Flashback 2015: How Victorian Liberals got Turnbull home
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Flashback 2015: How Victorian Liberals got Turnbull home

First published in The Age on September16, 2015

How Victorians got Turnbull home

TURNBULL DAY 1 - The kingmakers

It was the moment that convinced the staunchest of Tony Abbott supporters that Malcolm Turnbull had the numbers. The sight of Scott Ryan, Liberal senator for Victoria and parliamentary secretary to Christopher Pyne, lining up behind Malcolm Turnbull for the very public walk to the party room for Monday night's leadership vote.

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"Scotty is walking behind Malcolm!," read an SMS sent from one leading Victorian Liberal, watching at home on television. "That's it - Abbott's dead."

The comment almost certainly exaggerates Ryan's role in dislodging Abbott, and his influence over the party more broadly. Yet, the image of the men running the gauntlet past the media pack was symbolic. The animosity between Turnbull and Ryan is, in Liberal Party circles, quite legendary, dating back the fractious emissions trading debate of 2009.

"The dislike for each other is well known," said another leading Liberal figure. "I don't think their character descriptions for each other could be printed in a family newspaper."

But politics makes for strange bedfellows, and thus Scott Ryan and another disciple of former treasurer Peter Costello, Senator Mitch Fifield, joined Turnbull for his walk down a Canberra corridor to the prime ministership.

Victorian Senator Scott Ryan.

Victorian Senator Scott Ryan.Credit:Andrew Meares

Fifield himself played a role in tearing down Turnbull Mk1 back in 2009, as one of three shadow parliamentary secretaries to quit in protest over plans for an emissions trading scheme. That move that opened the door for Abbott's challenge as opposition leader.

Others also emphasise the role of Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger, a long term admirer and ally of the new PM. Whether Kroger actively canvassed the numbers for Turnbull is unclear, but the Victorian powerbroker at least had sufficient inside knowledge to accurately predict Turnbull's win by a 10 vote margin, before the ballot had taken place, stating that Julie Bishop had played the decisive role.

Until just a few weeks ago, the Costello faction had been agitating for the rise of Scott Morrison as Liberal leader. Dire polling in Victoria, combined with a perceived lack of opportunity and career advancement under Abbott, had galvanised the group against the Prime Minister.

Malcolm Turnbull and Victorian member Kelly O'Dwyer.

Malcolm Turnbull and Victorian member Kelly O'Dwyer.Credit:Andrew Meares

According to one senior Liberal source, the polls for Tony Abbott in Victoria had been "horrific", with the party facing the loss of not only marginal seats such as Deakin, Corangamite and La Trobe, but also seats normally regarded as relatively safe, including Dunkley, Casey and Aston.

Morrison seemed intent on playing a longer game. With the smell of change in the air, Ryan, Fifield and Kelly O'Dwyer fell in line behind Turnbull.

Thus a small clutch of Victorians played a central role in giving Turnbull the numbers, as well as a sufficient enough buffer to kill off any hope of an Abbott return.

"Essentially this was planned months ago," said a senior Liberal figure, after the execution of Abbott.

"But it wasn't planned by the Costello faction. In the end it was Julie Bishop's decision to go to Tony, which avoided the need for a formal spill motion. That opened the door for junior members of the executive to have a free vote. The Costello faction, at the last minute, then decided to back the winner."

Julie Bishop and Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield, October 2015.

Julie Bishop and Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield, October 2015.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Just where the Victorians in Canberra will land will depend on internal machinations within the Liberal Party, In particular, the deals and promises made by Turnbull in NSW.

But it appears O'Dwyer is guaranteed a promotion, as Turnbull seeks to promote more women to federal cabinet. But the end could be nigh for other Victorians.

The Minister for Defence, Kevin Andrews, seems the biggest casualty, despite the chutzpah he showed in challenging Julie Bishop for the deputy's role, a vote he lost 70 to 30. Even his staunchest supporters fear the writing is on the wall, unless a last minute peace deal can be struck. "At least we now know exactly how many members of the conservative right faction there are in Canberra," quipped one Victorian Liberal.

Prime Minister Abbott responds to the Malcolm Turnbull leadership challenge.

Prime Minister Abbott responds to the Malcolm Turnbull leadership challenge.Credit:Andrew Meares

Environment Minister Greg Hunt voted for Turnbull when he lost to Abbott, and now Abbott in this loss to Turnbull. HIs future remains in the air. "It's about doing the right thing," said one of his supporters. "Greg voted for the incumbent in both cases, so no-one can question his loyalty. It's better to back the losing side than be a rat."

Small Business Minister Bruce Bilson is also under the spotlight. "It's a time for renewal, and some people have to make way and be told their time has come," The Age was told.

Josh Frydenberg also made the corridor walk alongside Abbott, Andrews and Bilson. Despite his public backing of the losing horse, Frydenberg's future seems bright.

"As a parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, Josh had to go down with the ship and be seen to be doing the right thing. Anything less would have ended his career."