How Malcolm lit the fuse
By Pamela Williams in The Australian is this two-part account of precisely what went on behind doors of the Turnbull spill. Unfortunately, this sordid carry on is politics in Australia today. Our political area has become a pit of slimy vipers bereft of morals and blatantly contemptuous of the electorate they are swore to faithfully serve. It is a controlling culture fished from the sewer by self-serving rats posing as political advisors. The electorate is sick of hearing about their nefarious dealings as they should be. However, it must be reported as a signal of the future if any quarter is given at the next general election—so don’t tune out—they would hope for that!
Part I | The first leadership spill turned out to be a fatally flawed captain’s call by Malcolm Turnbull.
The Liberal Party leadership gathered in Malcolm Turnbull’s office for a regular morning meeting amid an extraordinary week. It was Thursday, August 23, and the chilly Canberra morning — after an overnight low of minus 2C — presaged the brutal stabbing about to occur.
It had been a week from hell. The prime minister had abruptly spilled the leadership three days earlier to ambush his suspected challenger, Peter Dutton. Turnbull had won by a margin too close for safety, giving his enemies a beachhead. He was finished. The leadership putsch — and the burial rites — was all that remained to play out over four bitter days amid the fight over a new king.
Turnbull had lost control of his partyroom, a situation captured in a brusque WhatsApp message to the prime minister sent by Queensland backbencher Luke Howarth — even while shocked MPs were still gathered after the first spill vote on August 21.
Howarth had told his leader he should resign as he had not met his own “KPIs” — set in 2015 when Turnbull rolled then prime minister Tony Abbott, proclaiming 30 lost Newspolls as a central reason. “Now you’re nearly at 40,” Howarth told the prime minister.
Turnbull, Howarth said, should step down because he could not see the party uniting. Turnbull replied: “United is the key.”
The messages between Howarth and Turnbull were a toxic exchange, but it was clear that decencies were over. It was an incredible way to confront a prime minister but this was an unprecedented war. The two days afterwards became an all-in brawl between different wings of the party, with resignations, double-dealing and more plotting and chaos than most of the media could stay on top of.
But on August 23, three new foes came to pay their last respects to the prime minister. This was a delegation led by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, regarded by most as a model of rectitude, together with jobs minister Michaelia Cash and Communications and Arts Minister Mitch Fifield, three prominent members of Turnbull’s frontbench.
A staff member in the prime minister’s office knocked on his door just after 9am to say the group had arrived to see Turnbull. They were waiting in a nearby sitting room. Turnbull rose to leave the room, his leadership meeting still under way. Then treasurer Scott Morrison stood up too. “You need a witness,” he told Turnbull.
This was the denouement. Cormann, Fifield and Cash had arrived to give Turnbull not an ultimatum but a fatal knife wound. Cormann had been back and forth to see the prime minister during the past 24 hours; Turnbull had reasoned with him, desperately, to keep Cormann from abandoning him. He had bought extra time the day before when all three in the delegation had made a first visit to request a partyroom meeting. But now their support for the prime minister had expired.
Cormann had been a loyal supporter through Turnbull’s prime ministership; Cash had been a member of the team and had been bailed out of trouble more than once. Conservatives from the soft Right, Cash and Fifield had supported Abbott before switching to Turnbull in the 2015 coup. Had Turnbull reached for his Shakespeare, he might have uttered the words, ‘Et tu, Brute?’
Turnbull had tried to pull Cormann back by describing the right wing of the party — now his sworn enemy — as terrorists. But Turnbull had been down the path of destroying a Liberal prime minister in Abbott. The rotten entrails of that coup had infected every moment of his three years in the Lodge. Turnbull had confidently taken the microphone on Monday, September 14, 2015, to explain that he had that very afternoon challenged Abbott for the leadership. In a catastrophic moment of hubris, Turnbull had declared that among Abbott’s sins, he had lost 30 Newspolls in a row.
But many in the partyroom were stunned by Turnbull’s move. Even among his supporters there were detractors. Among his foes there was fury. He had consulted no one, he had made his own call, he had thrown his leadership on the fire
“It is clear that people have made up their minds about Mr Abbott’s leadership,” Turnbull had told the press.
As the years went by, Turnbull’s own losing Newspolls piled up. He passed 30, and suddenly by late August this year it was 38, hovering near 40.
But how had everything come crashing down so suddenly? It was not quite the ALP standard of regicide — with prime minister Kevin Rudd dispatched one evening in 2010. And it was not the tightly planned coup against Abbott, which had been hatched over months — driven by Turnbull’s determination and enabled by Abbott’s loss of support in the partyroom — notwithstanding the huge election victory he had delivered in 2013. Then, the plotters had met regularly in Turnbull’s Canberra apartment or the lounge room of then MP Peter Hendy. And the final victory followed the standard rule — a failed first strike six months earlier.
But Turnbull’s destruction had seemed to come out of nowhere — so far as the public knew.
It had been in fact a slow boil, with numerous grievances and battlefields confronting a government on a one-seat majority courtesy of the 2016 election. Notwithstanding the economic story, a sharp focus switched on to Turnbull at the start of this year. He had brawled with then deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce over the latter’s affair with a former staff member. The string of debacles over dual citizenship had hobbled everything until finally the last lot was timed for by-elections tagged Super Saturday. Turnbull, in a rash moment, had defined the by-election in Longman in Queensland as a test of leadership between himself and Bill Shorten.
The Opposition Leader won that test, opening a hornet’s nest for Turnbull as Queensland’s Liberal National Party came out gunning for the prime minister. The fight coincided with a battle against the Catholic schools sector and a war in the party over energy policy that would split the Liberals, as it had before, over renewable energy versus power prices. On these last two, Turnbull was moving to making deals and dumping major policies in a bid to head off schisms in the party — including the prospect of six MPs crossing the floor over the national energy guarantee. Turnbull had declared the 26 per cent Paris emissions reduction target to be non-negotiable — then reversed to announce he would proceed with regulation, not legislation. Although the NEG passed the partyroom, the leadership was in play, The Australian reported. On Saturday, August 18, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph signalled the opening shots of the showdown with stories of a gathering leadership challenge from Dutton, the Home Affairs Minister.
Michealia Cash, Mathias Cormann and Mitch Fifield announce their switch to the Dutton camp dealing a fatal blow to the Turnbull government.
The following day, a cabinet dinner at the Lodge was rescheduled to Parliament House to keep out prying eyes. A VIP flight was sent to pick up Dutton to ensure he made it. Turnbull was circling the wagons and he wanted the enemies inside as well. It was a bid for rapprochement, an attempt to repair the divide over energy policy.
It was deja vu. Once before Turnbull had lost the leadership over climate policy. Now, with the same threat hanging over him, he resolved to fight back.
The night before Monday, August 20, Turnbull decided to ambush the partyroom members he regarded as rats in the ranks. He would flush out Dutton and his cohorts.
An old friend and colleague of Morrison and Turnbull also had arrived in Canberra on Monday. Scott Briggs ran a private investment firm, but he had been Morrison’s campaign director and was still chairman of the treasurer’s electoral council in his seat of Cook. Briggs had been Turnbull’s campaign director in 2003 (when Turnbull was first preselected), and in 2004 and 2007. He had known Turnbull for 15 years, having worked for the prime minister’s private investment firm Turnbull Pillemer.
His role that week would be to act as a confidant to both men as well as working on strategies to push back Dutton. By Monday night, Briggs and MPs Alex Hawke and Steve Irons had started trying to speak to MPs they feared would support a spill orchestrated to oust Turnbull. They included Lucy Wicks and Ben Morton, a West Australian close to Morrison and a former state director of the party. They reported late that night to Turnbull that they feared Morton might support a spill. They pressed Turnbull by phone not to call a spill himself. It was a dangerous step and one from which there could be no turning back. Others close to Turnbull, including Hawke, Christopher Pyne and Craig Laundy, thought a spill could be avoided. But there had been worrying rumours that Howarth would call a spill himself. They expected Howarth to be the suicide bomber. But who could believe anything? The atmosphere was moving quickly from hot to steaming.
By Tuesday morning, Turnbull had made a decision. He had taken the view that his opponents were coming after him. He would rather stand on his feet than fall to his knees. He would shock everyone by spilling the leadership and put himself on the line. By 6.30am he had told his top staff members. He told foreign minister and deputy leader Julie Bishop just before 8.30am. Bishop said she would spill her position as well.
After the morning leadership meeting they walked to the partyroom. Turnbull told Laundy as well. He had a small but devoted phalanx as he entered the room. The rest of the partyroom — including Turnbull’s supporters — was in the dark.
It was 9am. Turnbull announced his intention without much delay. Howarth, suspected of carrying the bomb, had been planning to speak. He stood up in front of the room. “Can I say something?” he asked. Turnbull refused. With the leadership thrown open, Dutton announced he would stand, and before long the astonishing news emerged that after a leadership spill precipitated by the prime minister, Turnbull had been returned with a vote of 48-35 against Dutton.
But many in the partyroom were stunned by Turnbull’s move. Even among his supporters there were detractors. Among his foes there was fury. He had consulted no one, he had made his own call, he had thrown his leadership on the fire in such a way that it might be impossible to salvage. Many believed Turnbull was finished.
It might have seemed a healthy margin for Turnbull, but the size of Dutton’s vote sent a chill down the spine of every member of the party who could count. If Dutton could pull 35 votes in a snap ballot, what lay ahead?
Turnbull had set the clock ticking. Those closest to him feared the fight would intensify. Among Turnbull’s immediate backers, the view had solidified that all of the forces around Abbott had coalesced around Dutton. They would never be persuaded that Dutton could be his own man.
With the leadership thrown open, Dutton announced he would stand, and before long the astonishing news emerged that after a leadership spill precipitated by the prime minister, Turnbull had been returned with a vote of 48-35 against Dutton. Picture: AFP
News photos of Abbott looking as happy as he had in years only added to the psychodrama that the former leader was behind it all.
By the Tuesday night, a war room had built itself around Turnbull. It included education minister Simon Birmingham, a veteran of the 2015 overthrow of Abbott, and Pyne (who had moved in the shadows in the Abbott drama).
Dan Tehan and Frydenberg were back and forth, as well as Marise Payne and Anne Ruston. They knew the other side would come again for Turnbull. He was an open target now. Everyone on the Turnbull team had a story of someone in the Dutton camp asking in the previous weeks: “So, how do you think we’re going?” It was the giveaway canvassing sign.
Morrison was engaged too, and despite the rumours that would dog him — that he was quietly counting for himself in the early days — no evidence emerged that the then treasurer had shifted support from Turnbull.
On Tuesday, after the spill, numerous MPs’ offices became hubs in the anti-Dutton effort. In Hawke’s office the consensus was the Dutton backers had planned a strike for the Thursday.
Hawke drew up a document, just a piece of paper, where a group of MPs who came and went started jotting down theories of what the other side would do next. It was a threshold test — a mud map for what to do if you wanted a coup.
At the top were resignations, to be handed in slowly, in a planned order, with juniors jumping first; then rumours that more were coming; then background media briefings warning perhaps that Turnbull might call an election; then a final crescendo with a delegation of cabinet ministers to express concern to the prime minister; topped off with senior ministers announcing publicly they had never wanted anything to end this way.
They had not finished the document when the news flashed through that conservative Victorian MP Michael Sukkar had resigned as assistant minister to the treasurer. An hour or so later Concetta Fierravanti-Wells quit the ministry. The next morning it was Alan Tudge. The group around Turnbull had no doubt it was an organised strategy. On the Wednesday night, James McGrath quit. McGrath, a Queenslander, had long lost faith in the prime minister, yet he had virtually chaired Turnbull’s campaign to smash Abbott in 2015. Now he was on Dutton’s team.
Inside the Liberals’ war rooms
The full story of the coup to oust Malcolm Turnbull finally emerges.
The guests arrived, a handful dolled up but most appearing straight from work. One ageing former MP was in furs. But some looked as though they had just spent an hour with a psychopath, their faces fixed in a mask.
It was 7pm on Tuesday, August 21. Table lists were checked for a who’s who of Canberra. Which politician might sit with which lobbyist? Every seating plan was scrutinised for factional alliances. Who might show up, and who wouldn’t? Who was in Siberia? Were they counting numbers at the tables?
This was the Enid Lyons Gala Dinner at Old Parliament House to commemorate the Liberal Party’s first female MP. It was a joyful, civilised night while everything else in the Liberal universe was in chaos.
That morning, Malcolm Turnbull had spilled the Liberal leadership in a bid to flatten his enemies. The result had been victory for the prime minister, accompanied by the bitter codicil of a solid vote for Peter Dutton — the colleague Turnbull knew was stalking his leadership, now flushed out but with 35 votes behind him. A challenge had not been put down. It was out of bed and running.
The dinner could not compete with the gyrations back at Parliament House. The Monkey Pod group — a set of conservative MPs around Dutton, including deposed prime minister Tony Abbott — now had a clear shot at unseating Turnbull. They were named for the room in Parliament House where they met for a cheap Chinese lunch every Tuesday.
Within 48 hours the Monkey Pods would have an overhead projector hooked up to a laptop to run their spreadsheets on the numbers to fell Turnbull. Any pretence at secrecy was over. Amid their leaders was James McGrath, the Queensland senator who had defined his allegiances three years before, managing Turnbull’s campaign against Abbott. McGrath was on the other side now.
But another force was awakening, too, and within 24 hours the die would be cast on a third pillar to enter the theatre of war that would shake Canberra to its teeth.
Scott Morrison could see the writing on the wall. By Wednesday morning Morrison knew he had two paths ahead. One meant standing back; the other meant preparing to join the fight for power. Morrison, a one-time party state director in NSW, knew the political strategy manual. He canvassed his options. He could count his numbers, then hold back to give Turnbull space to make his own decisions. Turnbull was wounded. If he stayed put, Morrison’s numbers would remain in his pocket. If Turnbull were felled or quit, Morrison wanted to be ready to roll his own campaign for the prime ministership.
He would make a decision on Wednesday night.
At lunchtime on the Wednesday, Turnbull had received a visit from Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who had come to say he believed the prime minister had lost the support of the partyroom. Things had gotten out of hand; Turnbull’s momentum was gone. In Cormann’s judgment, Turnbull was finished.
Turnbull argued. He cited the constitutional issues now circling Dutton and fanned by Labor and the Turnbull camp that put question marks over the Home Affairs Minister’s stake in some childcare centres.
Turnbull would hold a press conference with Morrison and Cormann — both proclaiming their support, but with the Finance Minister wearing the look of a man facing the gallows.
Turnbull had publicly declared that the iron laws of arithmetic said he was the leader of the party. But the elastic laws of realpolitik were another equation altogether.
Cormann returned mid-afternoon with fellow ministers Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash — an immovable delegation that should have shown Turnbull finally that he was on the ropes. That night, Turnbull asked Cormann to return for another conversation, trying fruitlessly to turn the tables.
On Wednesday night the prime minister also turned to long-time ally Arthur Sinodinos, who had been at home in Sydney for a considerable time after a long illness. Sinodinos drove down the next morning. He would camp in Turnbull’s office in coming days, providing strategic advice and counselling.
Cormann, Cash and Fifield returned again on Thursday morning to advise Turnbull they would announce their decision to withdraw support and resign from cabinet within half an hour. This time they had brought the vial of poison. They would go public. It was all over. Turnbull tried and failed to reason yet again over the ramifications of the constitutional issues around Dutton, but it was like a whisper in a war zone. Morrison attended the meeting as a witness. After the three left, Morrison followed to attempt a final turnaround with Cormann. This failed too.
The short media appearance by the three brought uproar. They claimed heavy hearts, but they swung the axe hard. Turnbull should go, they said. Cormann declared Dutton to be the right person to lead the party to the next election.
NSW MP Alex Hawke’s mudmap, casually sketched out on a sheet of paper on Tuesday night to war-game how Turnbull’s foes might stage a coup, had unfolded like a pack of fortune-teller’s cards.
At 1pm on Thursday, Turnbull himself emerged to announce that a minority in the party was “supported by others outside”. This was taken to be a reference to commentators on Sky News and radio jocks from the majority Fairfax-owned 2GB stable, including Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. These “outsiders” had sought to bully and intimidate people into supporting a move against him, the prime minister said.
Turnbull had asked for and would await a letter with a majority of signatures — a petition said to be circulating already — and then would call a partyroom meeting.
On that Thursday morning, Turnbull had finally got his head around the fact that a successful new move to spill the leadership — coming at him like a freight train — would mean curtains for him. His prime ministership would be over.
But there would be comfort in Morrison or Julie Bishop, or both, standing; anyone but Dutton. However much Turnbull now despised Dutton, he was a totem — for Abbott. And Abbott could not be allowed victory.
From Wednesday night through Thursday and into the early hours, Morrison and his group were counting numbers. He would not challenge Turnbull — but he intended to be ready for a fight against Dutton if the prime minister pulled out.
The disaster of the week of August 21 had started really with the demise of Abbott in 2015 and the angry war in the party since. But early this year it had taken on a new shape in the form of Dutton — a potential challenger who had stood by Turnbull as a minister, until the ropes started to fray.
There was a souring in April when Dutton confirmed he had discussed cutting the rate of immigration — thus repudiating Turnbull’s claim to the contrary. In early July, the national energy guarantee, raised in cabinet, had cut many strands. On April 5 and 6, Dutton had warned that Australia was on track to a Shorten-led government; then, in answer to a question on radio, he said: “Of course I want to be prime minister. I think it’s best to be honest about that … if stars align and an opportunity comes up.”
It was hardly a Beethoven symphony for Turnbull.
But it was the Longman by-election that had brought everything undone. The Liberal vote crashed. Many excuses and much blame rained down: the LNP machine had underperformed, One Nation was now a safe retreat for angry Queenslanders, the LNP candidate was not good enough.
But in the end all that was remembered was Turnbull’s pledge that this was a contest of leadership at the top — between him and Bill Shorten. He had eyes only for the Opposition Leader.
As Dutton’s forces mustered support for a second leadership spill, a virtual war room formed swiftly around Morrison. Everyone was expecting another ballot as soon as a petition with enough names clobbered Turnbull. The cohort included MPs Stuart Robert, Hawke and Ben Morton, as well as Scott Briggs, the Morrison confidant and long-time party official who was also close to Turnbull. Briggs would become a go-between at times — trusted by both Morrison and Turnbull. They rang MPs through Wednesday afternoon, and then doubled down through Thursday and Thursday night. Morrison would not lose by leaving threads untended. Robert worked the corridors, in the patter of parliament. Christopher Pyne was constantly seen in and out of Morrison’s office.
Everyone wanted the fight over before MPs left Canberra for two weeks.
In Turnbull’s office, his personal private secretary, Sally Cray, together with Craig Laundy, ran numbers on a spreadsheet; they had an Excel document with all the names. Turnbull believed he had a firm handle on the numbers, and it was this thing that led him to label the whole thing madness.
What was becoming clear in the ranks of the moderates as well as the centre group around Morrison was that Bishop could pull significant votes. This had the potential to end in disaster in terms of the plan to block Dutton. What if Bishop lost a second ballot to Dutton? The risk for Morrison was that Bishop would split the vote.
For 24 hours the moderates considered what to do. Bishop was their preference. The counter-argument from Morrirson’s people was that he had both moderates and conservatives in his column — he could pull people in from Dutton’s side on the Right. Bishop, however, would not pull in the right-wingers.
These were crazy games built around a popular deputy — how to stop her winning. A plan was hatched to shift the moderates’ votes directly to Morrison. Rather than moderates backing Bishop, they would bypass her and support Morrison in a bid to overwhelm Dutton with the numbers.
Their plan would be exposed later when WhatsApp messaging among a group of about 20 moderates was leaked to the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy. The group of MPs — tagged Friends for Stability — included Paul Fletcher, Kelly O’Dwyer, Marise Payne, Sarah Henderson, Jane Prentice, Anne Ruston, Simon Birmingham, Trent Zimmerman, Christopher Pyne and Lucy Gichuhi. The message was sent not long before the final vote on Friday.
“Cormann rumoured to be putting some WA votes behind Julie Bishop in round 1,” Fletcher wrote. “Be aware that this is a ruse trying to get her ahead of Morrison so he drops out & his votes go to Dutton. Despite our hearts tugging us to Julie we need to vote for Scott in round one.”
“Someone should tell Julie,” a member of the group responded.
“I have,” Pyne replied.
But according to numerous MPs close to Bishop and Turnbull, Pyne had not mentioned to Bishop that she would be abandoned by the moderates. There were no conversations, they say, no text messages. She was left high and dry.
At 1.40pm on the Thursday, conservative MP Andrew Hastie sent a staffer down to Officeworks to buy an overhead projector and an HDMI cable. They would set up the laptop and the projector in the Monkey Pod room to build an Excel spreadsheet for the final rundown to the expected challenge on Friday. In the words of one MP, they needed to have a shared reality of where things stood, not a constant flow of rumour and promises.
Turnbull had said he would call a partyroom meeting once he received the constitutional advice on Dutton’s eligibility and a petition with sufficient signatures. They had to know just where the numbers were.
Everyone who was with Dutton converged on the Monkey Pod room. They had a base of 35; they needed another seven or eight, and they had 24 hours. But the petition was a critical tactic for Turnbull in this fight. He could hold out until he received it. It also functioned as a delaying tactic, giving Morrison more time to organise his numbers. If there was one thing Turnbull intended, it was to prevent Dutton winning.
On the Thursday night, Ben Morton indicated he would sign the petition. The intention now was to get the drama over before Friday night. On Friday morning, in his first ever doorstop, Morton said he had signed and would vote for Morrison.
All the Morrison group had stayed up late, talking, phoning and planning. Briggs had been talking to Turnbull. If Morrison was to come through, it was important that Turnbull not throw some additional diversions into the situation. “Don’t do anything,” he was advised by several close to him.
Later, photographs of Cormann and Dutton out at dinner on Thursday night seemed to seal the suspicion that things had slipped up in the Dutton camp; that they had let things get away from them — or had been overconfident about numbers.
The real momentum for Morrison came with an unexpected thud. Fifield, who had joined the delegation to Turnbull, switched to back Morrison.
The groundswell prompted by these revelations started to break things Morrison’s way.
When the petition finally came in — brought by Dutton — it was almost an anticlimax. But it was followed by a rush of blood. Everyone in politics was watching Sky. The anchors, led by presenter David Speers, were all glued to their phones. “It was like watching them in their own lounge room on the phone,” one MP said later.
Turnbull had photocopies of the petition made to be handed to the whips. He would drag this out and hold everything up to the light. There would be no secrets about who was consigning his prime ministership to its grave.
The whips were sent off to check each name. Groans flowed through the media.
But the chief whip, Nola Marino, living the crisis, returned to her office with its dark timber and divided the work between her fellow whips. The phone calls started. They called every mobile phone, everyone on the list. The verifications took about 20 minutes: “Did you sign the petition?” “Yes.” Hang up. Next call.
Marino phoned the prime minister’s office with the news. The petition for a spill had the numbers. Turnbull called a partyroom meeting for 12.30pm and the whip took part. A new election for prime minister was called; there were three candidates.
The whips had four small timber ballot boxes. The ballots were counted into piles of 10 and counted three times.
Bishop, with only 11 votes — deserted by the sisterhood and the moderates — immediately resigned as deputy leader.
Morrison had won. It would be a new world, at least for as long as it took to take the first official photos. Then began the grind of uniting a divided house.
Turnbull, devastated, would resign from his seat of Wentworth and leave the country. He had noted as he left that he believed former prime ministers should leave parliament.
But he had left the party with a by-election and a one-seat majority. Within days, he would be tweeting and phoning colleagues from New York, trying to push for Dutton to be referred to the High Court.
If it took a constitutional crisis on top of a by-election, then Turnbull was willing. He had been destroyed. And like his nemesis Abbott, he wasn’t prepared to forgive or forget.