The Saturday Paper

Lead­er­ship spill af­ter­shocks.

- Paul Bon­giorno

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 gov­er­nor­gen­eral 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.”

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.

 ??  ?? PAUL BON­GIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Pa­per and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’sRN Break­fast.
PAUL BON­GIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Pa­per and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’sRN Break­fast.

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