Malcolm Turnbull will fail if he can’t heal the Liberal Party
The Daily Telegraph
September 17, 2015
PRIME Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s biggest problem isn’t Bill Shorten. No, knocking off that soiled Labor leader should be a cinch. Far more dangerous to Turnbull are the Liberals disgusted by the treachery and deceit that went into assassinating former leader Tony Abbott.
There is almost a revulsion among influential MPs, not just with Turnbull but his deputy, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop. There is even anger with Scott Morrison, until now a hero of conservatives and about to become Turnbull’s treasurer.
For some this is now a moral question. They know they should be loyal to their party. They know Turnbull can beat Shorten. And they know their duty is to help Turnbull do that, given how unfit Shorten is to lead this country.
Yet Turnbull’s plotters make their skin crawl. I’ve talked to MPs, even moderates, who are sickened. Some wonder why they got into politics or even whether they should join a new party. That just adds venom to the anger that many conservative Liberals already feel for Turnbull — for a man of the Left they think has hijacked their party.
Let me give three examples of the scheming that makes it hard for Turnbull to expect much loyalty in return.
First, there was Julie Bishop’s disloyal silence. As deputy Liberal leader, Bishop had a duty to warn Abbott of threats to his leadership.
Yet on Channel 10’s The Project this week, she admitted she had heard of the planned challenge to Abbott — announced on Monday — “in the days beforehand”, although she later claimed “I had no idea of the timing until the day before”.
But Bishop did not warn Abbott of Turnbull’s plot until Monday. She’d been waiting to have the reports “confirmed by others”, she said.
To add to the suspicion, when Abbott rang Bishop’s mobile last Saturday to discuss rumours of this challenge, Bishop did not answer and took a full day to ring back. No wonder, perhaps. Bishop had spent that Saturday at a Sydney charity event where she’d met Turnbull.
That’s been too much for Liberal Premier Colin Barnett, of Bishop’s home state of Western Australia. He accused her of “duplicity”, adding: “And there’s probably been some disloyalty.”
Second, there was Scott Morrison’s refusal to help Abbott defeat Turnbull. Morrison, the Liberal who stopped the boats, was emerging as Abbott’s natural successor and the star of the Liberals’ conservative wing. On Monday morning, just hours before Turnbull sprang his trap, Morrison insisted on 2GB he had “no idea” of any possible challenge. He said he was an Abbott supporter, so “if they were (plotting) they would not be talking to me”.
Yet later that day Morrison refused Abbott’s offer to be deputy Liberal leader on a joint ticket with Abbott against Turnbull and Bishop.
He was also effectively refusing to be Abbott’s new treasurer, since the deputy has their pick of portfolios.
True, Abbott was even then still foolishly reluctant to sack his existing Treasurer, the embattled Joe Hockey.
His offer really meant it was up to Morrison to sack Hockey and run against Bishop. But had Morrison said yes to Abbott’s offer, he and his five supporters would have helped to defeat Turnbull and would have encouraged other Liberal waverers to join them. A yes would also have meant that Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian conservative opposed to gay marriage, would have saved a fellow conservative from a Leftist and gay-marriage crusader
Yet Morrison chose not to fight for Abbott or for his beliefs. While privately telling Liberals and some journalists he remained an Abbott supporter, he gave no press conference to defend him and his coterie of MPs voted for Turnbull.
True, Morrison figured Abbott had poor judgment and was not a long-term bet. He also didn’t want to be in a contest with Bishop or in Abbott’s fight with Turnbull and will still get his reward — Hockey’s job as Treasurer. But where was the fighting for principle?
And then there was the sabotage.
Abbott, at his farewell press conference, denounced the “white-anting” by Liberal MPs, the “self-serving claims” peddled to journalists by his anonymous critics to do the work of “the assassin’s knife”.
It is too easily forgotten that Abbott by May had largely recovered in the polls, even drawing level with Labor in one. Journalists had started to question Shorten’s leadership instead. But Abbott’s recovery was then blown up. He was rocked by another burst of leaks, destabilisation and distractions by his own side that continued right up until Monday.
For instance, friendly journalists were told Bishop had warned Abbott to sack Hockey and that she’d told colleagues that Labor seemed to be running dead in next Saturday’s Canning by-election (allegedly to ensure the unpopular Abbott stayed prime minister until next year’s election). Abbott’s poll figures collapsed. They’d got him.
But, sure, no change of leaders is painless. And Turnbull’s plotters are right: they have given the Liberals a leader more popular than the man he replaced. By making the Liberals more electable, they may have done the party a big favour. And isn’t their higher loyalty to the party, not to Abbott, whose mistakes caused more damage than anything done by the plotters?
Yet many Liberal voters seem red-hot with anger. On Monday, more than 1000 sent me angry emails and messages, almost all abusing Turnbull and most saying they could never vote for the Liberals again if he led them. Callers to conservative talk shows are also spitting chips.
Conservatives were always going to be furious about having their party stolen by the Left. But many are now appalled by the treachery as well.
Alternative Conservative Party for disaffected Liberal Voters with the final say going to Stephanie Legendary Conservative 2GB caller
So this is now Turnbull’s great challenge. It will take all his charm and persuasiveness to heal a division that could wreck his campaign and even split his party.
He has already had one expensive reminder that many government MPs simply do not trust his word or his instincts. Take the Nationals, whose 15 House of Representatives MPs are needed by the Liberals to form government.
The Nationals on Tuesday arced up at Turnbull’s election as Liberal leader. They refused to back any government led by him until he’d signed a deal with them.
They know Turnbull is a warming alarmist and a bit carried away by his own brilliance. So they made Turnbull not only promise to spend $2 billion more on the Nationals’ pet schemes, but to guarantee he would not change Abbott’s policies on gay marriage and global warming.
Oh, and he had to give Nationals deputy leader Barnaby Joyce control over water policy.
That’s why Abbott took so long on Tuesday to formally resign. He had to wait for Turnbull to sign the Nationals’ deal. Until then, Turnbull couldn’t guarantee he had support in Parliament to form government.
That is just one sign of the tensions that threatens Turnbull most. So forget Shorten. He won’t much bother Turnbull.
No, Turnbull’s first big campaign must be not to destroy Labor but to heal the Liberals he now leads.