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The war on Malcolm
On the evening of Monday, August 20, 2018, it was 7 degrees in Canberra, with only passing clouds and no frost. Civil twilight had ended at 6pm, and if at that moment Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s 29th prime minister, had gazed out from a high window, the horizon would have been clearly defined, the brightest stars already visible. Parliament House itself, its strong angular architecture embedded in a hilltop, glowed against the evening sky, a picture of permanence and stability.
Inside, there was mayhem. Turnbull, with his wife, Lucy, senior staffers and a tiny handful of MPs, trusted allies, had struggled all weekend with a momentous choice. Around Turnbull, newspaper stories, TV and cable news, radio shock jocks and online speculation raged about his leadership.
Late on Monday, telling only his closest office staff and Lucy, Turnbull resolved to vacate his position as leader of the Liberal Party the next morning – to confront his opponents in a shock challenge. It would be a circuit-breaker; it could bring breathing space or victory. This was a decision the prime minister would hold close until the moment came, seeking to win with the element of surprise.
It was like the flick of a switch, and yet it had been a journey of months, if not years, one fraught with broken glass over policy and ideology, and powered by vengeances stretching back to the last king deposed.
Four days later, as Turnbull shed the prime minister’s robes forever, he would rage with fury against the “madness”, targeting “insurgents” inside his government: Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott and their conservative clique. This insurgency, Turnbull declared, had been backed by powerful voices in the media dedicated to bringing down his prime ministership.
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Eighteen months earlier, on January 31, 2017 – a warm sunny afternoon in Sydney – Tony Abbott had arrived at the gates of Le Manoir on Victoria Road, the Bellevue Hill mansion of Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch. Abbott and Lachlan were friendly, catching up a couple of times a year. This would be a relaxed evening barbecue, and Lachlan’s other guests included his father, Rupert Murdoch, with his wife, Jerry Hall.
Just 10 days had elapsed since Malcolm Turnbull had hosted the Murdochs at his own party – the official prime minister’s drinks for the business community, at Kirribilli House on January 21, 2017. Rupert, the then 85-year-old News Corp titan, arrived looking modern in a blue linen suit, with Hall on his arm in a slim red dress, Roger Vivier ballet flats and Ray-Bans. If Turnbull had felt triumphant at Kirribilli, gliding among his guests, he would have been shaken to know that Abbott would be at a private Murdoch party less than a fortnight later.
Suspected ties between Abbott and the Murdochs – who controlled influential broadsheets, noisy tabloids and a cable TV channel, Sky News, which sparked nightly with conservative opinion – would feed conspiracy theories inextricably tangled in Turnbull’s destiny.
Turnbull had torn down Abbott as prime minister on September 14, 2015. The day had left Abbott devastated, and while he promised no wrecking or undermining, those promises soon seemed like torn netting, the water flowing through. Abbott swore in the years to follow that he was not angling to return, but few believed him. He remained prepared; he sought to be the north star of the conservatives in the party, defending the wellspring, and planting seeds that would ultimately help bring down Turnbull.
Had Turnbull known in 2017 that Abbott was warmly welcome at the Murdochs’ table, he might have been forgiven some paranoia. It would be Murdoch and his son Lachlan, co-chairman of News Corp, whom Turnbull would eventually accuse in 2018, singling them out for culpability in his own fall.
The weekend of August 18 and 19, 2018, had been in the calendars for months in Canberra, for the National Party’s annual conference at the Hyatt Hotel near Lake Burley Griffin. Also in the schedule was an opening drinks session for the Friday night, August 17. Prime Minister Turnbull was down to give a short speech and, given the war over energy policy in the government, there was considerable anticipation.
As guests started arriving, there was a hum in the room, and also some consternation. A string of news stories had buzzed online moments before. They were reports of big changes to the National Energy Guarantee (known as the NEG), Turnbull’s contentious signature policy, with its emissions reduction target of 26 per cent by 2030 tied to the Paris climate-change agreement.
David Crowe had reported in The Sydney Morning Herald at 5.48pm that Turnbull had made the changes to contain a backbench revolt that threatened his leadership. At 6pm, The Australian Financial Review’s Phillip Coorey was not far behind. “Amid rising internal chatter about a challenge by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton … Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his senior ministers agreed to dump plans to legislate the emissions reduction target associated with the NEG,” Coorey wrote.
These news reports said Turnbull had rewritten the policy that day, removing the promise to legislate the targets and replacing it with ministerial regulation. There was also a story online by the conservative Sky News presenter and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, reporting bluntly that Turnbull had ditched the Paris targets under pressure. Above the story was the headline “Turnbull panics. It’s over”. It was timestamped Friday, 6.28pm.
As the attendees arrived at the drinks, some MPs greeted each other with the astonishing words that Paris had been dumped. It was hard to believe. It was not correct, as it turned out – but switching legislation for regulation would soon become the locus for renewed dissent as conservatives realised the ALP could now increase the targets “with the stroke of a pen” in a change of government.
Turnbull, when he arrived, showed little sign of the arduous battle that day to keep party rebels onside and to reshape the policy. He explained to the room in detail his new plan for regulating targets and the checking mechanism that would underpin ministerial orders. It was the first many in the room had heard of the changes. This had not been through cabinet; some noted that senior members of Turnbull’s government – the Nationals leader Michael McCormack and deputy leader Bridget McKenzie – were probably hearing it for the first time too.
The NEG had been twice through the party room, but energy policy was not just any policy – it had become the burning stake around which different factions and ideologies massed. It was a proxy for the debate over climate change, a debate that had nearly split the party once before. It had taken down Turnbull himself in his first incarnation as leader in 2009.
Now, rebel MPs were threatening to cross the floor again. Before a partyroom meeting earlier in the week, on Tuesday, August 14, Western Australian backbencher Andrew Hastie had told Turnbull that he wanted to speak. During the meeting, Turnbull went around and around calling on others, but not Hastie. Frustrated, Hastie finally stood up anyway and said he would cross the floor.
But it was another meeting the previous night, also on the NEG, that captured the deep venom between foes. As Turnbull briefed MPs he was interrupted by Abbott. The moment was freighted with all of the tension and bad blood of past years. “If you’ll just have the courtesy to let me finish my sentence,” Turnbull said reprovingly. “If you’d just had the courtesy of letting me finish my term,” Abbott responded. This was not just about energy policy. There was no hiding now: Abbott was emboldened. And he had unfinished business.
Seven or eight vocal and conservative opponents had lined up against the NEG, including Abbott, Hastie, Eric Abetz, George Christensen and Craig Kelly. Some had made it clear they reserved their right to cross the floor unless price guarantees were added or the Paris target scrapped.
In the end, the policy was endorsed in the party room by a strong majority. But soon there was a new drama brewing. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg had sent full drafts of the NEG legislation to the states as part of a process seeking their sign-on. It had taken a millisecond for the media to discover that the ALP had the legislation – courtesy of Labor states – prompting disbelief amid Coalition backbenchers who themselves had only seen a summary.
Turnbull tried to negotiate with the rebels on Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16. Then suddenly, amid growing chatter about leadership challenges, Turnbull, Frydenberg and Treasurer Scott Morrison had changed course altogether, switching legislation for regulation.
On Thursday, August 16, another meeting had taken place, well away from prying eyes and the political maelstrom. This was a meeting that nevertheless would become entwined with the Canberra story. Many of the details would remain under wraps – including who was there – until weeks after Turnbull’s fall.
Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch had arrived in Australia from the US the week before to attend a News Corp awards ceremony. Kerry Stokes, proprietor of The West Australian newspaper, had contacted the Murdochs, asking for a meeting. He was a ruthless player, a long-time media combatant who had subsequently made peace with the Murdochs, and who was also friendly with Turnbull.
Stokes arrived at News Corp’s Holt Street headquarters, where he was ushered to Lachlan Murdoch’s fifth-floor office. There were just the three men in the room from 11.30am until midday. They spent much of this short meeting commiserating about the media business, but the talk turned to politics, to the febrile atmosphere in Canberra, the leadership headlines and Turnbull’s wrestling with angry rebels.
What was said or not said in the meeting would later become highly contested when media reports a month later purported to quote verbatim some of the conversation between Stokes and Rupert Murdoch. Even so, the date and location of the meeting and the fact that Lachlan Murdoch was also in the room remained unknown until now.
The day after the August 16 meeting between the Murdochs and Stokes, Malcolm Turnbull’s office called Lachlan Murdoch’s assistant, requesting a meeting with Rupert. Turnbull’s chief of staff, Clive Mathieson, also phoned News Corp executive Campbell Reid for help setting up a meeting between Turnbull and Murdoch. This was an urgent request. But it would prove impossible to find a date for a face-to-face meeting, and eventually a phone call was scheduled. It would not take place for another five days.
The relationship between Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull had soured publicly in April after Dutton confirmed to journalists that he had discussed cutting the immigration rate, something Turnbull had denied. In April, too, Dutton had warned that Australia was on track for a Labor government. He had mused provocatively to The Guardian following a question about leadership. “Of course I want to be prime minister,” he said. “I think it’s best to be honest … if stars align and an opportunity comes up.”
Dutton might have had invisible polling numbers, but the general chatter – in the bitchy way of Canberra – had sharpened over the months. It was accompanied now by the drumbeat of media revelations that something was on.
On Thursday, August 16, Dutton had given an interview to 2GB radio presenter Ray Hadley. Tempted into an answer about handling policy he disagreed with, Dutton said he gave frank advice to the prime minister on such matters – but that he was a loyal member of the team.
With only a one-seat majority since the 2016 election, there were many strains on the government. It was embroiled in a sapping war with the Catholic education sector, and the fight over renewable energy was taking off again. Turnbull had fought bitterly and publicly with the Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce over the latter’s affair with a former staffer. Scandals over dual citizens had saddled the nation with a string of by-elections, and in one of these Turnbull had made a serious error.
Ahead of the Longman by-election in Queensland, Turnbull had declared confidently that this was to be a test of leadership between himself and Labor’s Bill Shorten. He was attempting to put a spotlight on leadership tensions on the other side. But given there was a seat to be won or lost, with Queenslanders notoriously hostile to moderates like Turnbull, it was a political calculation befitting a novice. Not only did a jubilant Shorten win the contest with a solid ALP victory in Longman but Labor also pulled off a string of victories in the other Super Saturday by-elections.
Turnbull was surrounded by trouble, some of it his own making and some coming from a boiling division of the party: Queensland. Behind the scenes, Turnbull’s office would share the blame around over Longman: the Liberal National Party hadn’t raised money, the candidate was wrong. But the damage wrought by Turnbull’s vanity had derailed him in larger ways.
On Friday, August 17, phone calls started to zip between the prime minister’s office and key faction leaders. The rising heat over the NEG and the endless newspaper speculation suggested there were more leadership woes to come, specifically the potential for a spill.
Dutton was already cautiously sounding out backbenchers about the state of the party. To any veteran, that meant something was on. As a member of Turnbull’s Praetorian Guard, Dutton was regarded by backbenchers as having influence. People went to him with complaints. This built relationships, bringing Dutton support.
Later, some MPs wondered whether they had been unprepared because this was a palace coup breaking in Queensland rather than in New South Wales, or even in Canberra. It was not swamping the party room.
It was, however, swamping the media.
On Friday, August 17, a page one story in The Daily Telegraph by Sharri Markson reported: “Conservative Coalition MPs urging Peter Dutton to replace Malcolm Turnbull ‘within weeks’”. The Coorey and Crowe articles arrived that evening, complete with leadership talk.
2GB’s Ray Hadley publicly predicted a spill within two weeks. He was close to Dutton, a fact that gave such pronouncements the patina of inside knowledge.
On Saturday, August 18, the morning after Turnbull’s Hyatt address to the Nationals, Sharri Markson had another front page, with “Dutton ready to roll”. Astonishingly, she reported that Dutton was readying for a challenge. There was no Dutton rebuttal. If there was a story that finally turned on the lights for Turnbull, this was it.
Any hope that Turnbull could get the fire under control was gone. That morning, after substantial pressure from Turnbull to publicly recant or at least distance himself from Markson’s story, Dutton issued a kind of show tweet: “In relation to media stories today, just to make very clear, the Prime Minister has my support and I support the policies of the Government.”
In the parallel universe of leadership challenges, the players were taking up their positions, starting with a bracing declaration of loyalty from a challenger preparing to attack the king. Over the weekend, Dutton tested support with various colleagues. His campaign was rising to the surface.
On Sunday, Turnbull moved a cabinet dinner originally planned for The Lodge to Parliament House, hoping to avoid watchful media eyes. A VIP flight was dispatched to pick up Dutton in Brisbane to ensure he made it.
On Monday, August 20, MPs arrived for work to the sound and fury of more headlines. The Daily Telegraph had Turnbull in crisis mode, trying to hold off Dutton. The Sydney Morning Herald had Peter Hartcher and David Crowe with a new horror poll and “Voter support collapses as Peter Dutton leans towards challenging Malcolm Turnbull”. Unlike The Daily Telegraph and The Australian, which some in the government liked to dismiss as “the Murdoch papers”, The Sydney Morning Herald was a Fairfax newspaper, and Turnbull discovered it could hit hard too.
Turnbull had spent the weekend trying to work out how to handle the rolling mess – whether he should call on a leadership spill to flush out the enemy. Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, the moderates’ leader, and Treasurer Scott Morrison were both opposed to such a risky course of action. It was opening the door without knowing what lay on the other side.
Small Business Minister Craig Laundy, a trusted friend, was never far from Turnbull’s orbit. The member for Reid, Laundy hailed from a wealthy hotels family. He was a relative political cleanskin after five years in parliament, but he would be a leading player in the Turnbull defence.
On that Monday, Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg announced that the NEG had been shelved indefinitely due to opposition in the party. Conservatives were jubilant, but many Turnbull supporters thought he should have kept going and called out the rebels, in particular Abbott.
Scott Briggs, another Turnbull ally, drove down from Sydney to Canberra that day. Morrison had phoned Briggs and told him Turnbull was going to need them. Both Turnbull and Morrison were close with Briggs and trusted him. Briggs ran a private investment firm, and he had known Turnbull for 15 years. He had been Turnbull’s campaign director, helping him across the threshold in 2004 and again in 2007. He had also been Morrison’s electorate campaign manager, and was still chairman of the federal electorate council in his seat of Cook.
Some of Morrison’s clique had spoken to backbenchers like Ben Morton and Lucy Wicks. Morton was already making it clear that if something “happened” he wasn’t backing Turnbull. Turnbull was told that Morton – a former WA state Liberal Party director known for his straight talk – would likely support any spill that came up the next day in the party room. Turnbull was urged not to call a spill himself. If he did, he could never turn back.
But Turnbull had decided he wanted to fight on his feet.
Earlier that day, some salient new information had jolted everyone. A tweet had spread the news that Peter Dutton had booked the Monkey Pod room beside his office for the next day between 10am and 2pm, and again between 2.30pm and 3pm and 3.30pm and 4pm.
The Monkey Pod room, named for its tropical timber table, was a regular haunt of the conservatives who met there on Tuesdays for a cheap Chinese lunch; another branch of the conservatives sometimes held meetings at night; sometimes it was just the Queenslanders. Dutton’s bookings were for more than a lunchbreak.
Late on Monday night, Turnbull heard from Laundy, who had been out to dinner with a group of MPs. Among them was Queensland backbencher Luke Howarth, whose seat of Petrie was on a knife edge – and who was close to Dutton, in the neighbouring seat of Dickson. Howarth’s firebrand talk in the restaurant, about losing his seat with Turnbull as prime minister, shocked Laundy; Howarth seemed to be lining up to confront Turnbull the next day.
Turnbull interrupted Howarth’s plans.
On Tuesday morning, August 21, Turnbull told his top staffers that he intended to spill his position. Just before 8.30am, he told the foreign minister and Liberal Party deputy leader, Julie Bishop. She said she would spill her own position too. Turnbull also told Laundy. Everyone else was in the dark. He did not tell Scott Morrison.
At 9am Turnbull gave a short preamble in the party room, citing the government’s improved polling. Then suddenly he announced his intention to vacate the leadership. At 9.05 news of the spill was out in text messages.
Luke Howarth stood up and asked to speak. Turnbull refused. Peter Dutton announced he would stand for leader. To say MPs and colleagues were stunned was an understatement. Some later described themselves as thunderstruck. People felt ambushed.
At 9.30am the result was declared. The vote of 48–35 in favour of Turnbull sent a shiver through the party room. How did Dutton get to 35 votes out of a clear blue sky? Turnbull was probably finished one way or another.
The snap spill by Turnbull, with no gathering of his leadership group, nor party henchmen, had shocked the finance minister, Mathias Cormann. The WA senator was one of Turnbull’s closest supporters from the conservative wing. When the vote was over, Cormann had leaned past Attorney-General Christian Porter to Andrew Hastie and whispered, “This is madness.”
Dutton immediately resigned from cabinet and moved to the backbench. Notwithstanding an attempt by Cormann later in the day to broker some kind of peace with Turnbull, Dutton had crossed the Rubicon.
Afterwards, but while they were all still gathered, Howarth sent Turnbull a message. Howarth told Turnbull he should resign as he had not met his own “KPIs”. It harked back to Turnbull’s own axing of Abbott, when he had announced a key reason for that putsch: under Abbott the party had lost 30 straight Newspolls. “Now you’re nearly at 40,” Howarth wrote, adding, “I can’t see this being unified and I wish it could be.”
Turnbull replied: “United is the key.”
By 1.20pm Dutton was facing the cameras outside and announcing that he believed he was the best person to lead the Liberal Party to the next election. By mid afternoon, Dutton was giving a sit-down interview to Sky News, complete with a flag in the background.
Had Turnbull not spilled his own leadership – without so much as a solid push from anyone in the party room – he might have survived. Before that first spill, those who could count estimated the numbers for Dutton had been at best in the mid 20s. But Turnbull throwing open his job gave his critics, and those harbouring doubts, a chance to offer a critique.
“Malcolm made a final and fatal mistake,” one senior Turnbull supporter said later. “Voting to spill the leadership is a big, big consideration. And he did not discuss this with anyone. He just did it. He vacated the leadership and allowed an open vote. If he had required a spill or vote of no-confidence to be called by challengers, Turnbull would have held the room. But no one was forced to do that; instead he just gave up the leadership.”
Turnbull may have caught his enemies by surprise, but his victory was not large enough. It was all too clear there would be a second ballot.
As he battened down in the aftermath, Turnbull narrowed his war room. He did not have loyal troops in the corridors with arm-twisting machinery and captains with names like “Graham Richardson”.
It would be mainly Lucy Turnbull, Craig Laundy, and Turnbull’s principal private secretary, Sally Cray – a loyalist not noted for the Machiavellian charm-and-sting tactics innate to politics. Some described Cray as better with a hammer than a knife. Turnbull’s other key senior staffers, adviser David Bold and chief of staff Clive Mathieson, had been assessed by many as too decent to assume the muscle of feared assassins in a leadership war. Cray and Laundy would run the numbers for the next week, keeping spreadsheets that proved close to the mark.
With a prime minister under siege, there was no shortage of people offering to help count and deliver useful intelligence gleaned from the “other side”. But Turnbull did not bring in the moderates as an overwhelming force; Education Minister Simon Birmingham and backbencher Trent Zimmerman would join the war room, but these were not men made for wire across the throat.
Of them all, Christopher Pyne – a young reed in the first Howard government but now an elder – was the classic master of the dark arts. For all his urbane presentation and sharp wit, Pyne was a man with a long history of walking through glass without leaving a trace of the shards. He would come and go constantly from Turnbull’s office as the moderates mobilised, but he also had business elsewhere.
From Tuesday into Wednesday, those gathering and re-forming around Turnbull included Pyne, Morrison, Laundy, Birmingham, Anne Ruston, Minister for Urban Infrastructure Paul Fletcher, Defence Minister Marise Payne and Julie Bishop, as well as Victorians Josh Frydenberg and Social Services Minister Dan Tehan.
Very early on Wednesday, August 22, the day after the spill, Luke Howarth sent another message, this time to Bishop, who had been returned as deputy leader. Howarth urged her that Turnbull needed to resign as leader immediately, and that both Turnbull and Abbott should retire at the next election; the party should get behind Dutton now.
After the spill on Tuesday, Scott Morrison’s core supporters created a WhatsApp group that tagged itself The Project (namely, stopping another spill). Morrison, Alex Hawke, Steve Irons, Stuart Robert and Scott Briggs were members. They added Ben Morton and Lucy Wicks late on Wednesday.
On the Tuesday night a few MPs had begun to coalesce around Alex Hawke’s office, some just coming and going, such as Kelly O’Dwyer and Tony Smith; others, Morrison men like Stuart Robert, were settling in.
Hawke started drawing up a document trying to war-game the other side. What would they do and how would the next stage unfold? How would you run a coup? It was a “what if?” document.
With input from different quarters it took shape. They expected resignations would come in slowly in a particular order: the juniors would quit first, with rumours of more to come; there could be media briefings around things like Turnbull possibly calling an election; then a crescendo, with a delegation of senior ministers to the prime minister to express their concerns, and, finally, senior ministers resigning while declaring they never wanted this to happen.
Suddenly, even as they were sitting pondering the moves to anticipate, news arrived that Michael Sukkar, minister assisting the treasurer, had resigned. Not long afterwards, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells quit. The assistant minister to the prime minister, James McGrath, followed. The next morning, Alan Tudge’s name was added to the list. Turnbull, however, accepted only the resignation of Fierravanti-Wells.
News reports continuing over the next 24 hours named Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, among others, as offering to resign. Turnbull, in an inspired return volley, rebuffed them. Upending resignations bought Turnbull time.
Some pledged loyalty again to Turnbull; later they would vote against him. It was like a soap opera of infidelity.
In his office, Morrison made it clear that he would not run against Turnbull. No matter what happened, if Turnbull was in the game, if Turnbull was staying, running, holding on, then Morrison was not running. It did not stop his team from continuing to take the temperature, lest things moved fast.
On Tuesday night, in a bookend to a day that could only be regarded as crazy, the party faithful, and most particularly the party women, gathered at Old Parliament House. After considerable preparation and months of planning, this was the Enid Lyons Gala Dinner to commemorate the nation’s first female member of parliament.
But the Liberal pantheon was in uproar. People were shell-shocked after the events of the day; most were in suits and work clothes. Bronwyn Bishop was in fur and velvet, like a curio from another time. There would be canapés, salmon and chicken, with re-enactments of Lyons, and several speeches, including one from Julie Bishop. Beneath the celebrations, it was a tense night as people watched their phones.
Michael Photios, the lobbyist and factional muscleman for the NSW moderates, bumped into Ben Morton during the evening. Morton told Photios he believed Turnbull’s leadership was over and the only person who could unite the party was Morrison.
Morrison’s group soon had information about the sharp build-up of machinery around Dutton. Whether what they heard was true was another matter altogether. The events of the week would reveal a level of sophistry, double-dealing and plain lying that made information from all quarters as slippery as wet soap.
There were two layers for Dutton, they heard. There was a top tier to round up numbers; this level included Queenslander and one-time Turnbull numbers man James McGrath, and Victorian factional player Michael Sukkar.
There was a second tier that included cabinet ministers and outer ministers such as Alan Tudge and Angus Taylor. The second tier would have clean hands until they declared themselves in a rush halfway through the week.
The organisers this time were the younger ones: MPs such as Sukkar, ACT senator Zed Seselja and Hastie. Sukkar in particular was flexing his muscle. The trio’s prominent roles signalled they had decided the older warriors of the right – the triple-As of Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews – were not up to it anymore. The younger set had been empowered by success in backing conservative-aligned Teena McQueen as a female vice president on the federal executive, rolling the moderate Trish Worth.
Running the campaign themselves, they would usurp the triple-As. Abbott might urge them on behind the scenes but his own public profile was submerged; links with Abbott could only cause Peter Dutton damage.
Some of the 35 Dutton votes in the Tuesday spill immediately broke off to work for Morrison. This fuelled rumours later that Morrison’s hard-nosed set had selectively backed Dutton in the spill to loosen up the prime minister’s position, with a view to a subsequent spill to get their own man up. Some of this was later amplified by bragging from a member of Morrison’s team.
Morrison had been meticulous in his support for Turnbull, but by Wednesday morning – with the situation around Turnbull deteriorating by the hour – he knew he had to make some decisions. He had started to assess the options.
Morrison could go headlong into the melee and campaign for the prime ministership or he could stand by the man he helped get elected to parliament in 2004. He decided to do both. “I think I have to run, I can’t not,” he told one confidant. He would give the green light for his own tight group to start counting numbers, but he would stand back and give Turnbull space to decide his own moves. If Turnbull decided to fight to the death, including standing for the leadership in the inevitable next ballot, then Morrison would stand beside him. But if Turnbull gave up, quit, stood aside or didn’t run, then Morrison would be in a position to launch fast into the ballot. He would have only hours to make his decision.
Morrison told confidants he believed Dutton could not win and Turnbull was wounded. He still expected Turnbull to survive, but if Turnbull could not sort it out, Morrison would have a strategy to come up through the middle.
On Wednesday, August 22, a critical phone call finally took place.
After several attempts to find, at Turnbull’s request, a mutually convenient time to speak, the prime minister and the media mogul Rupert Murdoch spoke at 9.30am on speakerphone in Turnbull’s office. Clive Mathieson was in the room. Turnbull launched straight in. “You and your company are trying to bring down the government,” he accused Murdoch.
Murdoch, who for decades had been in the front row as leaders around the world rose and fell, must have known that Turnbull was already finished.
He batted away the prime minister’s allegations about the political coverage in The Australian and offered to speak to his son Lachlan about Turnbull’s concerns.
Lachlan had already left the country, and Rupert would be gone the next week. After the phone call finished, Turnbull heard nothing more. But he would store away his view that the Murdochs were implicated in his downfall.
Kerry Stokes was in Canberra too during that week. As chairman of the Australian War Memorial, Stokes was lobbying for funding for a new extension, and he had meetings with several politicians, including the under-siege Turnbull. His role in a controversy with the Murdochs over who said what to whom about Turnbull’s leadership would become a sizzling media story within weeks.
Two hours after Turnbull’s phone call with Murdoch, the game changed again. This time, a new foe – counted until now in Turnbull’s inner circle – had come to talk. Mathias Cormann arrived at close to midday.
Cormann had supported Turnbull throughout his leadership, but he enjoyed a close personal friendship with Dutton in the cabinet. He may not have been a plotter from the start but Cormann was soon a player – perhaps the most significant player of all. With words that must have stunned Turnbull, Cormann told him he had lost the support of the party room. Things had gotten out of hand and all the momentum was now against Turnbull. In Cormann’s judgement, Turnbull was gone. He pressed Turnbull to consider his position.
The swordfight with Murdoch might have fed Turnbull’s conspiracy theories and his search for answers, but Turnbull had conveniently ignored the energy battle that had split the party, the aftermath of Longman, the Queensland rage and the lack of confidence that he could win the next election (even though the Coalition’s polling had shown a significant improvement). Now there was hard evidence, with a senior party figure who had helped protect Turnbull for years arriving to say it was over. In the annals of political history, thus leaders fell.
An hour later, at 1pm, Turnbull called a press conference, arriving with both Cormann and Morrison. It was an excruciating tableau. Cormann appeared stricken, while Morrison was jolly to the point of not being believable. Turnbull was wooden. He praised both men, dumped the corporate tax cuts for big companies, then asked both to speak.
Cormann, who not an hour before had proposed that Turnbull stand down from the leadership, was asked whether he had considered shifting support to Dutton. “I support the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull,” Cormann replied flatly. He added, after another question, that he would continue to support Turnbull loyally into the future.
Morrison, when asked if he had any leadership ambitions, threw his arm about Turnbull’s shoulders, grinned, and declared, “This is my leader and I’m ambitious for him.”
“Good on you – thanks, ScoMo,” Turnbull replied, looking grateful.
Replayed later, it seemed like a tacit understanding between Morrison and Turnbull that the treasurer would continue to vote with, and support, the prime minister. Morrison was with the prime minister – until the prime minister was gone.
Turnbull might have believed he had successfully locked in Cormann publicly with the press conference, but he had lost control. Cormann came back again soon after 3pm, pressing Turnbull, telling him his position was irretrievable.
At 4.30pm, a delegation of three key ministers quietly arrived to see Turnbull: it was Cormann again, this time with Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield. All three told Turnbull they believed he had lost the support of the party room and should call another meeting.
This was an extraordinary development. Turnbull would ask Cormann to return later that night for another discussion. He wanted to reason with him about not giving in to “terrorists”.
Malcolm Turnbull had had a stunning, high-profile political career, but one replete with backstabbing and political calculation as he made his way to the top. It was this history that his colleagues knew, as well as the precocious intelligence, fierce energy and ambition of the man they had made prime minister in 2015 yet now planned to pull down.
In 2003, Turnbull was ready to make the switch from wealthy lawyer and businessman to politics, with the bright talisman of the prime ministership already in his sights. He challenged the sitting member in Wentworth, Peter King, for preselection – a campaign that held harbingers for the future but also had elements from the gutter. Morrison, the then NSW state director of the Liberal Party, manoeuvred the campaign. Later, there would be allegations of massive branch-stacking to clear Turnbull’s path. After a brutal fight with King, Turnbull became the candidate for Wentworth.
Turnbull was elected to parliament in 2004. His arrival was overseen by Morrison, Scott Briggs and the controversial senator Bill Heffernan. At Morrison’s behest, Heffernan had taken Turnbull under his wing, and he moved into Turnbull’s home for six weeks to guide the novice.
Turnbull would prove to be a provocative backbencher. At one point, he steered across the turf of Treasurer Peter Costello, commissioning a vast array of tax options and then publicly releasing them. Costello shut this down, but it was clear Turnbull was in a hurry. Turnbull found a way to walk both sides of the street: to say “Up yours” and “Here I come”, and at the same time project a “Who me?” innocence.
By the time John Howard’s government was wiped out in the November 2007 election, Turnbull had performed adequately. He was probably in the top 10 but not in the top five.
Costello quit parliament after 11 years as treasurer and 14 as deputy leader, leaving the party in turmoil as it looked for a new leader. Turnbull, Abbott and Brendan Nelson put up their hands. After Abbott withdrew, Nelson was victorious against Turnbull, 45 votes to 42.
Turnbull refused point blank to recognise Nelson’s leadership. When Nelson turned to shake his hand after the vote, Turnbull’s face was an angry mask. He hid his feelings from no one. He went straight to the front of the room to Costello, who had overseen the ballot. “This will be a disaster,” he said, warning there could be no stability for a leader on a slim margin.
Afterwards, Nelson went to his office for a meeting with other colleagues. The door flew open and Turnbull walked in. Pointing his finger at Nelson’s chest, Turnbull called him a wimp in front of three witnesses, challenging Nelson to “be a man”. Within days, this exchange, mortifying for Nelson, was on the front page of a newspaper.
It went on like this, with Turnbull haranguing Nelson to hand over the leadership. In September 2008, amid the bubbling tensions and increasing strains in the party over climate-change policy, Nelson called a snap leadership spill, hoping to catch Turnbull off-guard. Turnbull won by four votes.
It was a period that would be remembered 10 years later, in August 2018, when Warren Entsch signed his name as the 43rd vote to bring on a spill against Turnbull’s leadership. “For Brendan Nelson,” Entsch wrote on the petition beside his signature.
In June 2009 Turnbull almost imploded in the OzCar affair. This ridiculous gambit to unseat then prime minister Kevin Rudd came undone when Turnbull’s evidence was revealed to have been faked by his source. By the end of 2009, Turnbull was embroiled in a pitched battle over climate change. Seeking to support Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, he stoked a deep schism in the party. Threats emerged that Coalition MPs – including Abbott – would cross the floor.
In December 2009, Abbott challenged Turnbull for the Liberal leadership. He won by a single vote, 42–41. Turnbull went to the backbench and several months later announced he would quit parliament. Less than a month later he changed his mind. He had already started work on his comeback.
At the 2010 election, Abbott brought the Coalition to within a whisker of victory, thwarted in the end by a power-sharing deal between Labor leader Julia Gillard, the Greens and independents. Abbott was re-elected as Opposition leader.
At the 2013 election, Abbott and the Coalition beat Labor, campaigning hard with a series of simple mantras that exploited public fears about taxes, debt and refugees.
But within two years the cage was rattled again. In February 2015, a backbencher, Luke Simpkins, moved a motion for a leadership spill. The motion was solidly defeated, but most thought they could hear the tinkle of Turnbull in the background, notwithstanding that Abbott had committed a series of significant errors and misjudgements, closing himself off from many colleagues. Abbott declared the spill a “near death experience” and promised he had heard his critics.
But things only deteriorated. On September 14, 2015, in a carefully orchestrated coup, Turnbull tore down Abbott. It was a stunning moment. The virus that had so badly infected Labor, creating a swirl of hate and retribution that ran for years, had arrived on the other side.
It was hardly a surprise that Abbott committed himself to returning the favour. He had promised there would be no sniping and no undermining; he had not promised a no-staking-out policy.
On Wednesday, August 22, the young turks around Dutton decided they needed a petition to force Turnbull’s hand. They discussed it with Cormann. They wanted to try to force a partyroom meeting that night. Traditionally, half a dozen signatures on a piece of paper would be enough to trigger a spill. If they could get enough signatures by 7.30pm they could call it on. Cormann himself was up to his neck with trips back and forth to Turnbull’s office while fielding a growing number of MPs bringing complaints about the prime minister.
Political staffers in the Monkey Pod room – the war room – printed out the first copy of the petition at 5.30pm. It had a preamble at the top, then space for names and signatures. They were looking for enough names to crack Turnbull open. But this was a hugely confronting document: signing it would put a red target for retribution over the head of each signatory. It would not be a light matter to gather names outside the hard core waiting to blast Turnbull from office.
The first names on the first sheet of paper were added: Andrew Hastie, Tony Pasin, Sussan Ley, Craig Kelly, Michael Sukkar, Kevin Andrews, Tony Abbott.
Hastie went to Nicolle Flint’s and Ian Goodenough’s offices; both signed. The next name on the page would be Peter Dutton. A group of MPs came into Flint’s office to put their signatures down, trailing in and out. Luke Howarth had made photocopies of the document to use.
But at about 7 or 7.30pm, the plans were upended after a call from Cormann, who had spent the afternoon entangled with Turnbull. Cormann had questions and advice. He wanted to know how many signatures they had; he wanted to ensure his own position – the position he was articulating – was sound in terms of the strength of the opposition to Turnbull. This was a complex matter that would change the nation.
Time ticked away and eventually they called it a night; there were not enough signatures to satisfy Cormann, and it was now too late. The chief government whip, Nola Marino, had already said she would not call a meeting.
On Wednesday night, Turnbull phoned Arthur Sinodinos. This respected senator – a former chief of staff to Howard – had been in Sydney recuperating after a long spell of ill health. Things were coming to a head and Sinodinos agreed to drive down to Canberra the next morning, where he would virtually camp in Turnbull’s office for the duration of the battle.
Also on Wednesday evening, moderates were hearing rumours of a bombshell: Cormann had decided to support Dutton. Before long there was speculation on Sky News as well as in the corridors. Sally Cray tried to hose it down, telling MPs it was not true.
By 7pm, the moderates group was sketching out plans to jump ship from Turnbull. If Turnbull was finished they wanted to shift to Morrison. They would never back Dutton. But they wanted to protect what they had: the portfolios, the numbers. They were nervous and they wanted a deal.
For Morrison this was hardly good news. If Turnbull’s moderate backers moved, it would look as though he was in the game, trying to pull Turnbull down for his own advantage. The one thing he could not afford – and did not want – was blood on his hands. So long as Turnbull was standing, or running, Morrison would not move.
When told of the moderates’ approach, Morrison pushed back. He messaged a key supporter at 6.57pm on Wednesday, August 22, saying tersely, “I’m not in.”
The response came back: “They think he is dead.”
“They need to stay with MT,” Morrison replied.
He added that Cormann was not resigning.
Half an hour later, there was more news in Morrison’s camp. Someone had been talking to Warren Entsch, who had seen the petition circulating and reported it only had nine names. At this early point in the life of the petition, they had no way of knowing that the petition had been divided into five pages with space for 10 names on each page – and then farmed out.
Alarm bells were ringing. Morrison went to see Cormann. His intention was to be firm. Cormann had been sequestered with the Dutton group, and Morrison wanted to add pressure from the other side. He tried to talk Cormann into persuading Dutton to stand down from the challenge.
Morrison went to see Turnbull again too. He had been in his own office with Alex Hawke and Scott Briggs, discussing tactics, options, reality. Eventually, Hawke and Briggs went back to Stuart Robert and Morrison’s shared apartment on the Kingston foreshore for pizza. They joined Robert, as well as Steve Irons. But there was one person missing, and it came to them like a flash. Michaelia Cash, a long-time supporter of Morrison, had been expected too but she didn’t show up. Her absence left a hollow note like coins tinkling on a ceramic floor.
Morrison arrived later after his meeting with Turnbull. He told them Turnbull had said Dutton had to be stopped at any cost.
James McGrath quit the frontbench. He had offered his resignation the day before, after the spill motion, and Turnbull had declined it. Now McGrath formalised it. He had been the key player in Turnbull’s rolling of Abbott, and now he was wholly in Dutton’s camp. He said publicly that families felt forgotten, ignored and spoken down to. It was a sharp rebuke to Turnbull’s innate patrician air. “As a Liberal National Party Senator for Queensland, this is an intolerable situation,” McGrath said in a post to social media.
That night, Turnbull would ask for Dutton to be referred to the High Court on constitutional grounds to assess whether he was entitled to sit in parliament given questions over his stake in some child-care centres. It was not just vengeance; Turnbull was now adding more tactical delays.
By 7am on Thursday, August 23, Dutton backers and key numbers men Michael Sukkar and ACT senator Zed Seselja had handed formal resignations to Turnbull’s office after he had refused to accept them on Tuesday.
Dutton phoned Turnbull asking to see him, saying he had the numbers. Turnbull sent a shot back, warning Dutton he had spoken to the governor-general and making it clear that Dutton’s right to sit in parliament was up in the air.
Dutton asked for a partyroom meeting. Turnbull demanded to see signatures. If people were going to betray him, he wanted to put them in the spotlight. They could face their electorates later with a black mark for instability. And he was not calling a second spill until he saw the names.
Dutton called a press conference shortly after to announce that he was challenging Turnbull for the leadership.
The next part of the film unfolded almost in slow motion. Mathias Cormann, Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash returned before 9am to see Turnbull and were taken to a lounge room off the prime minister’s office to wait. Turnbull, still in a morning leadership meeting, rose to see them; Scott Morrison stood up too. “You need a witness,” he said.
All three gave Turnbull their resignations. For Cormann, a friend, it was a terrible moment after all the years at Turnbull’s side. Fifield was downcast. Cash looked completely freaked out. But they were not for turning.
Morrison walked after them with parting words for Cormann, appealing for him to understand this could finish Turnbull.
At 9.30am the coup de grâce came. Cash, Cormann and Fifield walked into the Senate courtyard, where they made their shock resignations public. They had told Turnbull he no longer enjoyed the support of a majority in the Liberal party room. Cormann declared that Dutton was the right person to lead the party to the next election.
Cormann had been the model of rectitude, the reliable source of electrical current from the conservatives to Turnbull. And now he had pulled out the plug. It was a stunning moment. Fifield’s position, too, made jaws drop.
Turnbull, in a masterstroke, resolved that there would be no spill until Dutton brought him a petition with a majority of signatures: 43.
Morrison’s group, working so far with one hand tied behind their backs, now began to swarm. Turnbull had told his closest supporters that if a petition came with 43 signatures, he would not stand in the ballot that followed. He would give Morrison and Julie Bishop the freedom to run later that day. Anyone but Dutton.
Ministers thwarted by Turnbull when they resigned after the first spill now came back with formal resignations. They included Keenan, Hunt and Ciobo.
For the moderates, a new conundrum came up. For 24 hours they had to consider the odds of Bishop winning – from the perspective of “anyone but Dutton”. Bishop: she was their preference, she was the most popular Liberal in the country, and she was a woman.
But they had Morrison in their sights. They ran his numbers. Morrison had moderates and conservatives in his column. And he could pull in votes from the right. Bishop, however, could not. Those coalescing around Abbott and Dutton would never see policy through Bishop’s eyes.
On the Thursday morning, during a moderates leaders meeting in Christopher Pyne’s room, the numbers were filleted and re-filleted. The meeting included Paul Fletcher, Craig Laundy, Simon Birmingham and Trent Zimmerman. Pyne raised the conundrum: if they put their substantial numbers behind Bishop in the first round, Morrison would come third and be ejected from the contest. Then, in a second ballot, some of Morrison’s conservative votes would go to Dutton; Morrison’s vote would split – half to Bishop and half to Dutton. They had already seen Dutton pull 35 votes in the spill motion the previous Tuesday. So if the moderates backed Bishop, Dutton would win.
A similar scenario was being gamed in Dutton’s Monkey Pod war room. Over there they were keen to see the moderates back Bishop. They believed it would be the key to Dutton’s victory. If it were Dutton v. Bishop in the second round, Dutton would win.
The moderates would run the numbers endlessly, but the decision had presented itself.
A meeting that morning in Turnbull’s office would later become highly contested, as individuals remembered it differently. A number of moderates were present, including Marise Payne and Anne Ruston. Laundy arrived late.
According to several accounts, Pyne described the numbers argument, explaining that this meant they could not support Bishop. Marise Payne said she agreed. Since then, Payne has refused to confirm whether she backed Pyne’s assessment. Some attendees have changed their minds about whether they even attended the meeting, as well as what was said.
Pyne would tell Morrison that he had the moderates’ backing.
It was still Thursday. It had been a long day already, and it would stretch further yet.
At 1pm, Turnbull held another press conference, this time to declare the field open. He had told Dutton to bring 43 MPs’ signatures, he informed journalists. If Dutton met this condition, Turnbull would call a partyroom meeting for a spill motion. If carried, he would resign. And not just as prime minister but also from parliament. It was a threat with a deep, deep kick.
Turnbull had been given all he wanted by the party – from a cakewalk into parliament to the prime ministership. He had arrived on the shoulders of machine men like Morrison, old hands like Bill Heffernan and the legendary John Howard himself. Now he made it clear that if he could no longer be prime minister he would leave the party immediately, even with power already teetering on a one-seat majority.
Turnbull would paint this as providing clear air for his successor. But most took a bleak view of his promise.
He also revealed he had sought advice from the solicitor-general on Dutton’s eligibility to sit in parliament, and expected it the next morning.
Morrison was out of the blocks immediately. Bishop started her run at about 2pm Thursday, personally calling every MP to make her pitch – the years as deputy leader, as foreign minister, her fundraising prowess, her faultless support for others in their seats, and her massive popularity. In short, she said, she could beat Bill Shorten at the next election.
In the Monkey Pod room, the strategic delays instigated by Malcolm Turnbull, including closing parliament on the Wednesday afternoon, were causing concern about how to hold people together. On the orders of James McGrath, two staffers were dispatched to the airport to act as spotters, watching to see if MPs were trying to leave Canberra. They spent the time watching ABC News 24 on their phones and watching the departures.
Eventually they were recalled to set up a proper operations table in the Monkey Pod room. They paid for an overhead projector from Officeworks at 1.39pm.
Anti-Turnbull fighters were coming into the Monkey Pod room to say how shocked they were by Turnbull’s press conference: it seemed to highlight “bad Malcolm” with a display of imperious defiance. The tactic to demand a majority of signatures threw a lot of people.
They had reached 30 signatures early but then the enthusiasm had dried up. Many MPs were alarmed at the idea of Turnbull having the documents to scrutinise the names. By late Thursday they got to 38 signatures, and after that it was uphill going. There was an emerging group who had said they only wanted to be “last on”.
If Turnbull’s tactics had been successful, so too had Morrison’s war room in clamping down on MPs against signing. There were various copies of the petition running around with different MPs. But for about six hours on Thursday the petition stalled.
Cormann came into the Monkey Pod room only a handful of times. He was methodical, and, those in the room said, calm. He came in for temperature checks. Where are the numbers, who do we have, who can I work on?
Late on the Thursday afternoon, Julie Bishop called Christopher Pyne. He had Simon Birmingham in his office. Both men refused to comment for this story. But others say Birmingham later confided in close colleagues that Pyne had had a phone conversation with Bishop, outlining the moderates’ problem: there was no guarantee of sufficient votes flowing from Morrison to Bishop in a second-round vote, to beat Dutton.
One MP involved in the moderates’ discussions later said it seemed inconceivable that Bishop stepped into the party room on Friday expecting to have the moderates’ votes. “She would have known they would go from the moderates to Scott,” he insisted.
And yet Bishop would convincingly maintain to colleagues later that she had not been told. Why else would she have put so much effort into running?
They would go over and over the numbers on their list, even as late as the Friday morning. “We could clearly see the path for Scott and we could not see the path for Julie,” said one forlorn moderate later. The moderates were evaporating from Bishop’s column.
At 5pm Bishop had received a text from Pyne. “If you run for deputy leader again, you will win easily. [Greg] Hunt can’t win,” Pyne wrote.
The moderates might have been planning to back Morrison, but Pyne also had pessimistic news for Morrison’s camp. He came in to see some of Morrison’s people on Thursday – to express doubts that Morrison could win.
Later they would decide it had been a routine: Pyne had the future leader over a barrel. He wanted to define the power of the moderates. Pyne was the most experienced player in parliament on the Liberals’ side when it came to cutting deals, and he wanted a conversation. Pyne wanted to secure his own people, to ensure they would be retained in the ministry. He would lay down his price and wield his numbers. He may get no promises or commitments from Morrison. But he could make himself heard.
In a message to his WhatsApp group, The Project, at 1.04pm on Thursday, Morrison was still urging his group to stop people signing the petition. “Don’t let people sign the letter,” Morrison messaged, trying to hold the wall against Dutton. If there was no petition, then there was no spill and then MPs would go home for two weeks. Who knew what might happen then, with some cool air.
He had been counselling Turnbull all morning not to hold a second partyroom meeting. Morrison thought the prime minister should send MPs back to their electorates.
In Morrison’s war room, tensions were rising. They had been canvassing votes for three days, something that would later cause Turnbull to suspect Morrison was secretly working against him for weeks, although this was not the case. Some MPs started saying, “Well, if Scott’s not running, I’ll vote for Dutton.” There was “anyone but Dutton”. But there was “anyone but Malcolm”, too.
Soon after Turnbull’s press conference, as Pyne was closing down parliament early (against screams from Labor about irresponsibility, the self-indulgent loss of Question Time, and the collapse of democracy), Morrison again urged Turnbull to send MPs home. The house had risen; there was no reason to stay. It was the only way to block the petition.
By 4.30pm, Morrison’s people were still pleading with MPs not to sign. On the other hand, they had until midday Friday – Turnbull’s deadline – to shore up the numbers for Morrison in case a spill went ahead without Turnbull.
At about 7pm on Thursday Alex Hawke changed the name of the WhatsApp group from The Project to Team ScoMo. They were out in the open now, running for the finishing line.
Team ScoMo was convinced that Dutton’s people were nowhere near the required numbers for the petition. They briefed journalists that claims of 43 signatures were an “absolute lie”. If they had the numbers, they would have taken the petition to Turnbull already. Moreover, people were now signing through frustration – to get the whole thing over with.
But everyone knew Turnbull was dead – it was just a question of how to get to the denouement, and who would be left standing.
Turnbull also knew his leadership was terminal. His objective became to crush Dutton on the way out. But once there were 43 votes on a petition, Turnbull would lose the party room.
Late on Thursday, Turnbull reversed course. The government was paralysed and he realised he could cause more damage to Dutton in a spill.
Now they all changed gear. Instead of blocking the petition, still rumoured to be stuck on 38, it was “bring it on”. No one wanted to delay: if MPs went home to their electorates there would be weeks more of chaos.
By 10.20pm on Thursday, Team ScoMo calculated that the petition was at 40 signatures. Someone flashed round an image of the next day’s front page for The West Australian – a heads-up emailed to the paper’s subscribers. It showed a huge photo of Julie Bishop. “Nice try, Kerry,” someone remarked.
Turnbull had successfully worn down the numbers men in the Monkey Pod room with his delays and the High Court strategy. Dutton, on his way out to dinner with Cormann, whistled back and forth between his office and the Monkey Pod room next door.
Dutton’s people believed that Morrison had already done a deal with the moderates. Pyne was up to his neck in it, they knew.
They were still working on the sheets with petition names. They sent copies to whoever was best placed to soften someone up. They sent messages next door to Dutton to call this or that MP again, depending on constantly updated calculations of who was possible to swing in a toss-up between Morrison and Dutton.
There was a discussion of whether John Alexander might agree to be signature 41 – followed hopefully by Scott Buchholz and Warren Entsch for the magic 43 demanded by Turnbull.
Alexander, whose seat of Bennelong had been saved in an “everything including the kitchen sink” campaign after the citizenship woes, would take a lot of (unsuccessful) convincing, as would Buchholz – who signed but wrote cryptically on the petition, “I support the office of the prime minister.”
Alexander had disappeared to an event about an hour away from Parliament House and there was talk of one or two MPs from the Monkey Pod driving out there to get his signature. But in the end it was decided that this was all too “boy’s own” and the campaign for Alexander fell away.
Everyone was back at 6.30am on Friday. They noted that Morrison’s people were looking ascendant. Stuart Robert was walking around with his AirPods in his ears, looking like a guy getting ready to close a deal.
Morrison’s wife, Jenny, and children finally arrived, although it had been noted that Dutton’s wife, Kirilly, had been in Canberra earlier.
On the phone, the numbers seemed to be breaking Morrison’s way. It depended on the moderates’ support. Julie Bishop remained the risk for Morrison; she could still split the vote.
Morrison messaged his core group early Friday morning, warning them to make sure journalists understood that signatures on the petition were not indicators of support for any candidate – or for or against Turnbull – and they were just a statement that MPs wanted to resolve the issue. He was leaving nothing to chance, and the last thing he wanted was news stories suggesting Dutton had a head of steam with 43 signatures.
Ben Morton, a Morrison man, signed the petition at 7.30am on Friday, followed by a doorstop interview to say he had signed to get it over and done with. “The signing of the petition is doing one thing and one thing only,” he said. “It is calling a meeting to resolve this issue.”
Morton, a member of the Team ScoMo WhatsApp group, had decided to sign the night before.
Robert went around to see Cormann to ask what they were doing. Why wasn’t the petition finished? It had been agonising to get it to 41 and then it had sat there.
The moderates were worried. The numbers were tight between Dutton and Morrison. With Bishop running, they remained concerned that enough moderates plus some Dutton spoilers could knock out Morrison in the first round.
Morrison’s group got word just after 8am to say that Warren Entsch would sign the petition but wanted to be number 43. The petition was still running short on names. Someone suggested that Nick Greiner, the party president, should be asked to call a few MPs to get them to sign the petition.
Turnbull’s trump card – the solicitor-general’s advice on Dutton – slipped out of his hands when the ruling came back. It was not watertight, but Dutton was in the clear.
Suddenly a thud went through the Monkey Pod room with the shocking news that they had lost Mitch Fifield. It was both a massive blow for the conservatives and provided momentum for Morrison. Fifield had been lobbied heavily on the Thursday night – in particular by Victorian and fellow former Peter Costello staffer Tony Smith. He had switched.
Fifield had voted against Turnbull and in favour of Tony Abbott in 2009; he then voted against Abbott in favour of Turnbull in 2015. In 2018 he publicly expressed a preference for Dutton on the Thursday, then would vote for Morrison on the Friday. He had proved himself a man for all seasons.
By 10am, Team ScoMo was hearing that Dutton’s people had finally assembled the pages with 43 signatures – including Entsch, invoking Brendan Nelson. But Dutton was refusing to give the petition to the Liberal whip, Nola Marino.
The petition sheets had been correlated in the Monkey Pod room. There had been an irrational concern that perhaps a sheet was missing; they were checked and rechecked as a procession of people came and went.
At 11.10am they walked the petition over. By 11.20 it was in the hands of Turnbull. Everyone was watching Sky News hosts, who in turn were watching their phones. Turnbull had the petition.
On the other side, Dutton’s people later insisted they wanted to give the petition to Marino. But Turnbull wanted to see the names himself, then he wanted to keep and photocopy the pages of signatures; then he wanted them verified – a final insult to Dutton.
The word quickly went out from Pyne that people should stay in Canberra; the spill was on.
When Dutton returned to the Monkey Pod room he told the gathered MPs and staff that Turnbull was now making calls to signees. They were all a bit shocked to hear Turnbull had kept the sheets with the signatures. He was going to hold them all up to the light.
The media, in its own bubble of tension, racing to the finale, was stymied again. Now the signatures all had to be checked, phone call by phone call. Would this never end?
Nola Marino, however, ran a fast and efficient operation. She fanned out the photocopied sheets to her fellow whips. They rang the mobile phone of every MP on the list: “Did you sign the petition?” “Yes.” Hang up; next call. It took about 20 minutes. The numbers were solid; no one had cooked the books.
At 11.30am, a WhatsApp message from Paul Fletcher went out to a large group of moderates calling themselves Friends for Stability. It warned of rumours that Cormann was going to put votes behind Bishop in round one. This was a ruse to help Bishop beat Morrison, and would result in Morrison’s votes flowing in the second round to Dutton, the message said.
“Despite our hearts tugging us to Julie we need to vote with our heads for Scott in round one.”
Another in the group replied, “Someone should tell Julie.”
Pyne came back: “I have. Very respectfully.”
Cormann later denied he was involved in any such thing. But the messages, later leaked, would cause a running sore over claims that Bishop had been left in the dark – after years of fine service to the party – and counterclaims that she had been told the moderates would not support her as a bloc and yet she ran for leader anyway.
Turnbull called a partyroom meeting for 12.20. He would remember the name of every man and woman on the list who had put him there. He accepted the numbers as a vote of no-confidence. The motion to declare the leadership vacant passed 45–40. Turnbull resigned.
The election for the new prime minister was soon under way with three candidates. The whips brought in four small timber ballot boxes, each a different colour and numbered. When the vote was done, they took the boxes to an anteroom where the ballots were counted into piles of 10.
Bishop was out first. She had 11 votes; she was the most popular Liberal in the nation and yet in the trenches of leadership plays, ideology and factional rewards, this had counted for nought. She had been abandoned by her Western Australian colleagues. She had been abandoned by the sisterhood and the moderates. Eliminated, she resigned immediately as deputy leader. Morrison had 36 votes, Dutton 38.
In the second round, Morrison beat Dutton 45–40 – it was the reverse of Dutton’s expectations.
The losers, Dutton’s core group, gathered in Tony Pasin’s office to try to work out what had gone wrong. A number of votes had flown from the petition straight to Morrison. They had been outflanked by the treasurer’s men. The conservatives rated the wily Pyne, too, as a formidable opponent. But they were raw about the loss. Their concern about Morrison was the array of moderates attached to him – the price of power. Turnbull had been forced to cut deals with the right to hold power; how far would Morrison now go cutting deals with the left?
But at least Turnbull had been felled. They could work with Morrison.
Blood was spilled among the moderates in the aftermath. Someone had leaked the WhatsApp messages pressing the group to back Scott Morrison with its corollary that Julie Bishop had been told of the strategy. It was a move intended to cause trouble, and quite possibly payback for Christopher Pyne. The thread of messages had made its way to Barrie Cassidy.
Cassidy, a seasoned journalist and host of the ABC’s Insiders program, had been making calls on Friday after the vote, intrigued about what had happened to Bishop. The following day, a Saturday, Cassidy was walking his Maltese poodle cross, Maggie, in a park near his Melbourne home. He received a text message with the Friends for Stability WhatsApps about Bishop from a source who wanted to show him what had happened.
Cassidy tweeted the story and broadcast graphics of the messages, sparking rage among the moderates. It was a terrible look, yet they had avoided Dutton. Bishop, however, had been made to look a fool and she would not forget.
There was more to come, too, in the Murdoch story, as Turnbull fell into a state of fury about his fate. He would blame the Murdochs more than anyone else and it would not be a secret for long. On September 17, a month after the spill, news of a conversation between Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes about Turnbull hit the media in a remarkable way.
The AFR columnist Joe Aston’s verbatim account of the conversation went like this: Rupert Murdoch: “Malcolm has got to go.” Stokes: “That means we get Bill Shorten and the CFMEU.” Murdoch: “They’ll only be in for three years – it won’t be so bad. I did alright under Labor and the Painters and Dockers; I can make money under Shorten and the CFMEU.”
The ABC followed the story that night with an online report that included quotes reproduced as a graphic. It gave the appearance of text messages from a phone. The ABC reported that Murdoch and Stokes had spoken some time in the preceding weeks.
However, there had been no text messages. The face-to-face meeting between Murdoch and Stokes had been a month earlier, on Thursday, August 16, at the News Corp headquarters in Sydney, in the week before the first leadership spill.
Lachlan Murdoch has challenged accounts of what was said, telling The Monthly that he too had been in the room during the conversation with Stokes. Referring to his father as KRM – the Murdoch family shorthand for Rupert, or Keith Rupert Murdoch – Lachlan described reports of this conversation as wrong.
“I was the only other person in the meeting and KRM definitely never said ‘Malcolm’s got to go’ or mused on how business would be under a Labor government. His mind doesn’t work like that and I have never heard him say anything like it.”
He also rejected outright any suggestion that his father might have received “middleman” messages from Turnbull through either Kerry Stokes or Bruce McWilliam (a close friend of Turnbull and right hand to Stokes at Seven West Media).
A spokesman for Stokes told The Monthly that no messages from Murdoch were passed on by Stokes. The spokesman added that Stokes rejected the characterisation and details in the reports of a private conversation between himself and Rupert Murdoch.
Where had Turnbull gotten his information from?
Turnbull provided the answer himself. Speaking on the ABC’s Q&A on November 8 last year to review his prime ministership, Turnbull dropped Kerry Stokes in it.
Asked whether Stokes had told him that Murdoch said “Malcolm’s got to go” during a meeting between the two, Turnbull responded frothily: “Yes, I did speak to Kerry, and that’s what he’d said Rupert had said to him … He’s given an account of this conversation to many people. He said to Rupert, ‘That’s crazy … why would you want Bill Shorten to be prime minister?’ To which, according to Kerry, Rupert said, ‘Oh well, three years of Labor wouldn’t be so bad.’”
On Sunday, September 2, a week after the spill, Turnbull had left for six weeks in New York. His resignation as the MP for Wentworth caused consternation over the chances of holding the seat in the by-election on October 20. Wentworth could be lost.
After a lengthy argument about whether to preselect a woman, the Liberal Party settled on businessman and former public servant Dave Sharma. He had not yet moved into the electorate. Turnbull had held Wentworth with a 17 per cent margin, but with high-profile independent Kerryn Phelps running, Sharma would need all the help he could get.
The party asked for Turnbull’s support, and in particular for a letter endorsing Sharma. But Turnbull had one thing on his mind. He would sign a letter backing Sharma only if the letter rehashed the Liberal leadership battle. He wanted a proper explanation of what had happened to his prime ministership. A draft letter was prepared with no reference to the leadership spill, but which the party thought appropriate. Turnbull refused to sign it.
On Monday, October 22, he returned to Australia, two days after the by-election. He had spent time unwinding in New York, and sending text messages to colleagues pressing them to refer Dutton to the High Court. When news of his intervention made it into the papers, Turnbull promptly tweeted confirmation.
The Liberals lost Wentworth with a 19 per cent swing against the party, a number that might have satisfied Turnbull that his point had been made. He acknowledged Sharma six weeks after the by-election, tweeting a photo of himself and his daughter, Daisy, with the failed candidate at a Wentworth Christmas party. “Good luck next year Dave,” Turnbull signed off.
To some it sounded like an insouciant kiss-off – Turnbull’s death wish for the Liberal Party. To others, it sounded like Turnbull finding his feet. It was the end of the Turnbull era. To many he had been a light on the hill; to others he seemed shallow but ambitious, trading beliefs for power. He left as ever, walking both sides of the street.
The Nation Reviewed
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