The Surprise Party: How the Coalition Went From Chaos to Comeback

By Aaron Patrick

  • Black Inc. 2019
  • ISBN: 9781760642174
  • RRP: $29.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

Sydney based Aaron Patrick is one of a trio of journalists who have written a book covering the May 2019 Australian election.  The others are the Canberra-based Niki Savva and David Crowe.

Of the three, only the Australian Financial Review senior correspondent commenced his work after the election.  That’s why Patrick’s book only had one title – The Surprise Party: How The Coalition Went From Chaos To Comeback.  Savva’s book ended up with the title Plots and Prayers: Malcolm Turnbull’s Demise and Scott Morrison’s Ascension – this replaced the intended “Highway to Hell: The Coup that Destroyed Malcolm Turnbull and Left the Liberal Party in Ruins”.  Crowe’s book ended up with the title Venom: Vendettas, Betrayals and the Price of Power – this replaced the intended: “Venom: The Vendettas and Betrayals that Broke a Party”.

Savva and Crowe were part of a near journalist consensus that, after Malcolm Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison as Liberal Party leader and prime minister in August 2018, the Coalition could not win the forthcoming election.  The most dramatic example of this certitude was 7.30 political correspondent Laura Tingle who, on the eve of the election, declared that the Labor Party “will” win the election and engaged in mocking laughter about the possibility of a Coalition win.  Tingle is also Canberra based.

Both Savva and Crowe adapted their works to fit the reality that Turnbull’s replacement by Morrison did not lead to the ruin or the breaking of the Liberal party – but, rather, was followed by a victory in which the Morrison led Coalition in May 2019 won more seats and increased its percentage of the total vote compared with the Turnbull led Coalition in July 2016.

Savva and Crowe, in their columns in The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald respectively, made it clear that they believed that Turnbull should lead the Coalition to the 2019 election. When discussing the fact that the News Corp media’s opposition to Turnbull was not monolithic, Patrick writes that “influential columnists such as Niki Savva had been important allies for Turnbull and had helped him destroy Abbott”. Quite so.

Savva was not in the media courtyard outside the Prime Minister’s Office when Turnbull gave his final press conference as Liberal Party leader – since she is a columnist, not a reporter.  However, Crowe was there. He was last on the list of half a dozen Turnbull faves who were called by the outgoing prime minister to ask questions.  The others were, in order, Laura Tingle (ABC), Phillip Coorey (Australian Financial Review), Katharine Murphy (The Guardian), Chris Uhlmann (Network Nine) and Kieran Gilbert (Sky News).

Early in The Surprise Party, Patrick comments that, on 18 May 2019, “Australians surprised the political, business, academic and media elites; they voted for Morrison”. In the final chapter, he explains the political failure of Labor leader Bill Shorten to prevail over Morrison:

Defying his political heritage in Labor’s free-market wing, Shorten adopted a progressive agenda championed by the Australia Institute, academia, social media activists, public service unions, GetUp!, the Guardian and prominent economic columnists at Nine’s big papers. Morrison stood in opposition to this agenda. His policies, led by tax cuts across the income spectrum, were ridiculed for a lack of boldness. But Morrison was quite deliberate in his promise not to change Australia, to leave it mostly the same – and hopefully a little wealthier. Morrison won the election on the fringes of Australian society, in the urban sprawl and dusty towns where people were wary of the Victorian with the stilted speech and awkward jogging style.

What’s missing from this “progressive agenda” is any reference to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – the home of Laura Tingle and others.  Patrick maintains that “one little understood fact about the ABC is that its editorial policies prohibit reporters from broadcasting personal opinions, other than in very specific contexts, such as film reviews”.  It’s true that the ABC’s editorial policies prohibit reporters from stating personal opinions.  It’s also true that many do precisely this, including on their Twitter feeds.  Patrick does not address the fact that the ABC is a conservative free zone without a conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets.

In a gesture towards his journalistic colleagues – most of whom got the Liberal Party leadership change hopelessly wrong – Patrick claims that “no major nonpartisan political commentator predicted that Morrison could win”.  Yet in the Acknowledgements section, the following comment appears:

Like most Australians, I was surprised by the election result. I was, though, one of the few journalists to have argued that there was a way the Coalition could win: by picking up seats in Queensland and Tasmania, and holding Labor back in New South Wales. The article was published on the front of the AFR Weekend’s Perspective section three weeks before election day.

In other words, Patrick himself believed that the Coalition “could” win the election. (This reviewer made a similar statement at a business function in the Sydney CBD shortly before the election was called. See also Gerard Henderson’s columns in The Weekend Australian on 30 March 2019 and 13 April 2019.)  Patrick is a major non-partisan political commentator.

Most Australian elections are close and it is foolish to make predictions as to outcomes.  The likes of Laura Tingle and Peter Van Onselen (who declared on the morning of the election that the Coalition could not win) should have recognised that Morrison had a path to victory – not unlike the path that Donald J. Trump took in the November 2016 United States presidential election.  Morrison set about winning some of the seats that Turnbull lost in his disastrous 2016 campaign.  In the event, the Coalition picked up five of three seats – Bass and Braddon in Tasmania, Lindsay in western Sydney and Longman and Herbert in Queensland.

Prior to the Liberal Party leadership change in August 2018, Labor leader Bill Shorten had framed Malcolm Turnbull as a multi-millionaire who lived in a Sydney harbour-side mansion and was out of touch.  There was enough truth in this projection for it to work.  But it could not work against the suburban family man whose father was a police officer.  Yet Shorten, whom Patrick described as a “privileged man”, ran his attack on the top-end-of-town against Morrison. It bombed.

Relying on Carmela Chivers’ paper from the Grattan Institute, Patrick comments:

The poor, the isolated and the little-educated had been more likely than before to vote for the Coalition.  Only the privileged residents of the inner cities had been convinced to shift to Labor….

As Patrick puts it, “the top end of town was the one group of voters that had moved in Bill Shorten’s direction”. Or, in Shorten’s (class war) terminology, a significant proportion of the toiling masses decided to give capitalism a chance and rejected Shorten’s (class war) advice not to doff their caps to the top end of town. This move was not picked up by Canberra-based Laura Tingle but the Sydney-based Aaron Patrick understood that Morrison could prevail outside the inner-city.  In northern Tasmania, western Sydney, outer suburban Brisbane and northern Tasmania. And it came to pass.

Likewise in March 2016 Tingle told 7.30 viewers that Labor’s policy to make abortions easier to obtain no longer amounted to “high-risk politics”.  This was not the view of Labor front bencher and member for Greenway Michelle Rowland.  Rowland is a very able local member who is in touch with her constituents.  According to Patrick, she told the Labor leadership that there was a problem with the religious vote in her area but was dismissed.  Patrick quotes an anonymous source saying “they basically patted her on the head and told her to go away”. After the election, however, senior Labor figures – including Chris Bowen – conceded that the party had lost support among believers.

In Plots and Prayers, Niki Savva referred on a number of occasions to an entity she called “Bullies & Co”.  Here she embraced the claim of the former Liberal Party member for Chisholm, Julia Banks, that she had been bullied around the time of the leadership challenge. Presumably by forces close to Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison, she did not make clear who.

Patrick is dispassionate about such matters – rejecting the tendency of some journalists to accept what individuals say if its suits their narrative.  He writes that “Banks had done the party huge damage when she claimed she was bullied during the leadership change, although she never explained what behaviour constituted bullying”.  Banks ran as an Independent against Health Minister Greg Hunt in Flinders and lost, coming third behind the Liberal and Labor parties.

The Surprise Party is not just about events.  The author provides sharp insights into such players as Malcolm Turnbull and his son Alex Turnbull (whose intervention in Australian politics in opposition to the Liberal Party was embarrassing at best and counter-productive at worst).  There are also valuable character assessments of Bill Shorten (whom the author knew well in their university days), Chris Bowen and Scott Morrison.  Also Patrick, who is no supporter of Tony Abbott, makes the important point that the former prime minister’s undermining of Turnbull only began after the 2016 election when the then prime minister refused to give his successor a cabinet job. Abbott was in no sense responsible for Turnbull’s poor result at the 2016 election.

The only significant problem with The Surprise Party turns on the author’s assessment of the key players in the decision to remove Turnbull as prime minister. At Page 41, Patrick makes this point:

Three men in particular emerged with their reputations bruised: Dutton for bringing down a prime minister; Cormann, for turning against a man he had supported; and Hunt, for running as Dutton’s deputy candidate.  All three sank in the unwritten reputational ledger of political leaders. Of the three, Cormann took the biggest fall. His misjudged switch from Turnbull to Dutton with Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield, gave momentum to the challenge at a vital moment. The effect was magnified by Cormann’s own reputation as a politician of uncommon caution and diligence. “[Turnbull] could not help but think he would still have been prime minister if Cormann had not betrayed him,” Savva wrote.

However, earlier on, Patrick provides many reasons why Turnbull would come to lose the support of a majority of members of the Liberal Party. According to Patrick:

▪ Turnbull’s greatest psychological flaw is a curious indifference to the feelings and egos of others. (Page 5).

▪ Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy Turnbull are politically naïve – as was evident in his 2016 election campaign “disaster”. (Page 10).

▪ Some Liberal MPs chafed at the management style of Turnbull’s office and in particular his principal private secretary Sally Cray – and said that Turnbull was egotistical and distant. (Page 20).

In view of all this it was no surprise that some senior Liberal Party members moved against Turnbull.  Initially Dutton, followed by Cormann, Hunt, Cash, Fifield and others.  Turnbull’s political naivety was further in evidence when, on Tuesday 21 August 2018 – without consulting his leadership team – he declared the leadership position open.  When he defeated Dutton by a mere 48 votes to 35 votes, Turnbull’s leadership was effectively over – as became evident when he lost a spill motion on Friday 24 August.  Turnbull’s claim – as reported by Savva – that he could have survived as Liberal Party leader were it not for Cormann is further evidence of his political naïvety.

At Page 42, Patrick acknowledges that what occurred on 24 August 2018 “was a democratic change of leader whose colleagues believed he was no longer capable of leading a successful government”.

In view of this, Cormann’s decision to move from supporting Turnbull to opposing him saved the Liberal Party in the short term.  Sure, Cormann wanted Dutton to be prime minister but he regarded Morrison as far more suitable to the position than Turnbull.  Patrick himself recognises that “Dutton’s relentless hawkishness” on national security – along with the perceived ability of the Coalition to manage the economy led to a situation whereby the Coalition was still more trusted to be in government than Labor, despite leadership instability.

Early in The Surprise Party, the author quotes a memo which Liberal front bencher and member for Hume, Angus Taylor, sent to Malcolm Turnbull after the 2016 election.  Put simply, Taylor’s research revealed that the Coalition’s potential supporters were moving away from the wealthy inner-cities to the outer suburbs, regional cities and towns.  Taylor wanted the Coalition to focus on increasing its vote outside the inner-city areas.  Turnbull did not even acknowledge Taylor’s warning.

Toward the end of The Surprise Party, Patrick returns to his earlier theme:

The 2019 election result had been foreshadowed a week after the 2016 election. Angus Taylor’s secret and ignored memo to Turnbull had warned the prime minister that their party was losing disillusioned voters on the fringes of society, in the towns and suburbs far from the high-paying jobs of central Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.  Taylor was trying to tell Turnbull to drop his vague talk about the benefits of innovation and instead become more of an economic nationalist.  Turnbull hadn’t listened.  Even if he had, of course, he may never have been able to save the government. Turnbull was an urbane product of inner-city privilege, and voters knew it.  He couldn’t execute Taylor’s advice because it didn’t chime with whom he was. It would take the evangelical son of a policeman to win over the conservative and provincial backblocks of the nation.  Morrison had succeeded because he was one of them.

The election on 18 May 2019 demonstrated that the Liberal Party was correct in replacing Turnbull as prime minister some months earlier.  The likes of Dutton, Cormann, Hunt and Morrison understood the Australian in a way that Malcolm Turnbull and his many supporters in and around the Canberra Press Gallery did not. The success of The Surprise Party turns on the fact that it was commissioned and written after the May 2018 election and that its author was neither a supporter nor an opponent of Malcolm Turnbull.

Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute and the author of, among others, Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia (2nd edition, HarperCollins 1998); Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015).