When John Howard lost his seat in 2007 and Peter Costello decided to move to the backbench, Malcolm Turnbull, despite having been in cabinet for less than a year, was the first to put his hand up for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Tony Abbott was also in the running until he pulled out the day before the vote leaving Turnbull to fight it out with Brendan Nelson.
Paddy Manning, in his book Born to Rule, gave an interesting insight into how the party felt about Turnbull at the time.
As Nelson rang around, he encountered a surprising number of MPs who wanted to get Turnbull over and done with: “Look, we’ve got to get rid of Malcolm, but the only way to get rid of him is to make him the leader. Whoever’s going to be the leader now will not be our next prime minister. Brendan, you just need to serve on the frontbench and let nature take its course.”
As it turned out, Nelson won narrowly, 45 votes to 42, and he appointed Turnbull to be his shadow treasurer.
Turnbull pledged his loyalty to Nelson but gave him absolutely none: he simply refused to accept the decision of the party room, and the undermining began immediately.
When an early poll showed the electorate would have preferred Turnbull, he called Nelson’s chief of staff, Peter Hendy, telling him that his job was to get Brendan to resign in the next few weeks because Brendan was hopeless and he would damage the Liberal brand so much that by the time, he, Turnbull, took over, the next election would be unwinnable.
“I told him his suggestion was ridiculous, but he was absolutely serious and he kept calling and making it again, and on occasions he called Brendan and made the same suggestion,” Hendy said.
(This is the same Peter Hendy who, in 2015, as member for Eden-Monaro, hosted the dinner where the move for Turnbull to roll Abbott was put in play.)
In his relentless campaign against Nelson, Manning says that Turnbull took disloyalty to extremes, launching a tax review without telling his leader, constant leaking to the press, and even resorting to having private polling done on Nelson’s popularity.
After the Gippsland by-election showed a significant swing against the Labor government, John Howard contacted Brendan Nelson and, in what was perhaps the beginning of the end for any sensible discussion on climate change and energy policy, convinced him to abandon support for an ETS despite them having promised at the election to introduce one by 2012.
Bizarrely, Nelson was rolled on the policy backflip in shadow cabinet – at the time, Minchin was still supporting an ETS – and the leadership instability worsened.
When Turnbull took off for a week at the Venice Biennale with Lucy without telling his leader, Nelson, in a pre-emptive strike, called a spill which Turnbull won 45 to 41.
Nelson went to the backbench and soon quit politics altogether – ousted within nine months, and never given clear air, he could have been forgiven for wondering what had hit him. A doctor by profession, Nelson told journalist Peter Hartcher he genuinely believed Turnbull had a “narcissistic personality disorder … He says the most appalling things and can’t understand why people get upset. He has no empathy.”
Turnbull initially appointed Peta Credlin as his chief of staff before demoting her to deputy and appointing Chris Kenny. These choices show that he wasn’t really interested about advice on what would be best for the country, and Credlin was particularly galled by her demotion which no doubt adds to the loathing she expresses for Turnbull now.
Turnbull’s “ruthless white-anting” was “an act of bastardry that left a lot of bad blood. The party knew the Turnbull experiment was high-risk, but, as Costello later observed, it was something the party had to get out of its system.”
Thinking he had the support of the party, Malcolm continued negotiations on an ETS, something that many believe was the reason for his demise, but that was just the lever that was pulled to eject a leader whose approval rating had suffered the greatest single fall in Newspoll’s 25-year history and delivered an 8% boost to his opponent.
Because Turnbull and Eric Abetz, in the debacle that became known as Utegate, used a forged email to accuse Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan of using OzCar, a scheme to help distressed car dealers after the GFC, to help out mates.
In the week after the incident, Newspoll showed a large drop in the number of voters who thought Turnbull trustworthy, and an increase in those who thought him arrogant.
The Treasury official who eventually admitted to forging the email was Godwin Grech. A report into Utegate shows he had extensive links with Malcolm Turnbull and John Howard’s former chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos.
In emails to Mr Turnbull and Mr Sinodinos, Mr Grech suggests neutralising the emissions trading system as an issue, for example, by suggesting amendments, passing it, and then attacking the Government once it is in place.
He says the Liberal Party would not start to improve in the polling until the ”Punter Pain Profile” changes.
”Thanks for giving me some time on Friday,” Mr Grech wrote to Mr Turnbull in mid-June 2009. ”You looked really good. As I was trying to say on Friday – and this is not a negative reflection on you – I … don’t believe our polling will improve until the punters start to feel a bit of pain.”
Mr Grech also offered repeat praise and suggests column topics for Janet Albrechtsen through her then husband, John O’Sullivan, the head of investment banking at Credit Suisse who had been appointed by Treasury to handle financing arrangements for OzCar.
”VG piece today by JA on Obama. He is the Kevin Rudd of US politics – a pure fake. Let’s see the ‘Black Jesus’ deal with the feral North Koreans and a hyped up Israel and Iran.”
In other emails to Mr O’Sullivan, Mr Grech appears to encourage Albrechtsen to attack the Government on its spending.
”JA and MS may wish to pick up a point re the debt numbers,” Mr Grech writes in one.
”Treasury is as left wing loony as the Government it serves,” he writes in another, even though he was a principal adviser in its financial systems division at the time.
This public servant who caused so much damage with his interference won an undisclosed government payout for his ill health after three cases lodged against the government’s workplace insurer were settled out of court in June 2013.
In a 2009 statement to the Auditor-General, who was tasked with investigating the allegations, Mr Grech said he had been suffering chronic kidney, bowel and bone disease, as well as clinical depression, in the eight months he worked to implement the OzCar scheme.
”Given this complex medical condition, and the stark reminder of my vulnerability following my hospitalisation in both February and March 2009, senior Treasury management could – and I say should – have taken action to ensure that I got the support that I needed. This did not happen,” Mr Grech’s statement said.
”Essentially, they expected me, largely on my own in both a physically and mentally impaired state – to land a major public policy initiative as well as to deal with sensitive and challenging dealer representations – such as those relating to John Grant (the dealer about whom he faked the email).
”It is unfair for senior Treasury management … to simply seek to wash their hands of their responsibilities.”
”But the reality is that, in 2008 and 2009, I lacked the energy, strength, stamina and overall capacity to function as I had prior to late 2006.”
One might ask why he accepted the job.
A few months after Utegate, the Liberal Party decided to change its mind about an ETS, got rid of Turnbull, and installed Tony Abbott…and the cycle of backstabbing and undermining has continued ever since
Whilst ever dishonesty and disloyalty reap such high rewards, the best interests of the country will be subjugated to the Punch and Judy show of those who seek power and revenge at any cost.