Turnbull’s secret strategy is working

Andrew L. Urban

Let me mess with your mind.

Malcolm Turnbull secretly, with steely fury, turned on the Liberal Party when they voted him out of the leadership on December 1, 2009. The leadership spill was triggered by his staunch adherence to global warming policies – the Rudd Government’s ETS. The party rebelled. Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott stood against him, and ultimately, a surprised Abbott defeated Turnbull 42 – 41. Turnbull had been in Parliament just five years, but by his reckoning, he should have been on his way to the Lodge after the next election. His political road map had been torn up.

What ingratitude, he fumed to himself. His decision to join the Liberal Party instead of the ALP had evidently been a mistake. What’s the point of joining a Party if you can’t be its leader?

In his recently self-published memoir, Setting the Record Straight (June, 2017), former State Labor minister Carl Scully says he once asked Malcolm Turnbull: “Malcolm, why on earth did you join the Libs and not the ALP?”

According to Scully, Turnbull’s response was: “I could never succeed in the Labor party as it would be unforgiving towards someone who had been a successful businessman”. That was it: a telling absence of ideology, let alone Liberal ideology, and the need to ‘succeed’ – i.e. lead.

Well, now it wasn’t his business success that stood against him, but his Labor-aligned ‘climate’ policy. His trajectory towards the Lodge (not that he wanted to move in there, ghastly suburban place decorated in plebeian taste) was truncated. By one vote. By Abbott! The ignominy.

By midnight on December 1, 2009, Malcolm had morphed into malcontent, with the stirrings of a Machiavellian plan for revenge. He would eat out the heart of the Party, regain the leadership by hook or by crook – or both – and corrode its chances of retaining power. His personal popularity with the public (and left-leaning media) would hide his treason. The plan would require political self-immolation, but not before he would claim the Prime Ministership. On his terms. With his Team Turnbull seal behind him on the pedestal. Labor would never take him, anyway, and the Liberals had discarded him even before he had a chance to soar.

But how would this plan take effect? After sunset, in his Point Piper study with its view across the lights that bejewel Sydney Harbour, Malcolm Turnbull would nightly plot his new road map to political revenge – via the Prime Minister’s Office.

First up, he would have to gather his own team in the Party, those who were to the left of Abbott – or otherwise anti-Abbott. Then he would manoeuvre into position and strike at the first opportunity to replace Abbott as PM.

The date of that opportunity was September 14, 2015. The vote was 54 – 44 in his favour. At 11.09pm on that day, Bill Shorten tweeted: ‘Australians know that with Malcolm, it will always be about Malcolm.’ But then Shorten is a sharp political operator and knows a kindred spirit when he sees one.

Turnbull didn’t need a stronger pretext than poor polling. Julia Gillard had done it to Kevin Rudd with the simple if meaningless explanation that “a good Government had lost its way”.

And none of this ‘keep him in Cabinet’ nonsense. Leave Abbott on the backbench, isolate him. And start massaging policies that would drive the base away, without showing his hand. It would leave Abbott ungagged by cabinet rules, but unable to influence policies from within. Turnbull would be a political double agent, having learnt important lessons when defending former MI5 officer Peter Wright in the famous 1987 Spycatcher trial, notably the 11th commandment: thou shalt not get caught.

Turnbull’s plan nearly failed – ironically for succeeding in alienating the Conservative base rather too fast – when the 2016 election was slipping from his grasp. He could not lose now, not only having to endure the excruciating humiliation of the loss (after Abbott’s 14 seat 2013 victory), but also to have his plan unfinished. He dug into his personal coffers for $1.75 million – which would also help his cover as a loyal Liberal. It was worth it to stay on course to the ultimate goal, to see the landslide loss at what would be his final election, in 2019. While it held up, his personal popularity would mislead everyone …

“not a coherent vision for Australia, a strategy to destroy the Liberal party”

The PM’s cabal of supporters would be privileged like some Praetorian Guard. Through them, the public could be kept ignorant of the white anting that would structurally weaken the Liberal Party until it was past the point of no return. They would be involuntary accomplices, mistaking the shift to the left as clever marketing to a younger demographic.

With them, the left leaning, un-Conservative policies could pass Cabinet. He always imagined he could get things like Gonski 2 over the line, while at the same time letting free speech wither under a misguided and misused Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. When the agitation about free speech reached him, the Prime Minister dismissed the issue as of little importance to the Government since there was not a single job in it. (A remark that will haunt him to his grave.) When he should have championed free speech he was silent. That should have given him away even to his Praetorian Guard, but they were already deaf and blind.

He had needed policy cover, hence the need to pass something like the ABCC bill [construction watchdog]. As for same sex marriage, he could wrangle that to his own advantage, one way or another, to hurt the Conservative cause.

His strategy was not a coherent vision for Australia; it was a strategy to destroy the Liberal Party for its stupidity in denying him the leadership in 2009. After a short break following the 2019 election loss (faking commiseration), he would go back into merchant banking. The carcass of the Liberal Party would sulk on the opposition benches, unaware they had been politically dead since December 2, 2009.

Now, if my hypothesis is wrong, it can only mean that Turnbull has done it all accidentally. By mistake. A mountain of mistakes.

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