Amid the hyperbole engendered by Scott Morrison replacing Malcolm Turnbull and becoming Australia’s 30th prime minister, one considered and experienced voice was heard.
Last Sunday afternoon Sky News Extra crossed to the Canberra Writers Festival, where David Speers interviewed John Howard on the occasion of the release of David Furse-Roberts’ edited collection Howard: The Art of Persuasion — Selected Speeches 1995-2016 (Jeparit Press).
Asked about Australia’s most recent leadership turmoil, the former prime minister took a realistic view. He said parties changed leadership when the leader lost the support of their colleagues. Howard acknowledged that he was once in this position, when Andrew Peacock replaced him as opposition leader in 1989.
In governments since the start of World War II, a similar fate has befallen Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Bob Hawke, John Gorton and Robert Menzies. All the changes were traumatic. All involved disappointment and the falling out with friends and associates.
The words used to explain the overthrow of an incumbent prime minister have escalated in tenor over time, even though it is a democratic procedure under the Westminster system, in which the electorate does not directly choose its leader. A theme coming from sections of the press gallery in Canberra, particularly the ABC and Fairfax Media, is that Turnbull was brought down by a hostile media led by Sky News, News Corp newspapers and Sydney radio 2GB presenters Alan Jones and Ray Hadley.
Rudd, in a column in Fairfax Media on Monday, suggested the leadership change was a conspiracy manipulated by Rupert Murdoch, whom he described as the “greatest cancer on the Australian democracy”. This overlooked the fact that Murdoch has no control over 2GB and that he supported Rudd in Labor’s defeat of the Howard-led Coalition in 2007.
Rudd and others are asking us to accept that most successful and frequently self-centred Liberal politicians make decisions contrary to their own interests and those of their party at the direction of a media proprietor who lives in the US.
The use of the word cancer is all but meaningless here. It’s much the same with wartime analogies.
Nine Network political editor Chris Uhlmann fired the first shot on August 23. He used his spot on the Today show to declare that The Australian and The Daily Telegraph plus 2GB plus Sky News (in the evening) were “waging a war against the prime minister of Australia”. He said Turnbull had told him this himself. Uhlmann’s analysis overlooked the fact Turnbull himself initiated the crisis on August 21 when, without advising his allies or his principal opponent, Peter Dutton, he spilled the leadership position. When Dutton won 42 per cent of the vote, including several cabinet members and ministers, Turnbull’s leadership was effectively over, since he had lost the support of about half of his colleagues. If military terminology is to be invoked, this was the equivalent of a self-inflicted wound rather than the receipt of a bullet to the head from enemy fire.
As a counterfactual to the Murdoch conspiracy, it so happened that among Turnbull’s most avid supporters were two News Corp columnists, namely The Australian’s Niki Savva and The Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine. Savva was a critic of Abbott before, during and after his prime ministership. Devine was a critic of Abbott after Turnbull defeated him for the leadership.
Devine invented the term “delcons” to describe Turnbull’s political opponents. It stood for “delusional conservatives”. After Turnbull’s defeat she tweeted: “Congratulations, jihadis, you have got what you wanted.”
Normally a considered commentator, Devine dismissed those who did not agree with her view about Turnbull as suffering a symptom of mental illness.
Savva has been into similar hyperbole. She depicted the likes of Dutton as “political terrorists” and Abbott as a “suicide bomber”. What both columnists overlook is Turnbull’s plight started in 2016, when he called an eight-week election campaign and then performed poorly, losing more than a dozen seats to Labor.
What took place on August 24 was not a war, or a jihad, or a homicide-suicide attack. Rather, it was a decision of 45 democratically elected men and women, out of 85, to replace their leader. That’s all.
This was not the most dramatic leadership change in Australian history. That took place on August 29, 1941, when Menzies (the incumbent United Australia Party prime minister) stood down after he realised he had lost the support of his colleagues. He was replaced by Country Party leader Arthur Fadden.
In August 1941, Australia was at war with Nazi Germany and its allies. As wartime leader, Menzies had done much to build up Australia’s military strength after war was declared in September 1939. But the UAP had narrowly survived the 1940 election and Menzies led a minority government.
In Robert Menzies: A Life, AW Martin reports Menzies told a colleague: “I have been done — I’ll lie down and bleed a while.” In Robert Menzies at War, Anne Henderson published for the first time Menzies’ contemporaneous private notes of his demise, along with his resignation statement. Both were replete with regret but also good grace. What’s more, Menzies recognised that he was unpopular (including with sections of the press) and had lost the support of his colleagues.
Compare and contrast Turnbull’s ungracious and self-justifying statement of last Wednesday. He admitted to no errors and described his opponents as engaging in acts of malevolence and madness. Moreover, Turnbull never thanked the Liberal Party for making it possible for him to become prime minister.
Menzies and Howard became Australia’s longest serving prime ministers because they returned to leadership positions, having recognised that, despite obvious talent, they had erred the first time around. Turnbull, on the other hand, blamed the media and his colleagues and never once conceded fault.