The Wentworth blame game
After an epic defeat, the Liberals appear to have learnt nothing
One thing is crystal clear from the reaction to Saturday’s historic drubbing in the Wentworth by-election: there has been no healing of the Coalition’s bitter internal divisions, which are now set to widen. Prime Minister Scott Morrison may accept that Wentworth voters have passed their verdict on the leadership coup against his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, back in August, but there is no sign of reflection – much less contrition – from the backers of failed challenger Peter Dutton, either inside or outside the parliamentary party. Quite the contrary: they are doubling down – blaming Turnbull himself, of course – and so we must now expect the feuding inside the party will continue all the way to the federal election and beyond, into Opposition. They have stopped listening to voters at all, hearing only the echoes in their chamber of horror-politics: bloodlust, faction, ideology.
Liberals on both sides had been trying, valiantly, to paint a picture of party unity in the wake of the coup. Donors were coming back, I was told, and the poisonous, hateful atmosphere was gone from the NSW branches, where Abbott loyalists had been set against Turnbull and his government. Nobody hated Morrison, or thought him an interloper in their party. All of those arguments are untenable now, with recriminations spreading over the Wentworth defeat and the botched coup attempt that caused it.
Sky News political editor David Speers’ account of the coup, On Mutiny, was released yesterday, and it does not paint a happy picture of the Liberal Party. Speers does not attempt to give a pat answer to the burning question – which Labor is still asking, and which the new PM has dodged – of why Turnbull was dumped. But he does give a rattling, blow-by-blow account of how the coup unfolded. Here are a few choice tidbits.
First, the Dutton plotters held their meetings in the Monkey Pod, which has a common wall with the office of leading moderate Christopher Pyne, who was working the numbers in Turnbull’s defence, and then Morrison’s own challenge. Speers writes: “The walls weren’t exactly soundproof. Those in Pyne’s office could regularly hear the Dutton backers discussing who they needed to target and who they were worried about. They could also hear when [Mathias] Cormann wasn’t happy.”
Second, as they tried to comply with Turnbull’s demand for 43 signatures on a piece of paper, Dutton’s numbers stalled at 38. On the Friday morning, Morrison’s backers Pyne, Alex Hawke and Stuart Robert – judging Turnbull’s leadership was beyond terminal – ensured five final signatures went on: David Fawcett, Karen Andrews, Ben Morton, Jane Hume and, last of all, Warren Entsch. Morrison was kept out of this move too: his supporters knew he needed clean hands.
Finally, there’s a caustic throwaway line, inferring that some of Dutton’s backers believed the hapless Greg Hunt, running as deputy and supposed to give the challenge weight in Victoria, “might have cost them votes”. Ouch! No love lost there.
A taste of the sheer nastiness inside the party was there for all to see on a Sky News panel yesterday, when hosts Peta Credlin and Chris Kenny took umbrage at a comment by Turnbull loyalist Craig Laundy on Saturday night: “If we do lose this seat tonight, one of the interesting things were going to see is how quickly those that were responsible try to turn it to, it’s Malcolm’s fault, not what we did. I obviously argued all the way through, for stability and loyalty.” Credlin told Kenny how Tony Abbott had fought to secure Laundy’s preselection, after a meeting with his father, Arthur. “A grown man getting his dad in is a bit weird,” she threw in. Last night on the ABC’s National Wrap, Laundy told Patricia Karvelas point blank that Credlin was lying, the truth was the opposite, that his father had tried to get Abbott to dissuade him from running. Laundy went further, urging his colleagues to stop governing for the benefit of a clutch of commentators. It was gripping stuff.
The Liberals blew a reported $1.2 million on Wentworth alone. Given the party’s permanently dire financial situation, looming state elections in Victoria and New South Wales, and the loss of significant fundraisers federally in Turnbull (if from his own pocket) and former deputy leader and foreign minister Julie Bishop, the decision to throw everything including the kitchen sink at this one Sydney seat must look unwise in retrospect.
Among the highlights in an ocean of reportage and commentary today: in The Australian Peter van Onselen writes [$] on everything’s Malcolm Turnbull’s fault, always; Alex Turnbull tells [$] the Liberals to have a good look in the mirror; Crikey’s Bernard Keane picks out [$] the flaw in the universal assumption that Dave Sharma was a good candidate; and Michelle Grattan examines how a likely minority Morrison government faces looming internal divides over climate, refugees, religious freedom and Israel–Palestine.
Today the count in Wentworth is continuing, the push to install Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader is fading, and Question Time was suspended in acknowledgement that, for once, there was something more important than politics happening in the national parliament, with the national apology to the victims of sexual abuse. But the divisions and enmity within the government are going nowhere; indeed, they are bound to flare up between now and May.
since this morning
The ABC has been live-blogging today’s historic national apology to victims of institutional child sexual abuse
The AFR reports [$] that as the Morrison government digs in against changes to the climate and energy policies that were rejected at the Wentworth by-election, BHP has called for a price on carbon to be part of the policy mix.
in case you missed it
The Australian reports [$] that Malcolm Turnbull has come under fire from senior Coalition figures, including Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party’s national president, for failing to issue a public endorsement for candidate Dave Sharma in the final days of the disastrous Wentworth by-election campaign.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack has denied [$] that an announcement that could shower millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on pet infrastructure projects in Nationals-held seats has been timed to shore up his leadership after the seismic Wentworth by-election.
The Guardian reports that leading moderates in the Queensland Liberal National Party, including Warren Entsch, who opposed the party merger, have warned that any recriminations against MPs who supported abortion rights would “light the fuse” for a demerger push.
Following pressure from a multinational arms manufacturer, the Coalition suppressed the auditor general’s finding that Australia could have paid half the amount for its new $1.3 billion combat vehicle fleet, documents obtained by The Guardian reveal.
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
One thing is crystal clear from the reaction to Saturday’s historic drubbing in the Wentworth by-election: there has been no healing of the Coalition’s bitter internal divisions, which are now set to widen. Prime Minister Scott Morrison may accept that Wentworth voters have passed their verdict on the leadership coup against his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, back in August, but there is no sign of reflection – much less contrition – from the backers of failed challenger Peter Dutton, either inside or outside the parliamentary party. Quite the contrary: they are doubling down – blaming Turnbull himself, of course – and so we must now expect the feuding inside the party will continue all the way to the federal election and beyond, into Opposition. They have stopped listening to voters at all, hearing only the echoes in their chamber of horror-politics: bloodlust, faction, ideology....