Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull vents his spleen

No matter how hard Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his senior ministers try to ignore Malcolm Turnbull’s explosive memoir, it simply will not go away. And for that, the deposed PM is far from apologetic.

During a lunchbreak this week from the media blitz flogging A Bigger Picture, Turnbull told me he had written history and to do it truthfully you have to include faithfully recorded private conversations and communications. He says he was not the only person in his prime ministerial office who took notes of his meetings with senior colleagues and others, citing long-time senior staffer Sally Cray as an example. He doesn’t expect everyone to necessarily agree with his interpretation of events, but future generations will have a firsthand account from the key player in the now defunct Turnbull government.

The problem for Scott Morrison, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is their government is very much alive and has the same DNA as its two antecedents – the Abbott and Turnbull governments – with the Coalition leading the country ever since wresting power from Labor in 2013.

On Tuesday, towards the end of one of the interminable coronavirus news conferences in the prime ministerial courtyard, Morrison was asked whether he caught Turnbull’s interview the night before and what he thought “about his criticism of the government”. The prime minister was terse and attempted irony to dismiss the query. “On this issue, I am just going to remain focused on the actual bigger picture and that is dealing with the coronavirus response,” he said. When the reporter tried a follow-up, Morrison cut her dead: “I have answered the question.”

He hadn’t, and you can guess the reason why. For starters, Turnbull outlines Morrison’s ambitions to seize the top job, going all the way back to 2012, when he writes that Morrison was “sounding me out” about challenging Abbott as opposition leader. Again in 2014, with the Coalition in government, Morrison was of the view that Abbott would have to go “by the middle of 2015” if his performance as PM didn’t improve. He saw himself as the replacement. The book reveals Morrison and his allies had advanced plans to dump Abbott, much to Turnbull’s surprise.

Turnbull paints a compelling picture of Morrison as a master of the dark arts of political skulduggery. He writes that Abbott felt betrayed by his double-dealing – and that Turnbull is now convinced Morrison did the same to him, using his allies to manoeuvre two spill motions in the party room to thwart Peter Dutton and set the stage for the then treasurer to seize the top job.

It is in the contexts of these leadership upheavals that Turnbull gives his most scathing character assessments of his former colleagues. He believes Cormann’s role was the most dishonourable, because they had become “good friends”. Evidently, these bonds were not as strong as those the Finance minister had forged with his daily exercise partner when in Canberra, Peter Dutton. Cormann had claimed to the then prime minister’s face – in his office, accompanied by two other ministers, Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash – that Turnbull had to quit because Dutton had the numbers.

Turnbull writes: “Mathias regarded Scott as emotional, narcissistic and untrustworthy and told me so regularly.” The source of the untrustworthiness was apparently the belief that Morrison regularly leaked to the media and could not be trusted with confidences when it came to developing tax reform proposals. Time heals all, though, if you can believe Cormann, who is saddled with Morrison as prime minister rather than his mate Dutton. On RN Breakfast this week, Cormann insisted that he “absolutely trust[s] him” and that he has had a “very strong, positive and productive relationship with Scott Morrison for a very long time”.

Cormann denied he told Turnbull that he had to “give in to terrorists” at the height of the Dutton leadership push. Of course, “terrorists” is the term Turnbull uses to describe his enemies on the right of the party, who he says would rather blow up the government than see him succeed. But Cormann accuses Turnbull of presenting “his version of history” and says “it differs substantially from my clear recollection of events”. Next day, Turnbull fired back on the same show, telling Fran Kelly that, “just to refresh his memory”, Cormann had “said it to me on February 17, 2017, at 4.39pm”.

Some believe Scott Morrison will eventually have to answer the case mounted against his character by Turnbull. Credibility after all is the essential ingredient for political success. While it is hard for politicians to have the complete trust of voters, the one who can persuade them that he or she has more credibility than their opponent generally wins the most votes. But one of the 13 ministers who resigned to force Turnbull out in 2018, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, says facing up to unwelcome realities is not Morrison’s way of operating. He will try to ignore the furore in the hope it goes away.

Fierravanti-Wells, an outspoken conservative who Turnbull nevertheless promoted to his ministry, says she advised him to promote Peter Dutton to deputy leader as a way of appeasing restive right-wingers, something she reminded him of in her resignation letter. Turnbull ignored this advice, as well as a warning at the beginning of May 2018 from the veteran Liberal MP Russell Broadbent that Dutton and Greg Hunt were coming after him. Turnbull told the ABC’s Leigh Sales that the idea of Dutton as PM “was such an absurd proposition”. He said it never occurred to him that so many people would support Dutton and that “if Dutton had become leader, not even Bill Shorten could have lost the election”.

Some Liberals console themselves that Morrison’s miracle win last year has drawn a line under all this ugliness. Morrison at least has no former Liberal prime minister in the parliament seeking to undermine him. And, according to the latest Essential poll, 65 per cent of voters, including a majority of Labor and Greens voters, rate the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis as “quite good or very good”.

However, it will not be Morrison’s response to the virus that will be front of mind in the run-up to the next election, but rather how he handles the deep recession forecast for its wake. Ruminations about a return to trickle-down economics at the expense of millions of unemployed workers, and shrinking disposable income for those in jobs, is a recipe for an electoral wipeout.

In such dire times a leader will need all the trust he can muster, and Labor’s Anthony Albanese has no intention of letting Morrison forget it. Last Friday there was a taste of what will come. At a doorstop, the Labor leader said, “People will recall Scott Morrison standing in the prime minister’s courtyard with Malcolm Turnbull and saying that he had Malcolm Turnbull’s back. Well, he put a knife in Malcolm Turnbull’s back. That’s how he became the prime minister and people are entitled to know the details of how that occurred.”

On the hard right of the Liberal Party, New South Wales state executive member Christian Ellis is calling for Turnbull’s membership to be “terminated”. “Because,” as Ellis says in his confidential letter to party president Philip Ruddock, “if he continues to keep attacking the party as a member, or connected in any way, he damages the party brand.”

Turnbull is unfazed by this latest foray from what he calls “mad people” in the party he once led. He wouldn’t be the first former Liberal prime minister to become disenchanted with the party: both John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser found either its stodgy conservatism or its disregard for human rights too much to stomach. But Turnbull has no intention of resigning. He says the party’s worst fears would be if he decided to set up a new centrist party.

Turnbull has more than paid his dues. His $1.75 million donation to the party’s 2016 campaign must be worth several life memberships. That doesn’t mean he won’t continue to speak out. He finishes his book saying he hasn’t lost interest in politics. “In particular,” he writes, “I remain committed to an Australian republic and above all, to seeing effective Australian and global action to cut our emissions and address global warming.”

Turnbull is disappointed by Morrison’s ditching of the national energy guarantee policy and he is not without allies in the broader party on climate action. NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean says “what the extreme right don’t understand is that Malcolm supported action on climate change not because he was a leftie but because he was an economic rationalist”.

The pity, as Turnbull observed this week, is that “politicians are not rational for the most part … In politics you get people playing on irrational fears, stoking fear, stoking division, and they are completely heedless of the public interest.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "Bigger pictures, littler men".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.