmann blasted News Corp’s newspapers and its pay TV station Sky News, as well as Sydney radio network 2GB, accusing them of interfering in Australia’s democratic processes.

“Everyone from the prime minister on down has pointed out to me that they believe that there is a campaign being waged against them,” Uhlmann said. “So this is reporting news, what people are telling me about what’s going on. That News Corporation – so we’re talking about The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, and all of those tabloid newspapers around the country, 2GB in Sydney, led by Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, and Sky News, with its evening line-up in particular – are waging a war against the prime minister of Australia. That’s what they think.”

Uhlmann said if journalists “are making calls, trying to push people over the line, then they are part of this story”.

Radio host Ray Hadley shot back at Uhlmann, labelling him “a sycophant of the Labor Party” because of his marriage to ALP politician Gai Brodtmann, the member for Canberra. On Wednesday, Hadley faced accusations that he was trying to force a leadership challenge after stumbling over a text message on air, leading listeners to think it was sent to him by Peter Dutton. Hadley denied this, telling Fairfax it was all a “storm in a teacup”.

Aside from the ideological battle within the party, the other reasons given for tearing down Turnbull were his poor performance in the opinion polls – having ousted Abbott for 30 negative polls but clocking up 38 of his own – and his policy direction, including on social issues such as same-sex marriage.

His proposed national energy guarantee and its embedded mechanisms to address climate change provided the flashpoint for this week’s assault.

One senior Liberal, who supported Turnbull, told The Saturday Paper that Turnbull had been warned repeatedly that his energy policy was alienating sections of the party.

“You keep trying to get through to the prime minister – it doesn’t work,” the MP said, observing that former prime minister Tony Abbott had been “very clever” in replicating almost exactly the circumstances of 2009, which saw Turnbull lose his leadership, also over energy policy.

“It’s such an obvious trap and Malcolm’s fallen into the energy trap. It’s so obvious. It makes some of us despair that we’re here.”

But some of those close to Turnbull believe there is a simpler reason that his party opponents moved to tear him down.

“They’ve just never accepted him,” one said on Wednesday night, after Turnbull had been told his leadership was doomed.

Whether or not that was the only reason for his demise, the Turnbull supporter is correct. Many conservative Liberals never accepted Turnbull, despite his having John Howard as a political mentor. They never accepted his republican inclinations, his ideological flexibility and late-joining Liberalness, nor his barrister’s arrogance, or even his money.

“They’ve been able to foment this,” the Turnbull confidant said. “They decided some time ago that he had to go.”

The confidant rejected suggestions there was anything in Turnbull’s approach that could be blamed.

But the former Howard government minister queried whether Turnbull had approached his job too much like a corporate executive and, more broadly, whether business credentials had been wrongly assumed to be automatically transferable to politics.

“Business culture doesn’t really translate as well,” the observer noted, suggesting military culture was in the same category – both encouraging hierarchical and unilateral decision – making and not the practice of consensus and compromise required to be successful in politics.

Many of those steeped in the history of the Liberal Party are looking on in despair.

John Howard’s former chief of staff, Grahame Morris, revealed on Thursday that the night before, at a dinner at Old Parliament House, he had been approached by a dismayed Heather Henderson, the daughter of the Liberal Party’s longest serving leader, the late Sir Robert Menzies.

“What has happened to our party?” she asked.

It’s the question on many Liberals’ lips. Some others are just asking what’s happened to the country.

Outside parliament, a lone protester stood carrying a handwritten sign.

“Start focusing on us, not on yourselves,” the sign said. “Enough is enough.”

But the protester was too late.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "‘We know where the bodies are buried’". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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