The ‘mis­er­able ghost’ of past PM.

The Kelly out­break

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Paul Bon­giorno

A snapshot of where we are as a par­lia­men­tary democ­racy came last week­end at the G20 sum­mit in Ar­gentina. Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel, was caught check­ing who Scott Mor­ri­son was in the pot­ted bi­ogra­phies of world lead­ers as the new Aus­tralian prime minister sat be­side her for their “pull aside” chat. She was just as puz­zled as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump about the in­sta­bil­ity in Aus­tralian pol­i­tics that makes our gov­ern­ment lead­ers so dis­pos­able.

It was the Scot­tish poet Robert Burns who fa­mously prayed, “Oh would some Power the gift give us, to see our­selves as other see us”. That Power was ev­i­dently at work in Buenos Aires. Trump was more di­rect than Merkel – he sought an ex­pla­na­tion from Mor­ri­son on why Mal­colm Turn­bull was no longer the PM. Mor­ri­son later ad­mit­ted he “ran through what the events were”, of­fer­ing Trump an ex­pla­na­tion of our par­lia­men­tary party sys­tem. The in­di­ca­tions are, though, that he gave a bit more than that. It looks like it was a favourable gild­ing of Mor­ri­son’s lily at Turn­bull’s ex­pense.

The pres­i­dent, who in the for­mal hand­shake af­ter their brief meet­ing looked like he would rather be some­where else, said he knew Mor­ri­son had done “a fan­tas­tic job in a very short pe­riod of time”. He went on: “You’ve done a lot of the things that they wanted over there and that’s why you’re sit­ting right here. And so I con­grat­u­late you.”

If he was re­fer­ring to Mor­ri­son’s will­ing­ness to fol­low Wash­ing­ton’s ex­am­ple and move our em­bassy in Is­rael from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or whether he was aware that Mor­ri­son is closer to his think­ing on cli­mate change than Turn­bull, the pres­i­dent didn’t say. The prime minister ex­plained the re­mark more in terms of the close­ness of the re­la­tion­ship with the United States and mu­tual in­ter­ests in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.

Mor­ri­son pushed hard for the meet­ing with Trump and was squeezed in at the last minute when the pres­i­dent can­celled on Vladimir Putin. It is a moot point whether a glow­ing en­dorse­ment from this pres­i­dent car­ries as much weight in Aus­tralia as Mor­ri­son might hope. But keep­ing the al­liance in good re­pair is a bi­par­ti­san pro­ject. Mor­ri­son’s peo­ple say the meet­ing lasted 25 min­utes, the Amer­i­cans say 15 min­utes – ei­ther way, not a lot could have been dis­cussed once the PM gave the pres­i­dent a civics les­son on Aus­tralian gov­er­nance.

Mor­ri­son may have been in Buenos Aires but his fo­cus was squarely on events back home. He had his num­ber-cruncher, Spe­cial Minister of State Alex Hawke, lob­by­ing the New South Wales ex­ec­u­tive of the Liberal Party to save the pre­s­e­lec­tion of right-wing war­rior Craig Kelly.

What­ever as­sur­ance he gave Trump about the sta­bil­ity of his gov­ern­ment, Mor­ri­son was rat­tled by the de­fec­tion to the cross­bench of Vic­to­rian Liberal Ju­lia Banks. The prime minister de­nied the in­ter­ven­tion was in light of Kelly’s im­plied threats, made to sev­eral me­dia out­lets, to sim­i­larly quit the Lib­er­als if he was dis­endorsed. It is the most log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion, al­though some in the party sus­pect Mor­ri­son is far more sym­pa­thetic to Kelly’s cli­mate change scep­ti­cism and so­cial con­ser­vatism than he lets on.

Just as the ghost of Mal­colm Turn­bull hung over the G20, the dumped prime minister spec­tac­u­larly ma­te­ri­alised to thwart Mor­ri­son’s Kelly res­cue mis­sion. Over the week­end, he be­gan phon­ing ex­ec­u­tive mem­bers, urg­ing them not to re­ward Kelly for his treach­ery in play­ing a key role in Turn­bull’s demise. Kelly, a staunch ally of Tony Ab­bott’s, was a consistent critic of ev­ery at­tempt Turn­bull made to end the cli­mate wars. He used his fre­quent ap­pear­ances in the me­dia, par­tic­u­larly on Sky News, to at­tack Turn­bull’s agenda.

Turn­bull ob­vi­ously mis­judged a lead­ing mem­ber of the mod­er­ate fac­tion, NSW state minister Matt Kean, who gave a colour­ful ver­sion to The Aus­tralian of a phone con­ver­sa­tion he had with a fu­ri­ous for­mer prime minister. Kean said Turn­bull re­marked that Mor­ri­son was re­fus­ing to hold an elec­tion in March be­cause he wants to “keep his arse in C1 [the prime minister’s of­fi­cial car]”. Turn­bull does not deny it.

The for­mer PM’s view is that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should go to the peo­ple ahead of the

NSW state elec­tion, to give the Liberal gov­ern­ment a fight­ing chance. It’s a none-too-sub­tle as­sess­ment that the Can­berra Lib­er­als are a lost cause. Mean­while, Turn­bull’s fac­tional ally, NSW Premier Gla­dys Bere­jik­lian, is lead­ing “an ex­cel­lent gov­ern­ment” that, in his view, doesn’t de­serve to wear the op­pro­brium vot­ers have in store for Mor­ri­son.

Af­ter jour­nal­ists called him for com­ment,

Turn­bull took to Twit­ter on Sun­day night: “… rather than wait for their ver­sion of events to be pub­lished to­mor­row, I can state that I am strongly of the view that the nor­mal demo­cratic process should pro­ceed”. What should not be missed is the hypocrisy of the con­ser­va­tives on this. Led by Ab­bott, the con­ser­va­tives within the Lib­er­als have cam­paigned long and hard to make pre­s­e­lec­tions more demo­cratic at the lo­cal level, not less. Turn­bull fol­lowed up with an­other tweet say­ing ca­pit­u­lat­ing to Kelly’s re­ported threat “to bring down the gov­ern­ment” would be the “worst and weak­est re­sponse to such a threat”.

The next morn­ing, Turn­bull gave an ex­tended in­ter­view to Fran Kelly on RN Break­fast. She put it to him that he had bro­ken his prom­ise not to be a “mis­er­able ghost”. His re­ply spelt big trou­ble for Mor­ri­son and the gov­ern­ment right up to elec­tion day, when­ever that may be. Turn­bull said that un­like Ab­bott and Kevin Rudd, who both stayed in par­lia­ment “and did ev­ery­thing they could to over­throw their suc­ces­sor”, he has quit par­lia­ment and is “not even el­i­gi­ble” to be a threat to Mor­ri­son. But as a cit­i­zen and a mem­ber of the Liberal Party he is “en­ti­tled to ex­press his views” and he will.

Turn­bull re­jected claims that he is re­spon­si­ble for the gov­ern­ment’s cur­rent woes “as ab­surd”. The peo­ple who should take re­spon­si­bil­ity, to his mind, are those who re­moved him as prime minister. And he never tires of nam­ing them – Peter Dut­ton, Greg Hunt, Mathias Cor­mann and other cab­i­net min­is­ters.

If Mor­ri­son thought sav­ing Craig Kelly would calm the ship of state it was an­other mis­cal­cu­la­tion.

The move only sparked more in­ter­nal blood­let­ting with an­other Turn­bull ally, Sally Betts, at­tack­ing her fac­tional lead­ers – fed­eral MP Trent Zim­mer­man and Matt Kean – for “ca­pit­u­lat­ing to con­ser­va­tives”.

In an email leaked to The Syd­ney Morn­ing

Her­ald, Betts said “you sup­ported Kelly – a thug, a bully and a dis­grace and you need to ex­plain that to the mod­er­ates”. She re­jected Zim­mer­man’s ex­pla­na­tion that once Turn­bull’s ac­tiv­i­ties be­came pub­lic he had no choice but to save Mor­ri­son from an em­bar­rass­ing de­feat by sup­port­ing the cur­rent prime minister rather than the for­mer.

Zim­mer­man’s ex­pla­na­tion is an ex­am­ple of the mod­er­ates not be­ing pre­pared to blow up the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment – a stark con­trast to the un­com­pro­mis­ing at­ti­tude of Ab­bott, Kelly and a few oth­ers on the right. Turn­bull twice this week said a “small ca­bal” of con­ser­va­tives held his gov­ern­ment to ran­som and even­tu­ally de­stroyed it.

But many Lib­er­als fear the ex-prime minister is now hell-bent on re­turn­ing the com­pli­ment by do­ing ev­ery­thing in his power to see the gov­ern­ment he once led de­feated. Turn­bull be­lieves he was fool­ishly and un­fairly re­jected and his for­mer col­leagues de­serve to bear the con­se­quences. One Liberal says Turn­bull’s call that Mor­ri­son go­ing to the peo­ple sooner rather than later is the party’s best op­tion is disin­gen­u­ous. “It’s like a turkey call­ing for an early Christ­mas,” he said.

On Tues­day, Turn­bull was a star at­trac­tion at a Smart En­ergy Sum­mit in Syd­ney. He did not miss the gov­ern­ment. He claimed that there are “a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of [Liberal] mem­bers who do not be­lieve in cli­mate change” and they are de­mand­ing Aus­tralia quit the Paris emis­sion re­duc­tion agree­ment. He lamented what he called the de­rail­ing of en­ergy pol­icy by “ide­ol­ogy and id­iocy”.

Turn­bull’s in­ter­ven­tions make Rudd look like a pos­i­tively re­strained saint when he un­der­mined Ju­lia Gil­lard – at least ac­cord­ing to the wry ob­ser­va­tion of one La­bor front­bencher. There’s no doubt these in­ter­ven­tions are un­help­ful. But they are dam­ag­ing to Mor­ri­son pre­cisely be­cause they so ac­cu­rately sum up the re­al­ity feed­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion that the Lib­er­als and the Na­tion­als are half-hearted about ad­dress­ing cli­mate change. Here, as in so much of Turn­bull’s thwarted agenda, he is more in line with main­stream sen­ti­ment than his erst­while col­leagues. It’s a sit­u­a­tion that might­ily ben­e­fits La­bor.

At least on one is­sue Mor­ri­son had fi­nally got the mes­sage that the pub­lic was fed up with the re­volv­ing door of prime min­is­ters. On Tues­day night, with half an hour’s no­tice to the party room, he ditched his own ear­lier re­jec­tion of the need for the lead­er­ship re­forms La­bor in­tro­duced six years ago. Now it will take twothirds of the Liberal Party room to sack a prime minister who has led the party to an elec­tion win.

La­bor’s Tanya Plibersek scoffed at the idea the re­think will de­liver sta­bil­ity to the gov­ern­ment this side of the elec­tion. On the con­tin­u­ing ev­i­dence, it is hard to

• dis­agree.


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

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