Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Aftershocks of Morrison’s victory

The aftershocks of last week’s political earthquake continue to be felt, not least by Scott Morrison. The new prime minister, who represented the least bad option for just over half the party room, has not escaped the bitter recriminations of the botched coup launched by home affairs minister Peter Dutton.

Earlier in the week, a phone call to Morrison from one of his backbenchers in Victoria rammed home that reality. A shattered Julia Banks, the only Liberal to win a seat from Labor in the last election, told him she couldn’t take it anymore. Already facing a byelection in Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth, the last thing the prime minister needed was another in one of the Liberals’ marginal seats.

A second phone call next day put Morrison’s gut-wrenching concerns at ease. She would take a short break before parliament resumes but would stay on until the election. His gratitude was palpable but his spin unbelievable. “I want to thank her for ruling out the position that she would be leaving parliament,” he said. “I want to thank her for the strong vote of confidence she has given me remaining in the parliament to support my government going forward.”

In her statement, Banks said: “I have always listened to the people who elected me and put Australia’s national interest before internal political games, factional party figures, self-proclaimed powerbrokers and certain media personalities who bear vindictive, mean-spirited grudges on settling their personal scores. Last week’s events were the last straw.” That’s what Morrison calls a “vote of confidence”.

In her statement, Banks spelled out what other Liberal MPs are reporting from other parts of Australia. She said she had received hundreds of emails and calls from her constituents and “their voices were very clear”. She said “they wanted Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership as prime minister to continue. They wanted Julie Bishop to remain as our deputy leader. So did I.”

Earlier in the week, Bishop announced she would go to the back bench and was coy about her plans up to or beyond the election. She has no ambition to be opposition leader. Friends say the role of governor-general wouldn’t appeal. An ambassadorship or United Nations role certainly would. Morrison may be able to reward her closer to calling an election, by which time, the word in Perth is, Bishop would have thrown her weight behind another woman winning preselection for her ultra-safe seat of Curtin.

The week began with a calamitous Newspoll, showing the government’s support had dramatically collapsed. Labor now has a 12-point lead. The next day the Essential Poll had a similar finding, only slightly more merciful, with Labor recording a 10-point lead. Either way, the “insurgents”, as Turnbull calls them, had reduced the government to rubble. “Ground zero,” as The Australian reported it. Of the three “coups” the nation has witnessed in the past decade, this was the worst result recorded in the immediate aftermath. In the Gillard, Rudd and Turnbull takeovers, their governments’ support actually increased.

Polling analyst Andrew Catsaras says “the Liberal party coup made no sense from a polling perspective”. This conclusion is supported by an analysis of the previous four Newspolls, which shows the government was again very competitive if not lineball and Turnbull had extended his preferred-PM lead over Shorten. But if polls in coming months don’t show marked improvement, there is nowhere for the Liberals to turn. Another spill, given the revulsion caused by this one, would be unthinkable – at least without another eruption of “madness”.

But the plotters are unrepentant. Peter Dutton says he has no regrets and would do nothing differently. Tony Abbott gloated on Radio 2GB that the “age of the political assassin is over and thank God for that”. That can only mean he has sheathed his knife and that Scott Morrison is safe from him.

At an event sponsored by the Centre for Independent Studies, Abbott repeated his earlier assessment that “politics is better than it has been in the past few days”. He praised Dutton and was confident Morrison would restore the government to “that sensible centre-right Liberal conservative mainstream”. That mainstream, according to Abbott, doesn’t believe in the “green religion” and thinks social security should be “more like a trampoline than a hammock”.

Abbott, like Morrison, was opposed to marriage equality. Turnbull’s championing of it was cited by other conservatives as evidence he was out of touch with the “base”. One despairing Liberal moderate likened these ideologues to the Democratic Labour Party of the 1950s and ’60s. They split the Labor Party, more devoted to winning control of it than winning government.

Morrison, meantime, is devoting all his energies to restoring “stability and unity”. Reappointing Abbott or agreeing to Barnaby Joyce being restored to the ministry was a bridge too far. Instead, both former leaders have been appointed special envoys – Joyce for the drought and Abbott for Indigenous affairs. Their remuneration is being worked out. Philip Ruddock was paid handsomely for his role as a human rights envoy. To some colleagues it looks like a messy “buyoff”. Joyce wasted no time coming over the top of Agriculture and Water Minister David Littleproud with a harebrained scheme to divert Murray–Darling water to out-of-season fodder growth. Abbott is looking for new ways to get Indigenous kids in remote areas to go to school – something that eluded him as PM.

A warning not to write off Morrison’s ability to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes came from an interesting quarter: former disgraced Labor senator and New South Wales party official Sam Dastyari. He told KIIS FM that Morrison sidekicks approached the Labor Party to provide a “dirt file” on his opponent Michael Towke, in a brutal preselection for the seat of Cook in 2007.

Morrison had lost the preselection 82 votes to eight. According to the Dastyari account, high-powered allies in Liberal headquarters set about to discredit Towke. They also enlisted The Daily Telegraph in a smear campaign that eventually saw the Tele settle out of court, paying Towke $50,000. But the damage was done.

Dastyari says he prepared a file and handed it over at a meeting in the Golden Century Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Sussex Street. He said he was amazed at how they weaponised the anecdotes to claim Towke had played down his involvement with the Labor Party in the 1990s. The former Labor senator said he was happy to help the Liberals tear at each other, but it shows how ruthless Morrison is.

The Prime Minister’s Office dismissed the story as “yet another desperate lie and smear from a disgraced Labor senator”. But the victim of the dirty tricks, Towke, has emailed friends saying “the truth is finally coming out about what Morrison personally did in 2007! Unprecedented.”

Dirty tricks are never far from politics when the stakes are so high. Turnbull supporters are still furious over the role Finance Minister Mathias Cormann played in tearing him down. The very people Julia Banks accuses of bullying and intimidation, Dutton’s numbers men, also figure in this saga. Put simply, they lied about the numbers their candidate had garnered and stopped at nothing to try to get them. As Western Australian Liberal Linda Reynolds told the Senate, she “did not recognise the bullying and intimidation that’s gone on”.

Cormann, flanked by two other cabinet ministers, Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield, told the media on Thursday last week that he had informed the PM that he had lost the confidence of the party room. Turnbull’s number-crunchers didn’t believe it.

The prime minister stalled for time, demanding proof by way of 43 signatures, a bare party room majority, before he would call a second party room meeting. In the end they didn’t get them without a couple of moderates signing up to at least bring on a vote.

The spill motion itself showed that had the three cabinet ministers not moved, Turnbull would have survived, at least until Dutton and Abbott organised another hack at him. But what undermines Cormann in the eyes of some key moderates is the fact that, had he checked with them, he would have been put right on the true status of the numbers. “He asked the wrong people,” was the view of one.

In his resignation letter to his constituents, Turnbull described his demise as being due to a “malevolent week of madness”. Morrison handed his ministers lapel pins of the Australian flag to remember who they work for. Bernard Keane in Crikey got it right: “Lapel pins are not about what the wearer wants to remember, but what they want others to forget.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Crying over spill tilt". Subscribe here.

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