Politics

The view from Billinudgel

Lost leaders
Turnbull’s tome is the latest showing of a Liberal PM turned apostate

© Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Well, that was A Bigger Picture: bigger than Charlton Heston presented in CinemaScope.

The Turnbull tome, a doorstopper if there were any unlocked doors to be stopped, has clunked its way through every media outlet in the country with revelations of treachery, betrayal and all-round skullduggery. The response has been a chorus of shock and horror, delighted or appalled according to which side you are on.

And it has even been promoted as a party stopper, in that some zealots in the Liberal Party want their former prime minister expelled for disloyalty. Calmer critics contend that he might as well pull the pin himself since he obviously has little in common with his more conservative colleagues.

There is a certain amount of sense in this, but it should hardly come as a surprise – such a fallout would not be unprecedented. In fact, there are more former Liberal prime ministers who have walked away from the organisation than have stuck with it.

Even the founding father, the sainted doyen Robert Menzies, was reported to have been mightily disillusioned with his successors and to have voted at least once with the right-wing Labor splinter group, the DLP, rather than endorse the anointed Liberal leader.

Harold Holt – who anticipated being rolled in the party room by going under the waves – did not have to make the choice, but if John Gorton had knifed him then (which was the developing scenario) he may well have followed his patron and mentor in a similar course. 

When Gorton was thrown out in favour of Billy McMahon, he did not hesitate to reject the latter in spectacular style. McMahon, having been dumped by the electorate, remained solid – well, as solid as he ever was. And Malcolm Fraser, having finally reached the top of the greasy pole, jumped energetically off after John Howard’s ascension.

Howard, as far as we know, keeps his name in the media through being a loyal party elder, although he was said to have had serious reservations after Tony Abbott appeared in the Lodge. Abbott has concentrated on defending his own dubious legacy while white-anting Malcolm Turnbull, who has now been pronounced as anathema.

So, eight modern Liberal PMs: one prematurely deceased, three (possibly) in the roles of faithful old boys and four definite apostates. Not much of a record of loyalty over the past 70 years. It says more about the party of “strong and stable” conservative government than all the 699 pages of diatribe Turnbull has unleashed on the world.

And while the critics piously deplore Turnbull breaking confidences to secure his version of history, there is a sweet serendipity in their delight at the total lack of ethics shown in breaking the publisher’s embargo, through the prime minister’s own office, no less. One Nico Louw, a Morrison staffer, has acknowledged his role in unprincipled piracy, having apologised to Turnbull and reached a financial settlement.

But it appears Louw’s career will not suffer; the political apparatchiks that infest ministers’ offices never do. Their unaccountability is precisely what makes them valuable to their unscrupulous masters.  Power without responsibility – the harlot’s prerogative. And perhaps that is the real lesson of A Bigger Picture.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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