Plots and Prayers: Malcolm Turnbull’s Demise and Scott Morrison’s Ascension

Author: Niki Savva

Publisher: Scribe, 2019

ISBN:  9781925849189

RRP: $ 35.00

 Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

Niki Savva was a long-time member of the Canberra Press Gallery before changing sides and working as a ministerial staffer and later in the Cabinet Office during the time of the Howard government.  She currently writes a column in The Australian and is a panellist on the ABC TV Insiders program.

In recent times, Savva has written three books – So Greek: Confessions of a Conservative Leftie (2010), The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbott and Peter Credlin Destroyed Their Own Government (2016) and now Plots and Prayers: Malcolm Turnbull’s Demise and Scott Morrison’s Ascension (2019).

The third book in the trio was to be titled “Highway to Hell: The Coup that Destroyed Malcolm Turnbull and Left the Liberals in Ruins”. Needless to say, the title was junked on the night of the 18 May election when it became evident that the Liberal Party was neither in Hell nor in Ruins nor had it been Destroyed.  Rather, Scott Morrison, who replaced Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader and prime minister on 24 August 2018 had led the Coalition to victory, winning seats and votes in the process.

Laurie Oakes, the one-time doyen of the Canberra Press Gallery, described So Greek as “a riveting account of how politicians, minders and journalists really operate”. Certainly it gave a certain insight into journalists – especially this Savva confession.

When it comes to scheming and lying, plain old hypocrisy, and dishonesty, journalists – apart from a few honourable exceptions – win hands down. If you can call it winning…. As a journalist I lied often, usually about my sources, but about other things, too…. Journalists can and do get away with lying; politicians and staff can’t. Nor should they.

It’s not clear where Savva stands today on the it’s-okay-for-journalists-to-lie teaching – now that she is a columnist and a panellist. Certainly the matter is not clarified in Plots and Prayers.  Nor is the issue of favouritism. In So Greek, Savva wrote that as a journalist she “learned to slice and dice anyone who deliberately fed out misleading information or who spoke to others and not to me”. She confessed that if a backbencher declined to leak information to her about what went on in the party room she would never mention the parliamentarian’s name again. Unless he or she “had done something wrong” – in which case she would join the pile-on.

Savva was and remains a supporter of Malcolm Turnbull and an opponent of Tony Abbott.  Peter Dutton led the move to displace Turnbull in August 2018 and had the support of Abbott.  Mathias Cormann moved to back Dutton during the week of the leadership change.  Dutton, who spoke to Savva, comes out relatively well in this book.  Not so Cormann and Abbott – both of whom declined to talk to her.

Savva is a fine writer and a good story teller.  However, despite working for the Howard government for a decade after she fell out withThe Age, Savva is not a conservative – more like a small “l” Liberal or a moderate social democrat.  This despite her self-description as a “conservative leftie”. The fact is you cannot be both a conservative and a leftie – at the same time.

In any event, Savva’s main targets are conservatives like Tony Abbott – with whom she appears to be obsessed, as is evident in The Road to Ruin.  In Plots and Prayers, she claims Abbott created “the constant sense of crisis that ensured Turnbull never got ahead in the polls enabling [Peter] Dutton to inflict a killer blow” against Malcolm Turnbull.  Many others regard Turnbull as primarily responsible for his own downfall. After all, even Savva describes him as “a good prime minister and a terrible politician”.  The prime minister is the leader of his or her team of politicians.  You cannot be a good prime minister and a terrible politician.  Just as you cannot be a conservative and a leftie.

Terrible politicians who happen to be prime ministers do not last long in the top job.  And that was the fate of Malcolm Turnbull. He became prime minister after toppling the incumbent Tony Abbott in a party room vote in September 2015, led the Coalition in the disastrous 2016 election campaign in which 14 seats were lost, and ended up losing the support of a majority of his party room colleagues in August 2018.  Turnbull is a clever man who lacked judgment as a politician – that’s why he was not a successful politician.

A week in the life of Turnbull the politician tells the story.  A small group of Liberal Party politicians had dinner in Canberra on the evening of Monday 20 August 2018.  Two of them, Craig Laundy and Luke Howarth, got into an argument about Turnbull, with the latter advising the former that he might move a spill motion against the prime minister at the scheduled party room meeting the following morning.  The details are best covered in the Sky News two-part documentary Bad Blood/New Blood which aired in June 2019.

Now, at the time, Laundy and Howarth were among the least experienced politicians in the parliamentary Liberal Party.  But Laundy told Turnbull about Howarth who consulted his wife Lucy Turnbull and his chief-of-staff Sally Cray. On the basis of this discussion Turnbull moved a spill motion on Tuesday 21 August declaring the Liberal Party leadership and deputy leadership open.  Julie Bishop, the deputy leader, was told of the decision shortly before the meeting was held.  However, Mathias Cormann and Mitch Fifield – members of the leadership team – received no prior warning of Turnbull’s decision. When the position was opened, Peter Dutton opposed Turnbull and won 35 votes to 48.  From that moment, the career of a terrible politician was effectively over. The matter was resolved the following day.

Plots and Prayers exhibits a lack of understanding about how the Westminster system works.  A prime minister can be brought down in two ways.  By defeat in an election (Paul Keating in 1996; John Howard in 2007). Or by losing support in the party room (Bob Hawke in 1991, Kevin Rudd in 2010, Julia Gillard in 2013, Tony Abbott in 2015 and Malcolm Turnbull in 2018).  All instances were examples of the Westminster system in operation.

Savva never complained when Turnbull challenged Abbott in September 2015 and won the Liberal Party leadership and with it the prime ministership.  However, she regards the fact that Turnbull lost a spill motion and stepped down as leader as “a coup” or “a putsch” and describes the occasion as an act of “madness”.

Plots and Prayers contains many a repetition – possibly due to the way it was written before the 2019 election and revised after the Morrison government’s victory which Savva did not anticipate.  She mentions the word “coup” on over 70 occasions and “putsch” three times.  The term “days of madness” occurs on no fewer than ten occasions.  And Turnbull’s comment that the likes of Dutton and Cormann were “terrorists” is cited four times – with approval.

But the events of August 2018 were not a coup or a putsch or an act of madness nor an example of terrorists at work.  Turnbull lost the support of the party room following his disappointing performance in the 2016 election and the fact that the Liberal Party could not attain 30 per cent of the primary vote in the Longman (south east Queensland near Brisbane) by-election in June 2018.  Dutton and his supporters moved against Turnbull because they believed that the Coalition would lose the 2019 election if he remained leader. That’s all.

Dutton was no more a terrorist who brought about a coup than Turnbull was when he moved against Abbott.  But this is not the message of Plots and Prayers – since the author likes Turnbull but dislikes Abbott.  Moreover, the former agreed to checking some of Savva’s manuscript while Abbott declined to even acknowledge her requests for an interview.  Could this be a manifestation of Savva’s “slice and dice” tactic which she has admitted to have used in the past with respect to politicians who spoke to others but not her?

Mathias Cormann was the other significant player not to speak to the author of Plots and Prayers. The words “damaged” or “damaging” occurs close to 50 times in Savva’s book – invariably directed to the likes of Cormann and Dutton, but particularly the former.  Early on Savva writes that “Cormann and Dutton inflicted incalculable damage on themselves, the government and the Liberal Party” due to the leadership change. But did they?

Peter Dutton was moving to challenge Malcolm Turnbull before Turnbull destroyed himself on Tuesday 22 August by moving a spill of the leader and deputy leader positions and scoring 35 to 48 votes in the ballot.  Having lost a second spill vote on Friday 24 August 2019, Turnbull resigned and Scott Morrison defeated Peter Dutton by 45 to 40 votes – Julie Bishop had been eliminated on the first ballot, having gained only 11 votes.

Dutton acted because he and a majority of the Liberal Party room came to the view that Turnbull could not win the next election.  Cormann supported Dutton in the lead up to 24 August ballot. The Coalition’s victory on 18 May 2019 indicated the wisdom of the Dutton/Cormann approach.  Under Morrison’s leadership, the Liberal Party won seats in Queensland (Longman, Herbert), northern Tasmania (Bass, Burnie) and Lindsay (western Sydney) – all of which Abbott had won in 2013 but Turnbull lost in 2016.  The Liberal Party also lost the seat of Gilmore (south east NSW, due to primarily the divisions within the Liberal Party’s Gilmore branch).

It is likely that the Coalition could have held all of these seats had Abbott, rather than Turnbull, led the Liberal Party to the 2016 election. By then, Bill Shorten had successfully framed Turnbull as a multi-millionaire who lived in a harbourside mansion and was out of touch.  Such a tactic would not have worked against Abbott and did not work against Morrison.

Savva, however, believes that Turnbull could have defeated Shorten in 2019.  Even though (at page 204) she states that Turnbull was “out of touch”.  The problem for Savva is that a majority of members of the parliamentary Liberal Party did not hold the view that Turnbull could win.  They were MPs who lived in their electorates; she a journalist who resides in Canberra. Savva has this to say of the 2019 election campaign:

…It was the most effective negative campaign, executed brilliantly by Morrison, co-ordinated by Andrew Hirst, the federal director handpicked for the job by Malcolm Turnbull, now elevated to hero status in the Liberal Party, who would have had the same mechanics in place and who would have run the same ground campaign for his old boss.

It was a stunning victory, against all the odds, especially in the wake of the trauma triggered by the events of August.  The desire to win is a powerful motivator. Or, as Samuel Johnson famously said, back in the 18th century, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

Savva neglected to mention that, before becoming the Liberal Party’s federal director, Hirst had worked as deputy chief-of-staff when Tony Abbott was prime minister. Sure the Liberal Party ran a good campaign in 2019 – but it is not at all clear that Turnbull could have performed as well as Morrison in 2019.  The evidence suggests otherwise – considering Turnbull’s woeful performance in the 2016 election and the 2018 Longman by-election.

In the end, by May 2019 few, if any, voters were affected by what Savva describes as the “trauma” triggered by the leadership change of the previous year.

Savva is convinced that Turnbull had a pathway to victory.  The problem with this assessment turns on the fact that Turnbull was more popular in safe Liberal and safe Labor seats than he was in the marginal seats which the Coalition need to win to attain a House of Representatives majority in its own right. Also, under Morrison’s leadership, the Liberal Party retained its seats in Victoria and Western Australia apart from the two Victorian seats (Corangamite and Dunkley) which became Labor seats under the re-distribution. Prior to the election Turnbull supporters, among some others, believed that only Turnbull could hold the line in Victoria.

Malcolm Turnbull claimed that, in the lead-up to the leadership change, internal Coalition polling indicated that the Coalition was in front in the marginal seats.  Savva appears to endorse this view. The problem is such polling has never been released. She also seems to endorse Turnbull’s view – as told to the BBC’s Andrew Neill after the leadership change – that he was replaced because Liberal Party politicians believed that Turnbull would have won the 2019 election.  This would have been the first time that the Liberal Party consciously chose to be led by someone who would lose the election.

At the end of Plots and Prayers, the author writes that she was not interested in quoting anonymous sources.  Yet the book relies at times on such material.  This comment, for example:

…as far as many serving and former Liberal MPs were concerned, if the plotters and delcons had succeeded in installing Dutton, the Liberal Party would have been annihilated pretty much everywhere, except in Queensland.

The “delcons” was a term invented by journalist Miranda Devine to describe delusional conservatives who wanted Tony Abbott to replace Malcolm Turnbull in the lead-up to the 2019 election.  Niki Savva does not identify the “many serving and former Liberal MPs” who (allegedly) held the view that a Dutton leadership would have led to a Liberal Party wipe out – they are all anonymous sources.

Certainly Scott Morrison put in a brilliant performance in 2019.  But it is not at all clear that Turnbull would have out-performed Dutton as a campaigner in 2019. The point here is that the self-declared “conservative leftie” believes she has a better understanding of the Liberal Party than its members and senators.

Savva opposed the decision to replace Turnbull with Morrison. This despite the fact that she believes that Turnbull’s career would end in disaster – re which see this comment in the prologue to Plots and Prayers:

Turnbull’s road ended in disaster, as it was always bound to, and as he always knew it would, as he predicted to me a scant three years before it happened, in a rather wistful, sad way, when I spoke to him for The Road to Ruin….

The essential problem with Plots and Prayers is that Savva has not reconciled her early conviction that the Liberal Party’s removal of Malcolm Turnbull would leave the Liberal Party in ruins with the fact that Scott Morrison led the Liberal Party to the victory in May 2019.  Like Savva, Peter van Onselen and his co-author Wayne Errington had a manuscript ready to go after the election written in the belief that the Coalition would lose to Labor.  When this did not come to pass, they junked the book. Savva, on the other hand, changed her book’s title and did some minor re-writes plus a fresh prologue and concluding chapter.

Plots and Prayers contains much important material.  However, as a work with a coherent thesis, it does not succeed.

“HIGHLIGHTS” OF PLOTS AND PRAYERS

Page 28:  Mathias Cormann is referred to as “like a cigar-store Indian”.

Page 53: “These days, Australian politicians divide their time fighting over two three-letter words ending x – tax and sex.”

Page 85: “A combination of complacency and rodent-like jiggery-pokery….helped see Teena McQueen elected [as Liberal Party vice-president] by 54 votes to 50.”

Page 90:  Craig Kelly is described as the “attack puppy” for Tony Abbott, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Peta Credlin.  According to Savva, Malcolm Turnbull’s office said that all four appeared to be talking as if they had been issued “with the same talking points” – implying that they are not capable of independent thought.  Savva does not suggest who wrote the (alleged) talking points.

CANBERRA PRESS GALLERY MUTUAL BACK-SCRATCHING IN ACTION

The front cover of Plots and Prayers contains an endorsement from another Canberra Press Gallery journalist Laurie Oakes who retired in August 2017:

How good is this book! So much intrigue. So many revelations. Such a brilliant read.

At page 250 Niki Savva described Laurie Oakes as “the greatest journalist in the press gallery”. In the acknowledgments section of Plots and Prayers she had this to say:

Thanks to my great friend and mentor, and the best political journalist Australia has produced, Laurie Oakes.

NIKI SAVVA – A SELF-DECLARED CONSERVATIVE LEFTIE WHO DOES NOT MUCH LIKE CONSERVATIVES

In her capacity as a columnist and a panellist, Niki Savva makes it clear that she does not much like President Donald Trump. Also she preferred a small “l” Liberal like Malcolm Turnbull to a social and political conservative like Scott Morrison.

And then there’s Boris Johnson. This is what Ms Savva had to say on Insiders on 20 October 2019 when discussing the newly appointed British Prime Minister’s attempt to get Brexit legislation through the House of Commons in a situation where the Conservative government was in a minority.

Fran Kelly: Niki?

Niki Savva: Well it makes you wonder what it was all about with Theresa May doesn’t it? Um they are almost exactly at the same point that she was. So what was it all about apart from Boris Johnson’s ambition?

Fran Kelly: Well I think you hit the nail on the head there, that was always a big element of this.

So there you have it. Ambition is bad when exercised by Boris Johnson but apparently okay when exercised by, say, Theresa May. Also, in late October 2019, Niki Savva failed to appreciate that, unlike Theresa May, Boris Johnson was capable of getting Brexit through the House of Commons and winning a general election for the Conservatives in their own right.