Malcolm Turnbull launched his spill for the Liberal Party leadership on Tuesday to take Peter Dutton by surprise, and, as a short-term tactic, it worked.
Turnbull spoke to the meeting to talk up his government’s record but then went directly into the spill. The challenger didn’t even have an opportunity to speak to the assembled MPs and senators before the ballot papers were handed out and cast 48 to 35 in Turnbull’s favour.
Dutton’s supporters muttered angrily that they’d been “ambushed”. Dutton left the room without having said a word. But Tony Abbott wasn’t going to let Turnbull get away unscathed.
He went for the re-elected prime minister’s big new vulnerability, the event that fired the proton to start the chain reaction that ended with the nuclear detonation on Friday.
In his opening remarks, Turnbull had breezily dismissed the importance of the Longman byelection in south-east Queensland last month.
“I was amazed to hear you say we were always going to lose the Longman byelection,” said Abbott once the meeting had moved into regular business. “Because if that were the case, why would you say it was about leadership?” It was a challenge to Turnbull’s political judgment.
Turnbull denied that he’d elevated it to such lofty levels. So Abbott produced the Turnbull quote and read it out to the party room: “Byelections are a test of policies, they’re a test of leaders, they’re a test of candidates.”
Turnbull gave an evasive answer, but Abbott wasn’t going to let him get away with it: “We need a proper analysis of the Longman byelection. The fundamental problem is that we got 29 per cent of the primary vote and One Nation got 16 per cent.
“People on the centre-right, traditional Liberals, find it very difficult to be enthusiastic about us,” Abbott continued. “The problem is, we don’t seem committed to our policies and our policies seems hard to understand.”
“When are we going to get a full report into what happened?” he demanded of Turnbull.
Dutton didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. From the outset, Abbott criticised, baited, tormented and destabilised the Turnbull government. As the new deputy Liberal leader, Josh Frydenberg, told Channel Nine in April: “Tony Abbott, I mean, he’s is always going to cut across what the prime minister has been saying lately.”
Abbott’s motive was plain – torn down by Turnbull before he could finish his term as prime minister, Abbott was consumed by a visceral, vengeful rage. The Liberals shouldn’t have been surprised. Labor had already modelled what happens when a plotter in the ranks destroys an elected prime minister.
Abbott’s anger drove him to persist in tormenting Turnbull even when it started to work against him, discrediting him in the eyes of his frustrated colleagues. But Abbott’s destabilising was an important precondition to this week’s upending of the Turnbull government.
It seemed to work so well for his fellow conservative faction member, Peter Dutton, that some suspected it was a partnership. And when Dutton emerged this week as the initial challenger to Turnbull, there was a surge of suspicion that Dutton was Abbott’s stalking horse, opening the way for an Abbott comeback.
“It’s bullshit that I’m a stalking horse for Abbott,” Dutton said to his colleagues, “and I’m not a suicide bomber for Abbott. Abbott’s numbers in the party are shown by the number of people who’d cross the floor on the NEG”, or National Energy Guarantee. “There’s Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, about four of them.”
“I told Tony a long time ago that I wouldn’t be his stalking horse,” Dutton said. “I told him a long time ago I don’t think he’ll ever be prime minister again.”
Dutton emerged this week as the conservative faction’s champion in his own right. He had done no deals with Abbott, as both men have attested. Abbott’s attacks on Turnbull were compulsive, not career-minded. The former prime minister ended up getting the satisfaction he sought – the destruction of the prime minister who had destroyed his prime ministership. So for Abbott, vengeance has been sealed. Has the cycle of recrimination ended?
Not a bit. For the conservative faction, Turnbull’s vulnerability this week was the opportunity for a major piece of factional business - to retake control of the party they consider their own. They failed. The moderates rallied around Scott Morrison. By 45 votes to 40, they defied the conservatives.
“It was left versus right – it came down to that,” observes a conservative operative. It certainly wasn’t about electability. If the party had made that the top priority it would have elected Julie Bishop, the only contender with the public standing to improve the government’s polling. Or, smarter yet, it wouldn’t have set about the ugly brutality of publicly destroying another of its own prime ministers.
The Liberals’ conservatives justified this week’s political violence by saying that the party needed to move to the right to staunch the flow of votes from the Liberal’s right to One Nation.
And One Nation agrees that it benefits from exactly such a flow: “A lot of Australians have turned to us because the Liberals have gone astray,” One Nation’s strategist, James Ashby, tells me. “Dutton is an astute politician – he’s noticed and he’s planning to try and get them back.”
But the true appeal of the minor parties is the shocking self-indulgence of the major parties. It’s their self-indulgence that has set in motion the revolving door that spins out elected prime ministers on the slightest whim.
Ashby says the major parties could adopt identical policies to those of Pauline Hanson and it wouldn’t dent One Nation’s appeal: “People don’t trust the two big parties. It’s not only Liberal voters – a lot of Labor voters are disillusioned too and we will continue to hoover them up.”
That’s the true top-line priority – trust. The popular election of a prime minister carries a vast investment of implicit trust. The big parties break it again and again and wonder why voters, despairing, end up resorting to the protest parties. Because they want to protest.
Bob Hawke and John Howard find themselves in agreement in recent years that one of the greatest blights of Australian politics is that the major parties are represented by career apparatchiks, people who enter politics at university and never leave it.
They end up in Parliament with no real-world experience. To them, the factional interest and the partisan interest overrides the public interest and the national interest. Turnbull this week called the irresistible pull of factional vendettas a kind of “madness”.
He’s right. It resembles the mass hysteria of the compulsive crazed kind of dancing documented by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, a history of the so-called dancing plague at various times over the last millennium. One person would, inexplicably, start convulsively jerking their limbs as if dancing, and it would spread. "For several months, small bands of wild dancers wandered from place to place, spreading the affliction to local people as if by contagion,” Waller writes of an episode in Europe in 1374. “Chroniclers tell of thousands of men and women dancing while screeching with pain, leaping into the air, running madly from place to place and calling on the mercy of God and the saints.”
Outbreaks occurred apparently randomly: "In fact, as many as seven bouts of uncontrollable dancing had occurred inn various parts of western Europe prior to 1518." Waller diagnoses it as “a pathological expression of desperation and pious fear." Or, in the contemporary Australian case, partisan and factional fear. I can think of no better metaphor for the madness that seizes Australian’s political leadership, compelling a self-destructive and apparently irresistible convulsion.
And, although Abbott’s personal quest for vengeance has now been satisfied, Friday’s factional clash over the leadership has re-energised the internecine war inside the Liberal Party. The defeat of the conservatives mean that there are new vendettas afoot, and the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, will feel their effects before long. Madness indeed.
Peter Hartcher is political editor.