It was 6.27am (Donald J. Trump tweeting time) on Thursday when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull reacted to The Australian’s front page headline, “Turnbull plays invisible hand”. The story, by Andrew Clennell and Joe Kelly, reported that Turnbull had been in regular contact with Kerryn Phelps, the newly elected independent member for Wentworth. Phelps played a key role in persuading Julia Banks, the member for Chisholm, to quit the Liberal Party on Tuesday and join her on the crossbench in the House of Representatives.
Turnbull’s message was that “imagining ‘invisible’ people are out to get you is … a classic symptom” of paranoia. However, The Australian did not claim Turnbull was invisible, only that his support for Phelps was taking place out of the public eye.
Asked on Sky News later in the day if she had discussed with Turnbull matters other than those pertaining to the Wentworth electorate, Phelps replied: “Oh no, not really.” “Not really” was not really a convincing response.
The essential point of the Turnbull tweet was this: “Attribution bias — blaming others for the consequences of your own actions is a common symptom of paranoia.” Here Turnbull was suggesting the Liberal Party today, under its present leadership, is responsible for its own condition — not the former prime minister himself.
To use another psychological term, it seems Turnbull has projected his own attribution of bias on to others. For amid the turmoil engulfing the Liberal Party today, one fact remains unaltered: the party’s contemporary plight goes back to the Coalition’s poor showing at the July 2016 election in which it narrowly survived in office with a majority of one.
Turnbull, and only Turnbull, is responsible for that outcome. Any alternative theory would be a case of, yes, attribution bias. Turnbull, who overthrew Tony Abbott to acquire the prime ministership in September 2015, could have capitalised on his (then) popularity by calling an early election. He didn’t.
Instead he adopted a cop-out strategy in which he declared that, with respect to policy development including taxation policy, everything was on the table. This gave an appearance of indecision as the election, which was due around September 2016, drew closer. In the event, Turnbull went both for an early election and a double dissolution. Anyone who was around in 1984 when Labor’s Bob Hawke ran a seven-week campaign knew how dangerous long campaigns were for an incumbent government.
Turnbull overlooked the lesson of history and went for an eight-week campaign.
As it happened, the Liberals ran out of money after week six — and Turnbull contributed close to $2 million to keep the campaign going. The longer it went, the more obvious it became that — for all his cleverness — Turnbull could not communicate a simple message or attack Labor. It proved one of the worst campaigns by an incumbent in Australian history — and it was essentially run by Turnbull and his office.
On reflection, it may have made sense for the Liberal Party to replace its leader after the 2016 election. The essential problem was Turnbull lost seats in Queensland, northern NSW, western Sydney, Tasmania and Western Australia. He did well in Victoria and relatively well in South Australia. That’s all. But it was decided to give Turnbull another chance.
As it turned out, Turnbull lost 38 Newspoll surveys in a row — he had set success in this area as the principal reason for replacing Abbott. And then came the Longman by-election in southeast Queensland in July, which Turnbull presented as a leadership contest between him and Bill Shorten. The Liberal National Party primary vote was a mere 29 per cent. It was at this time that the likes of Peter Dutton came to the conclusion that the Coalition was heading for defeat at the 2019 election.
Even so, Turnbull’s demise was ensured when, in a classic example of poor judgment, he moved to a partyroom spill without notice, only to find Dutton won more than 40 per cent of the vote. After that it was only a matter of time until his tenure ended on August 24.
Having led the Coalition to a one-seat majority in 2016, Turnbull resigned as the member for Wentworth in August, leaving his successor, Scott Morrison, heading a minority government. Then he declined to support the Liberal Party candidate, Dave Sharma, in the subsequent by-election that was lost narrowly to Phelps. And this week Banks, a loyal Turnbullist, quit the party.
Banks has been reported as declaring that in 2016 she “was elected under the Turnbull brand” and so was entitled to junk the Liberal Party once Turnbull was replaced by Morrison. However, it is impossible to imagine a similar excuse would have been accepted with respect to an Abbott supporter who junked the party because the former prime minister was overthrown by Turnbull.
Banks’s claim that she was only a Turnbull Liberal overlooks a couple of facts. First, under the presidency of Michael Kroger, the Liberal Party in Victoria contributed $250,000 to the 2016 Chisholm campaign — in which the Liberal Party picked up its only victory over Labor. Second, former prime minister John Howard campaigned for Banks in 2016. Howard would not accept that there is such an entity as the “Turnbull party”.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s David Crowe, who is sympathetic to the moderate, read left-wing, faction of the Liberal Party, seems to believe that Banks won Chisholm without much help. The evidence suggests otherwise. He also believes that Banks was driven out of the Liberal Party. This overlooks the fact no Liberal group wanted her to quit.
Banks will not accept that Turnbull lost the support of most of his colleagues. But Abbott’s supporters accepted reality in 2015 — as did Julia Gillard’s supporters in 2013, Kevin Rudd’s supporters in 2010 and Bob Hawke’s supporters in 1991. It’s called the Westminster system of politics.
Meanwhile Turnbull accuses his opponents of attributing blame for the Liberal Party’s current discontents on him — while he attributes his own failure to others.