MALCOLM Turnbull insisted he wasn’t “bitter” or “resentful” about the coup that ended his leadership — then proceeded to repeatedly slam the plotters.
The former prime minister’s hotly anticipated appearance on Q&A gave him a platform to name and shame the people who had engineered his downfall.
He took that chance from the very first question, which asked why he was no longer prime minister.
“The only people that can answer that are the people that engineered the coup — people like Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt and Mathias Cormann — the people who voted for the spill,” Mr Turnbull said.
“Most of them are well known. There are no bones about who they are. They have to answer that question. I can’t answer it. From my own point of view, I described it at the time as madness.”
In addition to the men above, Mr Turnbull named Mitch Fifield, Michaelia Cash, Steve Ciobo, Michael Keenan and Angus Taylor as other senior members of the party who had plotted against him.
“It really never occurred to me that senior members of the government, particularly people with such solemn responsibilities — you know, Peter Dutton’s the Home Affairs Minister, responsible for Australia’s national security, for heaven’s sake,” he said.
“It never occurred to me that those people would act in a way that was going to be so damaging both to the government, to the party and, frankly, to the nation.”
Mr Turnbull blasted them for failing to articulate why they had removed him.
“People have got to be adults and be accountable,” he said.
“They have to stand up and be prepared to say why they do things, why they vote for things. And so the people who chose to act in what I thought was madness, a very self-destructive way, to blow up the government, to bring my prime ministership to an end, they need to explain why they did it, and none of them have.”
In virtually the same breath, Mr Turnbull said he had moved on.
“I’m not miserable or bitter or resentful at all, I’m joyful that I had the opportunity to take on that role and do as much as I did in the time that I had.”
Mr Turnbull said the week of leadership chaos that eventually cost him his job took him completely by surprise.
“I did not anticipate that people, particularly cabinet ministers, would act so self-destructively,” he told the audience.
“It was so obvious that it was going to be destructive. It was so obvious that there was not going to be any upside to it.”
He said the Liberal Party’s internal polling in 40 marginal seats had shown his government ahead of Labor 52-48 in the lead-up to the coup. At the same time, public polling had the Coalition trailing 51-49 — in his words, “essentially level-pegging”.
Mr Turnbull suggested he had actually been doing too well for the plotters’ liking.
“We were in a position where we had every chance of winning the election,” the former prime minister said.
“Maybe they were worried we’d win the election. Maybe they were not worried we’d lose it. Maybe they were worried we’d win it.”
“Are you getting any feedback at all that there are those who voted against you who are having regrets now?” host Tony Jones interjected.
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” he answered coyly.
SCOTT MORRISON’S ROLE
Asked whether he believed Scott Morrison’s hands were clean, Mr Turnbull chose his words carefully.
“I take Scott at his word. The insurgency was led by Peter Dutton and obviously was supported by Tony Abbott and others. Scott did not support it,” he said, though not before indulging in a moment of hesitation.
An audience member compared Mr Morrison to Steven Bradbury.
“I assume you mean he took advantage of a situation that was created by others. Well, I suppose, you know, that is how he’s presented the circumstances himself, and I’m not in a position to contradict that or question that,” Mr Turnbull replied.
He said he had remained largely silent since quitting parliament because he wanted “to give Scott all the clear air to do his own thing”.
“I wish Scott all the best in the election, I really do,” Mr Turnbull insisted.
“He has dealt himself a very tough hand of cards and now he needs to play them.”
He hit back at suggestions he wanted Mr Morrison to fail.
“Let me put something right on the table. There is a media narrative that goes like this: PM is deposed by his colleagues, the deposed PM then goes off and plots to bring down his successor. The media will write that story whether the facts fit it or not.”
HIS OWN PLOTTING
One questioner reminded Mr Turnbull he himself had engaged in more than his fair share of leadership plotting, and had challenged both Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott.
He countered that he had a clear rationale each time.
“I think the move to remove me in August was crazy. I think it was self-destructive, no one’s explained it, it was pointless.
“Scott Morrison can’t explain it, he’s the new prime minister. I’m the outgoing prime minister and I can’t explain it.
“With Tony Abbott I set out exactly why I sought to challenge him, I explained what my reasons were very openly, laid out my agenda, won the ballot. It was very warmly welcomed by the Australian people. We won the next election and we got a lot done.”
Mr Jones jumped in to say Mr Dutton “would argue” he had his own rationale for challenging Mr Turnbull.
“You can say he would argue, but he hasn’t. You say he would. He hasn’t,” Mr Turnbull shot back.
“He said he wanted to take the GST off power prices. That might be a justification for bringing a submission to cabinet. It’s hardly a justification for overthrowing the government.”
BULLYING IN PARLIAMENT
Mr Turnbull alleged some Liberal MPs were intimidated into voting against him.
“People become frightened. And they become intimidated and bullied,” he said.
“They’re frightened that the destabilisation is going to continue. And so there are some people who would have voted for the spill not because they wanted me to stop being prime minister, but they wanted the destabilisation to stop.
“Now, my view is you do not give in to bullies. You don’t give in to that intimidation. And I never have.”
No one asked Mr Turnbull whether he himself had ever done the intimidation.
He also spoke about the allegations of a sexist working environment in parliament.
“I believe the culture in parliament is not sufficiently respectful of women,” he admitted.
“I’d say it is decades out of date. It is like stepping into, you know, a business, an office, in the 1980s. It is very, very blokey, and there is insufficient respect for women, in my judgment.”
He cited his “bonking ban”, introduced in the aftermath of Barnaby Joyce’s affair with former staffer Vikki Campion, as an example of him “leading by example” on the issue.
Speaking of Mr Joyce, one audience member delivered a withering assessment of the former Nationals leader.
“Is he really one of Australia’s great retail politicians, or perhaps maybe more of a liability to himself, his party and, more broadly, the Coalition?” he asked.
“I think I should take that as a comment,” Mr Turnbull responded, clearly in no hurry to defend his former deputy prime minister.
Mr Turnbull has been criticised by some in the Liberal Party for remaining largely silent in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election.
He offered just one tweet supporting Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, who eventually lost to independent Kerryn Phelps.
“I did support Dave Sharma, and did so publicly,” Mr Turnbull said.
“My judgment was that, given the circumstances, were I to be campaigning in or be particularly visible in any way in the Wentworth by-election, it would be unhelpful to David Sharma’s prospects.
“It also, frankly, would not have been very helpful for me maintaining my own peace of mind. After an event like this, it’s very important to look after yourself and your family, and it was good and timely for us to step aside and step back at that time.”
He blamed the government’s defeat in Wentworth on a disastrous final week of campaigning.
“My judgment is that Dave Sharma would have won the election — with a reduced majority, obviously, quite substantially reduced — had it been held on the Saturday before, on the 13th rather than the 20th,” Mr Turnbull said.
“I believe the by-election was lost in the last week. It was a pretty messy week for the government.”
He cited Mr Morrison’s announcement he was considering moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Mr Joyce’s renewed leadership ambitions and the government’s support for Pauline Hanson’s ‘It’s OK to be white,’ motion as key factors.
Mr Turnbull pointed out a telling trend in Wentworth’s postal votes — those filled out before the final week were significantly better for Mr Sharma than the ones received afterwards.
“Briefly, you’re saying Morrison government’s killed itself off in Wentworth?” Mr Jones interjected.
“You may very well say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment,” Mr Turnbull replied, echoing the famous line of House of Cards character Frank Underwood (or Francis Urquhart, if you prefer the British version, as you obviously should).
The studio audience generally treated Mr Turnbull quite warmly, but he drew jeers and heckles when he talked up same-sex marriage as one of his achievements.
“I got an enormous amount done. Think of the big social reforms. Legalising same-sex marriage. I mean what a gigantic reform that was,” he said.
“I got so much done. You know, the Labor Party used to say, ‘Oh, Malcolm used to be in favour of marriage equality — he’s no longer in favour of it.’ Then I legislated it, right? So I delivered it.”
“No you didn’t!” someone in the crowd shouted back.
“We did. We did. It’s legal. Five thousand people have been married,” he said.
The former prime minister complained about the media’s role in his downfall.
“There is no doubt there was a very consistent campaign waged against me,” he said, taking aim at 2GB radio, Sky News and parts of News Corp Australia (which publishes this website, incidentally).
“One of my colleagues from Queensland — a man who has been a good friend of mine in the past, and I’ve helped in the past — he explained why he was supporting Peter Dutton to me. And he said, ‘The problem is with my branch members, my LNP branch members.’
“He said, ‘Every night, the commentators on Sky News and during the day, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley, are having a branch meeting with them.’
“Essentially, he felt he was being pressured by his branch members, and he felt he couldn’t resist that pressure.”
Mr Turnbull had some harsh words for the ABC as well, accusing it of undergoing a “deterioration in the quality of journalism”.
“I do think that now, more than ever, the ABC needs to adhere to its charter and its statutory obligation of delivering news and current affairs which is accurate and objective,” he said.
Mr Turnbull denied he had ever pressured or encouraged the ABC, or specifically former chairman Justin Milne, to sack journalists.
“No, absolutely not. There is nothing I’ve said to Justin Milne or to anybody else at the ABC that I haven’t said publicly.”
THE LIBERAL PARTY
Finally, Mr Turnbull warned his party against drifting too far to the right.
He pointed out that three formerly safe Liberal seats — Wentworth, Indi and Mayo — had fallen to “small-L liberal” independents in recent years.
“In order to be successful as a political movement, you have to win votes from the centre,” he said.
“The voters are saying they are concerned that the Liberal Party is not speaking for small-L liberal values.
“What you’ve seen increasingly from the right, even if they’re not in the majority, they’ll say, ‘If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll blow the show up.’”
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