Q amp;A: Malcolm Turnbull accuses Liberal conservatives of 'blowing up' his government
Malcolm Turnbull has declared his removal from the prime ministership remains an act of unexplained madness, and has accused leading conservatives of “blowing up” the government, in his first, take-no-prisoners public appearance since the leadership coup in August.
As well as unloading on the architects of the defenestration, declaring they needed to be accountable for their actions, Turnbull also confirmed he had complained to Rupert Murdoch about punishing coverage from his news outlets. He also recounted a conversation with another media mogul, Kerry Stokes, in which Stokes warned him that Murdoch was hostile.
Turnbull said he had told Murdoch the only beneficiary of any leadership coup would be the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, not Scott Morrison. He said Murdoch had said to Stokes that three years of Labor “wouldn’t be so bad” – a stance Turnbull said he struggled to comprehend.
Thursday night’s appearance on the ABC was Turnbull’s first major public outing since losing the Liberal party leadership in late August. He told the Q amp;A program he had remained out of the country and out of the public eye in recent weeks to give Scott Morrison “the clear air to do his own thing”.
He sheeted home the blame for the leadership implosion to Peter Dutton, Mathias Cormann and Tony Abbott, but he was also implicitly critical of Morrison. Turnbull attempted to inoculate himself from the political impact of his critique by declaring he was not in a position to be a “threat” to the prime minister because he was no longer in parliament.
Turnbull provided an analysis of the Wentworth byelection result that made it clear Morrison’s stumbles in the closing stages of the campaign were to blame for the Liberal party being unable to hold the seat. He also mused at one point Morrison had “dealt himself a very tough hand of cards, and now he has to play them – but he’s the prime minister, and he has to get on with it”.
Turnbull warned his former parliamentary colleagues not to veer to the right in a misguided attempt to “energise” the base. He noted the political debate in Australia was won and lost from the political centre, not from the extremes.
“Everyone has to vote, and political debate is won and lost in the centre,” he said. “And political parties that overlook that … are at a real risk of losing. You win in the centre.”
He said if the Liberal party was to succeed, it needed to be a broad church, and the broad church was being frayed, in part because of a toxic feedback loop created by the conservative commentators on Sky News, influencing the views of Liberal party branch members. “What we’re seeing is voters saying to the Liberal party, ‘you are not liberal enough’. Now, we should reflect on this, and the party I joined in 1973 has to reflect on this.”
Turnbull said the right had attempted to exert disproportionate influence, and held the broader party hostage. “What you’ve seen increasingly from the right, even if they’re not in the majority, they’ll say, ‘If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll blow the show up.’
“That is intimidating and that is bullying, and that was at the heart of the coup back in August. That is a real threat to the Liberal party”.
Turnbull faced a largely sympathetic audience in the ABC studio on Thursday night, but he did face some tough questions, including an invitation to explain how the move against him was different to his own move against Tony Abbott in 2015.
Turnbull contended his move against Abbott was different, because he had clearly articulated the reasons why he felt he could provide more effective leadership, and better economic management, while the plotters against his leadership had thus far declined to outline their reasons for the uprising against a government within striking distance of victory at the next election.
He was pressed on why he had not supported the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma, in Wentworth. Turnbull said he had endorsed Sharma’s candidacy during the preselection but remained out of the fray subsequently both for the candidate’s sake and his own.
“My judgment was that, given the circumstances, were I to be campaigning in or be particularly visible in any way in the Wentworth byelection, it would be unhelpful to David Sharma’s prospects,” he said.
“It also, frankly, would not have been very helpful for me maintaining
my own, ah, peace of mind, after an event like this – it’s very important to look after yourself and your family, and it was good and timely for us to step aside and step back at that time.”
One audience member declared he’d “blown” the prime ministership. Turnbull begged to differ, lauding the achievements of his government.
He fielded a question from the Atlassian founder, Mike CannonBrookes, about renewable energy. Turnbull said a 100% renewable electricity grid was “theoretically possible” and quipped that he might invest in a renewable energy project “on its merits, obviously”.
“I’m back in business,” he said. “I’m retired from politics.”
Turnbull said in closing that he was not bitter about his time in public office, and he said the Liberal party, for all its “faults and foibles”, offered the best prospect for continued, strong economic growth in Australia.
He predicted questions about his removal would linger until the next election. “I think those people who are responsible for taking a successful, competitive government and literally blowing it up need to have an explanation.
“But it’s not one that I can provide, because I cannot. I can’t give an explanation other than to say, as far as I could see, it was madness.
“But, clearly, that’s pretty inadequate.”
Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Jones on the ABC’s Q amp;A program. Turnbull sheeted home blame for the leadership implosion to Peter Dutton, Mathias Cormann and Tony Abbott. Photograph: ABC