There is no doubt about who was behind last week’s move to displace Malcolm Turnbull. It was the ever-vengeful and habitually destructive Tony Abbott, who from the moment Turnbull toppled him in 2015, set about doing the same in return. He will have gained some satisfaction from the party room’s decision – Turnbull is gone.
But it would be naïve to believe that he was a lone ranger. Peter Dutton was in it up to his eyeballs. He was to be a proxy for Abbott, ready to do his bidding.
Behind this vicious duo was a cluster of conservative malcontents. Dissatisfied and angry that Turnbull was too progressive, too resistant to conservative ideology, they saw no option but to eliminate him if they were to advance their agenda. Dutton was joined by hardline assistant finance minister Michael Sukkar, doing the numbers for him; Greg Hunt, running as his deputy; Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, Abbott loyalist Angus Taylor, and James McGrath, Michael Keenan, Alan Tudge and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
But so influential was finance minister Mathias Cormann, who remained loyal to the PM for a while, that he was regarded as the ultimate kingmaker. And that’s what he turned out to be as he deserted his leader. More about his treachery later!
Backing this motley crew was the Murdoch mob, who via his print outlets, TV and radio stations was pushing the Dutton line. Chris Uhlmann, of Nine News, an astute political commentator who learned his trade at the ABC, castigated The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, as well as 2GB hosts Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, for their conduct. He singled out Sky News in particular. “Sky after dark has been running a campaign against Malcolm Turnbull… at the moment it is turning Liberal National Party voters into One Nation voters and they are not coming back…with friends like Sky News, Malcolm Turnbull doesn't really need many other enemies.”
While it has been known that Murdoch has been playing the political kingmaker game here and overseas for decades, his influence has never been as overt as during this leadership battle. 2GB’s Alan Jones admitted on 7.30 that he had directly contacted MPs and urged them to change leader.
In an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald: Cancer eating the heart of Australian democracy, Kevin Rudd tore into Tony Abbott with this indictment: ”…the entire energy of this giant wrecking ball of Australian politics has been focused on destroying his opponents…of all modern politicians, Abbott is sui generis. His singular, destructive impact on national politics cannot be underestimated.” For his trouble, he was attacked by Murdoch journalist Sharri Markson who called Rudd’s piece “a quite disgusting outrageous attack”
The reaction of the media to these accusations has been telling. Guilty as accused, and livid about being blamed, media luminaries lashed out in defence of their interference, and in support of their favourites. In the Weekend Australian of 25-26 August, Janet Albrechtsen rudely castigated Malcolm Turnbull, laying all the blame for the leadership chaos at his feet. In a nasty opinion piece, Richard Alston did likewise. Chris Kenny joined the fray. Niki Savva was more balanced when she wrote: “The coup against Turnbull had all the subtlety of a chainsaw massacre”. Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan were characteristically more moderate in their assessment. It was clear though that the media had been deeply involved in the political process, and was incensed at being exposed and called out.
Turnbull really didn’t have a chance with Abbott, Dutton, and their noisy gang baying for blood, and their media spear-throwers targeting him, but he might have survived had it not been for the treachery of a few who were previously his loyalists. This piece highlights the disloyalty of one man – Mathias Cormann.
This man has been an integral part of the Turnbull strike-force ever since he was elevated to Finance Minister and Leader of the Government in the Senate. I have written about him several times, notably in The Tale of Two Daleks where I described his behaviour, as well as that of his co-Dalek, Scott Morrison. I labelled them DC and DM. I suggested that they were carefully programmed each morning: to talk quickly, as if firing verbal bullets; to talk loudly; to talk incessantly; to repeat their words over and again; to talk over their interviewers, and ’never take a breath’; to avoid answering questions they didn’t like’; and to answer such questions with “I don’t accept your characterisation". The media office guaranteed that such tactics would make it impossible to ignore them, impossible to escape them. DM became a champion at talking loudly, smothering any attempt to stop him. In contrast, DC was quietly spoken in his typically Germanic way.
Whether one liked him or not, one had to admire his ability to stay on message and regurgitate reliably and repeatedly the words he was programmed to utter. It was impossible to trip him up. Knowing this, his interviews concluded with his shrewd ‘Got you, didn’t I?’ smile.
So it came as a nasty surprise when he turned out to be a disloyal turncoat as the leadership saga unfolded. Within hours of standing on the right hand of his leader declaring his loyalty, he turned up, pale-faced, with co-conspirators, the bearded Mitch Fifield and the loquacious Michaelia Cash, to front the press to inform us all that they had formed the view that Turnbull no longer enjoyed the support of a majority of the party room, and therefore they were withdrawing their support. They insisted that the party room must now make a decision about Turnbull’s leadership. Cormann was sure Dutton had the numbers, and looking after his own skin, decided to join him. This was a pivotal moment. Turnbull’s leadership was thereafter doomed. Subsequently, Cormann walked with Dutton along the corridor to that fateful party room vote.
Afterwards, we found that Cormann, the numbers man in his day job, had badly miscalculated. Dutton did not have the numbers; his backers could not count. Had Cormann made a call to Turnbull’s supporters, they would have told him so, and history would have told a different tale.
Writing in ABC News, political editor Andrew Probyn confirmed this: ”There was a moment last Thursday night when blood-curdling horror flashed across Mathias Cormann's face. He had realised that his best mate Peter Dutton didn't have the numbers to become prime minister after all…the normally unflappable, inscrutable political professional had the look of someone who'd gladly commit murder. Mathias Cormann doesn't like to lose. This was a horrible realisation for the Belgian-born powerbroker who had put his honour in the guillotine by walking away from Malcolm Turnbull, just hours after publicly pledging loyalty to the besieged PM.”
Cormann’s honour was destroyed in a minute of madness, a minute when he realized that his behind the scene plotting against his leader to advance his own cause had failed spectacularly. His calamitous capitulation had shredded his credibility irrevocably.
Those of you who missed the unfolding catastrophe can read about it here:
Cormann can thank the generosity of his new leader that he retains his positions, despite his disloyalty.
But he will be forever diminished in the eyes of those who once respected him. Colleagues will look at him askance, as an untrustworthy person willing to replace loyalty with self-interest. He will be treated as a pariah.
We will do likewise. Mathias – you’ve lost us.