Two decades ago I supported the campaign of the Australian Republic Movement led by Malcolm Turnbull. There were two compelling reasons. First, it made sense that Australia should have an Australian head of state. And second, it seemed improper that a relatively new nation should be associated with the concept of succession by heredity.
So it was strange this week that the ABC, not known to be a bastion of monarchists, gave such extensive coverage to the views of Alex Turnbull.
It is difficult to imagine the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster normally would take much note of the stance of a Singapore-based Australian who manages a hedge fund and is heavily into renewable energy — except for the fact Alex Turnbull is the son of the former prime minister who, from New York, declined to make an unequivocal statement in support of Dave Sharma, the Liberal Party’s candidate in today’s Wentworth by-election. This despite the fact that Malcolm Turnbull backed Sharma’s bid to win Liberal preselection.
It was understandable why the media covered Alex Turnbull’s Facebook and Twitter messages last week. After all, it was news that the scion of the former Liberal leader and member for Wentworth had advised voters: “Don’t vote for the Liberal Party in the Wentworth by-election”, and advocated support for Labor’s Tim Murray. But the ABC returned to the story this week with a vengeance. On Monday, Patricia Karvelas conducted a long and soft interview with Alex Turnbull on Radio National Drive. On Wednesday, Triple J presenter Tom Tilley did likewise on Hack.
On Drive, Alex Turnbull not only backed Murray for Wentworth but also expressed a range of views on energy policy, racism and religious freedom, in addition to the Coalition. The Liberals, he claimed, contained many “crazy” people, then added that the Nationals were “infiltrated by Nazis”. His views went unchallenged.
It was more of the same on Hack, where Tilly made many references to his interviewee’s dad. Alex Turnbull alleged the Liberals were “dog-whistling to Nazis”, maintained that Scott Morrison’s government wanted gay kids expelled from school, mentioned that the Prime Minister was a “Pentecostal Christian” and bagged News Corp (publisher of The Weekend Australian). Then there was more.
Alex Turnbull attacked Morrison for once bringing a piece of coal into parliament. He asserted that on energy policy “everyone laughs at us”. Needless to say, Tilley did not raise the point that sophisticated Germany was building efficient new coal plants as the nation could not be powered by renewables alone and it was getting out of nuclear energy.
The only thing fresh in the Hack interview occurred when Alex Turnbull was asked by Tilley to name the top five “crazies” in the Liberal Party. A leading (green-left) question, to be sure. He nominated Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton, Angus Taylor, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz, in that order, amid mutual mocking laughter. Young Turnbull went on to suggest as many as 45 of the 85 Liberal federal MPs were crazy. Yet on Drive two days earlier he had accused his critics of “ad hominem attacks”.
There was only one change in the Singapore-based businessman’s position between the two interviews. On Drive he supported a primary vote for Labor’s Murray. By Wednesday he was calling on Wentworth electors to give their primary vote to independent candidate Kerryn Phelps. Presumably word reached Singapore that, due to likely preference flows, Sharma probably can only be defeated by Phelps.
Alex Turnbull’s rant from Singapore overlooked two facts. “Crazy” Abbott is one of only four Liberals who have led the party to government from opposition by defeating Labor at the polls. The others are Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard. Also, the only reason the Coalition can lose its one-vote majority today turns on the fact that Malcolm Turnbull lost 14 seats at the July 2016 election.
If the Coalition had then lost, say, a net of six or eight seats, there probably would have been no leadership change in August. Malcolm Turnbull primarily lost the support of most of his parliamentary colleagues because they believed that under his leadership the Coalition could not do better next year than it did in 2016, and probably would do worse.
It is sometimes overlooked that in 2016 the Coalition’s narrow victory was due essentially to a strong showing by Barnaby Joyce’s Nationals. This is a truth both Turnbulls overlook, as do many members of the media, particularly at the ABC, Fairfax Media and the Guardian Australia.
Quite a few journalists want Phelps to win because they opposed the leadership change and prefer it when the party is led by a small-L liberal such as Malcolm Turnbull.
This partly explains the ABC’s extraordinary beat-up on Wednesday night and Thursday morning about the anonymous, and false, rumour that Phelps had HIV and would not contest. The coverage implied this email was put out by the independent candidate’s opponents. But it is likelier to have been a clandestine “black operation” designed to damage Sharma. In this context, it is worth noting the email refers to Sharma’s part-Indian heritage.
Monday’s Daily Telegraph covered the story of the email — which was circulated to about 100 recipients on Sunday — in a discreet and professional way. It reported that “the campaign has been targeted by dirty tricks, with an email recently sent to voters falsely claiming that Dr Phelps had pulled out of the campaign for medical reasons and to vote instead for Dave Sharma”.
Two days later, highlighting the false HIV allegation, the ABC grabbed the story and implied that the email was aimed at discrediting Phelps. There is no evidence that this is the case. However, at least it reduced the ABC coverage of the thoughts of Alex Turnbull in Singapore.