Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The collapse of Turnbull

Last Tuesday, as he trudged through the biting cold of a Canberra winter morning to Parliament House, one Liberal politician summed up the mood of many of his colleagues. “It didn’t have to come to this,” he said. “I am dismayed at Turnbull’s inability to lead the government effectively.”

Later that morning, when the prime minister ambushed Peter Dutton, his emboldened rival for the top job, by spilling the leadership, the bitterly disappointed Liberal joined 34 others in opting for a change. Malcolm Turnbull’s ploy worked in that he garnered 48 votes, or 57.8 per cent, of the Liberal party room. A comparison with other first-round votes against a leader suggested the prime minister was in a weaker position than his predecessors in the past decade who did not survive a second tilt.

You know a government is in deep trouble when a strident political attack from the leader of the Opposition rings so true. Bill Shorten summed up the dead end the Turnbull government had reached as he moved a no-confidence motion in the prime minister.

He told parliament: “The conduct of this narcissistic government is both shocking and selfish and undervalues the Australian people. This house should vote for no confidence because the prime minister has no authority, no power and no policies. And the reason for that sits behind him. If nearly half of his own government do not want him to be prime minister, why should the rest of Australia put up with him?”

In reply Turnbull gave what one commentator said was a “PowerPoint presentation”. No Churchillian call to arms from a determined leader with his back to the wall, but rather a history recital of key economic indicators and a claim for delivering all this success for Australian families and workers, something he said a Labor government would destroy.

Turnbull was unable to turn defence into scathing attack because Shorten’s charges were given ballast by what had happened not only in the Liberal party room that day, but also by three years of the government’s divisions and the PM’s inability to manage them.

The week reinforced the perception that Turnbull’s convictions have been hostage to his personal survival. He shelved the national energy guarantee and walked away from taking the big business tax cuts to the next election, as often promised, after the Senate rejected them. He restored the energy supplement to pensioners, after insisting for years it was no longer needed. These capitulations, as the challenges showed, did nothing to enhance his authority or standing.

The barometer for this failure, nominated by Turnbull himself against Tony Abbott, was the Newspoll. The government has lost 38 in a row and there was no optimism it would win the next one – indeed, after the shambles on show this week, it would be a surprise if Newspoll doesn’t head in the same direction as this week’s Fairfax–Ipsos poll, which showed Labor opening up a 10-point lead.

As the electoral cycle entered its final months, there was more than enough incentive for Turnbull doubters to move. Some hit the panic button, others the dynamite plunger of revenge. This is the toxic resentment present inside the dumped Tony Abbott and his allies, as well as those ideological conservatives who simply can’t abide Turnbull and the cohort who simply lost faith in their leader.

Previously, dumping prime ministers was not done lightly or indeed regularly. But the precedent has been well and truly set, as the musical chairs of the past decade attest. And this despite what is clearly a costly move for the government party. The so called “transactional costs” include loss of credibility in the entire political class. Even though, in our system, voters do not directly elect a prime minister, they do elect what they believe is a “Rudd government” or an “Abbott government” or indeed a “Turnbull government”. It is little wonder that, at the popular level, many feel their democratic franchise has been trashed.

At least in the Rudd, Gillard, Rudd and Turnbull “coups” the parties were opting for an alternative who was well known and more popular than the incumbent. A ReachTEL poll of 2261 commissioned by GetUp! the night before the Liberal party room showdown on Tuesday found the dour Dutton trailed Turnbull as preferred Liberal leader by 24 points. “Other” scored higher at 18 per cent. The same poll showed the government almost lineball with Labor – 51 to 49 per cent.

The initial standing start support for Dutton in the party room – 35 votes when he hadn’t begun cajoling and arm-twisting colleagues – was hard to explain rationally. One interstate Liberal thought the idea of him being a better prospect to lead the party was “madness”. A Queensland colleague said “the ego that is pushing Dutton to consider challenging is the same ego who thinks he can turn things around”.

What Dutton has had going for him is the backing of his Liberal National Party of Queensland president Gary Spence. Spence is smarting from the 10 per cent collapse in primary vote for support for the LNP candidate in the Longman byelection. He has been telling his embattled MPs in marginal seats that Dutton can save their skins. The evidence for this is scarce; indeed, at the state election Labor policies on renewable energy and scepticism of the Adani coal project in the north paid big dividends in the south-east corner of the state.

One of the lessons of Tuesday’s vote is there’s still deep resentment within the parliamentary party at the wrecking role former prime minister Tony Abbott has been playing. Fellow Queenslander Warren Entsch tackled him over this in the joint party room. Abbott released a statement taking a swipe at Turnbull. He said, “I had just said to the party room that exhortations from the leadership group about loyalty and unity were all very well but unity has to be created and loyalty has to be earned.” Abbott had been urging colleagues to back Dutton but this endorsement was credited with deterring some waverers.

On Wednesday, Dutton began openly campaigning for another shot. He went on two radio shows in Melbourne and in regard to Abbott said he was “his own man” but he didn’t rule out promoting the former prime minister back into cabinet. He admitted he was “hitting the phones” and if he got the numbers he would challenge. He firmly believes he is the best man to beat Bill Shorten. Shorten is the Liberals’ bogyman, their loathing for him fed by his success in coming so close in 2016 and besting them since.

But Labor had been doing its homework. We got a taste of it from Tony Burke during the no-confidence debate. He said of Dutton, “Think of this prime minister: the person who nearly half of your colleagues prefer was the author of the GP tax … cut $50 billion from hospitals … axed national dental programs and was voted by doctors as the worst health minister for 50 years.”

Dutton had confounded his opponents before. He took the seat of Dickson off star candidate Cheryl Kernot. She and Labor thought he was “wet behind the ears” and an easy beat. On paper he should have lost his seat last election but withstood a ferocious campaign against him mounted by the advocacy group GetUp!

But in one of the messiest hacks at a prime minister, probably ever, Dutton did not get a clear run at the top job without fierce resistance. Scott Morrison and Julie Bishop came into the picture, after Turnbull told the Dutton camp they would have to provide him with a petition of 43 names for second spill meeting to be held. That peition came and in the vote early Friday afternoon, Bishop was eliminated first, before Scott Morrison was elected leader 45–40 over Dutton. Turnbull resigned the prime ministership and said he would quit the parliament “not before too long”. Scott Morrison becomes the nation’s 30th prime minister, with Josh Frydenberg elected his deputy.

It is clear is that the wounds will not be quickly healed. The Liberal Party is hopelessly divided and, as we all know, disunity is death. Its inability to govern itself is a mortal flaw.

The leadership of the government is, without doubt, a poisoned chalice. Morrison’s new administration may well struggle to survive on the floor of the house if others besides Turnbull quit in protest. Forget pleas of an orderly transition – this attempted coup by the conservatives is too bitter for that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "It’s on, and on and on". Subscribe here.

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