EGO – MALCOLM TURNBULL AND THE LIBERAL PARTY’S CIVIL WAR
By Aaron Patrick
ISBN: 978 1 4607 6143 4
RRP: $34.99 (PB)
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Liberal/National Coalition scraped home to win the May 2019 federal election in Australia, little could they have seen as they celebrated such a victory of what dark days lay ahead.
The next three years would bring devastating bush fires, handled badly by Morrison, followed by a global pandemic. More devastating for the re-elected prime minister, over time, a cacophony of criticism began to develop, sparked by scandals attached to the Liberal Party and fired by a left collective including prominent media figures from both public and commercial outlets, while pushed by Labor. The pile-on sought to deliver such a blow to the Morrison Government that it would be claimed that the PM was not up to the job of running his country. It was all a gift for the Labor opposition.
A central figure in how Morrison’s fate would be sealed, however, was former prime minister and Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull. In each of the many moments that chipped away at Morrison’s authority, the shadow of Malcolm Turnbull, the man Scott Morrison had replaced as PM in August 2018, could be found, publicly and privately criticising the Morrison Government ahead of any facts that might establish a contrary view.
Aaron Patrick took risks in writing Ego, an account of how the politics behind the years that brought down the Morrison Government could be traced, in part, to the resentments felt by Malcolm Turnbull. In doing so, he has tackled moments in the history of some very sensitive players. However, Patrick has also revealed a man on a mission to discredit his former opponents whom Turnbull felt deserved all they got for having taken the crown he felt was his for the long term. The account is carefully written, tightly researched and allows the facts to speak for themselves. It is both a sobering and enlightening read.
Patrick sets the stage early with an account of Turnbull’s somewhat deluded attempts to fight back, as Prime Minister, against the challenge to his leadership in August 2018. Expecting this to come from his colleague and Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, at the regular party meeting in Canberra on Tuesday 21 August, Turnbull called a spill declaring his position and that of deputy Julie Bishop vacant. The vote returned Turnbull to his position, but it was not comforting at 48 votes for Turnbull to 35 for Dutton who had challenged for the leadership position.
In the ensuing days, Turnbull would make various attempts to prevent a second spill of his position including an absurd plan to call an election, an accusation that Peter Dutton was ineligible to stand for parliament and, finally, insisting there would only be a challenge if a majority of party members signed a petition calling for a spill. It was a week of turmoil for the party and there was much manoeuvring on the part of a handful of contestants. When a petition of 43 signatures calling for a spill was achieved, Turnbull realised he was finished and stood aside, leaving a contest to take place in the party room, on Friday 24 August, between Morrison, Dutton and Bishop. Julie Bishop was eliminated first, then Scott Morrison prevailed over Peter Dutton in the run-off. Scott Morrison assumed the prime ministership. But the real battle had only begun. As Patrick puts it: “After a period of mourning, he [Turnbull] returned to the public stage in what could only be described as a war against his own party.”
In character, Turnbull and Morrison had developed as complete opposites. Patrick cameos their backgrounds – one the multi-millionaire merchant banker, abandoned as a young child by his academic and adventurous mother and reared by a single father who managed to board his son at the prestigious Sydney Grammar with the help of a scholarship, albeit where the boy was badly bullied; the other, the son of a policeman who became Mayor of Waverley, reared in a modest middle class home by loving, conservative parents, in the same eastern Sydney electorate as Turnbull but at the government school end, having attended Sydney Boys High. Where one led a lonely, combative boarding school life the other learned much about community politics from his father. Where one strove quickly to make something prominent and substantial of his name and wealth, the other sought jobs in property and tourism as a salaried employee.
Patrick writes: “Far more professionally accomplished, the older man was intense, competitive and intellectual. Morrison was amiable, folksy and suburban. At 30 years of age, Turnbull was widely seen as a potential prime minister. At the same age, Morrison had been fired from his first important leadership position and was about to be removed from a second.” One had the silver spoon, the other a bumpy ride.
Within the Liberal Party after Scott Morrison took on the role of State director in 1999 and when Turnbull set out to challenge the sitting Liberal MP Peter King for the seat of Wentworth in 2004, the two became aligned. Morrison had worked to help Turnbull take Wentworth. Morrison would win the nomination for the seat of Cook in 2007, another campaign fraught with debate about the role of senior party figures of influence helping with the outcome. In September 2008, assuming the Opposition leadership after rolling colleague Brendan Nelson, Turnbull made Morrison spokesman for housing and local government. A reward, Patrick suggests, for Morrison’s support when Turnbull gained Wentworth. Morrison and Turnbull were by now accomplished party heavies bound together.
As Patrick relates, the severe break in the two men’s relationship came slowly. Following Morrison’s election as leader, Turnbull gradually became aware of the role he believed Morrison had played in his demise, organising the numbers to defeat him by encouraging some of his supporters to vote for Dutton in the first challenge and then supporting Morrison in the leadership ballot. Morrison’s win in the 2019 federal election made Turnbull all the more bitter – a government he believed that did not deserve a majority of Australians’ approval. Slowly, Turnbull would create a voice that criticised the Morrison Government from a soft left position. Patrick writes: “His opposition to the Morrison government led many Australians who had lost faith in him and his government to give Turnbull credit for standing up for his beliefs.”
Patrick’s snapshots of Turnbull and Morrison’s weaknesses are short and sharp but hit the mark. There was always a “hail fellow well met” tendency in Turnbull, able to bring people to his point of view and then discard them after securing them. He persuaded Sussan Ley not to resign from her seat, fearing a loss in any by-election for a government with such a slim majority. Ley had been sacked from her portfolio for using government-paid travel to seek out an investment property in Queensland. According to Ley, Turnbull persuaded her not to resign by promising to return her to the ministry quickly. Once she had agreed, Turnbull made the most of her decision but Ley had to wait until Morrison became PM to return to the ministry.
But as Patrick demonstrates in the bulk of the book, it would Turnbull’s mastery of non-parliamentary politics that would help doom the Morrison Government. Beginning with an ABC Four Corners episode fronted by Louise Milligan and entitled “Inside the Canberra Bubble” which screened in November 2020, a campaign to out the Parliamentary Triangle as a breeding ground for male sexual misconduct among Coalition MPs and staffers took off. Turnbull himself had tried to install better professional standards in parliamentary offices – rules which became known as the “bonk ban”. Now he became a player helping to shame individuals who had erred. From a high of 61 per cent as preferred PM in February 2021, Morrison would fade with this attack, especially in his lack of ability to handle the protests from wronged women. As Patrick writes:
The following six months changed everything. Labor would take the lead in the polls, Morrison’s judgement and morality would come under serious question, and delight at the previous year’s election victory would be rendered politically impotent by scandal. Turnbull played a crucial role in the government’s troubles. But the most visible actor was media ally Louise Milligan, a Four Corners journalist with a point to prove and an audience eager for her to make it.
And so, the Australian public witnessed a trickle that became a flood. Rumours, then reports of allegations against a Coalition minister who, as a schoolboy debater, it was claimed had raped a young fellow contestant. Unnamed, then named and shamed, Attorney-General Christian Porter, who had not backed Turnbull in the leadership challenge of 2018, was subjected to a public stoning. The allegations had come from a mentally unwell woman named Katherine Thornton who had since committed suicide after withdrawing the allegations. As in the case of Cardinal George Pell, also condemned in reports by Louise Milligan, the allegations were startling and, with a full blown media airing, quickly became seen as factual, leaving any denial as defensive or unbelievable. Christian Porter would resign as a minister in September 2021 and announce in December he would not recontest his seat at the 2022 election.
In Ego, the story is even more intriguing. Patrick deconstructs the media campaign and its activist players. He also detects how Malcolm Turnbull was part of the trail of information and statements condemning Porter, statements that reveal how information became twisted and selective in the campaign to blame the Morrison government for its lack of sympathy towards abused women. On one occasion, before Porter’s identity had been revealed, Turnbull spoke on ABC radio with Fran Kelly strongly implying that the unnamed minister, whom most people in political/media circles had privately identified, could have played a part in the accuser’s suicide: “If she did suicide, if she did take her own life, what led to it? Why did she suicide? … he [this minister] owes it to his colleagues and the country, to step out, step forward and say, ‘I’m the person referred to’ and then set out all the details.”
And then there was Brittany Higgins.
The sad and scandalous story of the Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehmann incident/alleged rape late night in Parliament House in the Defence Minister’s office has been reported on and retold with continuing episodes over two years. Aaron Patrick does not try to record its many twists and turns after the details broke in February 2021, nearly two years from when the alleged rape happened. What Patrick does is to take the reader through the campaign to bring the story, and Bruce Lehmann, to court. As the details unravelled, among the many Higgins supporters and their advocacy, Patrick isolates a familiar spine of influence – commentary and criticism of the Morrison Government, and the way it had handled the case – from Malcolm Turnbull.
Patrick sums it up:
Even though Turnbull was unlikely to have had any independent knowledge of what happened, by making specific assertions about the involvement of the prime minister’s office, he provided credibility to Higgins’ most potent but vague complaint against the government. “They didn’t care about me,” she said in an interview, while crying, “They cared about the party.”
Ego’s final fling tackles the rise of the Teal Independents – running against Liberal Party sitting members – at the 2022 federal election. The nail in the Morrison Government coffin. Patrick links the Teal campaign’s beginnings to the Climate Change conference in Glasgow in November 2021, when Malcolm Turnbull made his own personal appearance among the dignitaries gathered in order to voice opposition to the Coalition’s climate change policies. Soon after, the organisation behind the Independent Climate 200 candidates (the Teals) took off. With plentiful funding backed by the wealthy Simon Holmes à Court and well-oiled social media fund raising, the Teal Independents (overwhelmingly women) tapped into the ready made discontent in affluent Liberal Party city electorates. They were women seeking to give a voice to non-Labor voters who saw the Coalition as out of date on gender and climate. Ego exposes it all – Turnbull may not have been a candidate, but his message was surging to the detriment of Liberal MPs in what were relatively safe city seats.
The genius of Ego is how it tracks and reveals a particular personality – not so much by analysis as by charting and recording his actions and, what his enemies would call, his duplicity. A sort of Othello/Iago contest played out in the ordinariness of Australian politics. And, as in that other great tragedy, it is hard to conclude what good might have come of it, for either side. Labor was the winner in the end.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.