Malcolm Turnbull had resolved to take down Abbott but he needed a trigger. Abbott was determined not to give him one. Something had to give.
Parliament House is a sprawling and sterile structure. The corridors are often barren, even when 5000 people work there during sitting weeks. Walk from the Senate entrance on the west side to the House of Representatives on the east and you might see only a few ministerial advisers rushing between meetings, public servants arriving to see their minister or lobbyists prowling for someone to influence. When the bells ring there’s a flurry of movement as MPs rush to their chamber to vote at the direction of the party whips.
One of the rarer sights is a minister leaving their suite on the south wing for the backbenchers’ modest offices on the west or east side. In a building run on protocol, the traffic usually goes the other way. That’s why South Australian senator Cory Bernardi was suspicious whenever he saw the assistant minister for education and training, Simon Birmingham, enter the office of Arthur Sinodinos with a Queensland backbencher, James McGrath.
There were other unusual signs too. Some ministers started hosting dinners with backbenchers they didn’t normally associate with. Human services minister Marise Payne, one of the leaders of the moderate Liberal faction in New South Wales, seemed to be duchessing backbenchers from other states. Turnbull supporters gingerly probed other MPs for their views on Turnbull. Bernardi was convinced another challenge was being hatched. He texted a warning directly to the prime minister: “Mate, they are coming for you; you know that.” Abbott replied: “I don’t think they would turf out a first-term PM.” Bernardi then wrote: “Stranger things have happened.”
Turnbull had resolved to take down Abbott. He wasn’t going to be like Peter Costello, who had long yearned for the Liberal leadership but never felt he had enough support to challenge John Howard. Turnbull needed a trigger. Abbott was determined not to give him one. Something had to give. The campaign was being executed in plain sight. All anyone had to do was read Niki Savva. The Australian journalist, who loved to taunt Peta Credlin in her columns, upset Tony Abbott so badly that he tried to get editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell to fire her. Mitchell refused, and Savva doubled down on the criticism.
MAGNET FOR EMBARRASSING ANECDOTES
Savva had a sharp pen, and her Wednesday column became a magnet for embarrassing anecdotes from Liberal MPs about Abbott and Credlin. Savva probably did more than any other journalist – and there were several strong contributions to the genre – to propagate the perception that Credlin was a micro-managing bully and Abbott was unable or unwilling to restrain her.
The source of the criticism must have been particularly bitter for Abbott. He had worked at The Australian as a young man, writing editorials. The Australian reflected his social views, his hostility to liberal institutions like the ABC and his interest in foreign affairs, defence and the advancement of Indigenous Australians. As a politician, he had benefited from Mitchell’s support. He was liked by Rupert Murdoch, Mitchell’s ultimate boss.
Abbott was a News Corp loyalist and a Murdoch man. Savva wasn’t playing by the rules.There was no single mistake that triggered the challenge that removed Abbott. But one interview encapsulated what Turnbull thought was the government’s great weakness. On September 9, 2015 Abbott recorded an interview with 7.30‘s Leigh Sales that he hoped would highlight the differences between the Coalition and Labor on a trade agreement with China. The deal had become a major focus of the Canning byelection, due 10 days later. The charming Sales had an aggressive streak. She immediately homed in on the anaemic economy, pointing out that unemployment and the budget deficit were higher under Abbott than they had been under the previous Labor government, and that economic growth and the dollar were lower.
“How do you explain to the Australian people that you were elected promising, in your words, to fix the budget emergency, yet in fact Australia’s economic position has worsened under your leadership?” she asked.
Through gritted teeth, Abbott replied: “I don’t accept that. The boats have stopped, the carbon tax has gone, the mining tax has gone, we’re now on a path to sustainable surplus, and we’ve got three free-trade agreements finalised.”
Sales made a fair point. The economy did seem in worse shape, although the big budget deficit was mainly, but not exclusively, Labor’s fault. Still, the disciplined political message that had got Abbott elected as prime minister – “we’ve stopped the boats, got rid of the carbon and mining taxes” – now appeared little more than a tired, hollow boast. “Abbott says stopping boats has helped economy,” one headline read the next day.
TREATING VOTERS LIKE FOOLS
Frustrated and fearful of where the country was going, Australians wanted answers, not slogans. Abbott didn’t seem to realise that he was treating voters like fools. The day of the Sales interview, three of the plotters made a pivotal move. Scott Ryan, Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash went to Julie Bishop’s Parliament House office and showed her a list of more than 50 MPs who they said would vote for Turnbull. Bishop was non-committal. Some of plotters wanted to move the next day. Then they realised Abbott would be in Papua New Guinea to attend the Pacific Islands Forum. Trying to remove the prime minister while he was out of the country would have made the challenge look like a coup. They changed plan.
The next evening rumours of a leadership challenge reached the press gallery. It was hard to know how seriously to take them. An adviser in Turnbull’s office had apparently mentioned to a lawyer contact a few days earlier that there was meant to be a challenge on the Wednesday night. Nothing had happened, and the idea seemed fanciful.
The next morning News Corp’s tabloid newspapers reported that Abbott was going to take drastic action to save himself. “Tony Abbott is believed to be planning to axe up to six ministers in a wholesale reshuffle of cabinet and the outer ministry as he comes under increasing pressure to dump ‘dead wood’,” the article said.The article was written by Simon Benson, a long-time recipient of high-level information from the prime minister’s office, and Daniel Meers.
Four of the government’s top ministers, all veterans of the Howard era, could lose their jobs, according to the journalists: employment minister Eric Abetz, defence minister Kevin Andrews, trade minister Andrew Robb and industry minister Ian Macfarlane. Abbott denied the story immediately. “I’ve seen some reports this morning about a reshuffle,” he said. “They’re wrong. Reports of end-of-year reshuffles are absolutely a dime a dozen.”
A GUESSING GAME
The report set the political world alight. Almost anyone involved in federal politics was trying to work out what it meant. There were two main theories. First, that Abbott’s office was the source because it hoped the promise of a reshuffle would satisfy malcontents who wanted the government revitalised with new talent, including themselves. Or second, that the Turnbull camp had put the story out to destabilise Abbott’s position among Liberal MPs by suggesting some of his strong supporters were going to be removed.
Abbott’s denial made the guessing game even harder. Would he really embarrass Benson by denying a story his office gave to him? Could the prime minister’s supporters have put out the story without his knowledge? In one sense, the reshuffle prediction wasn’t surprising, which added to the article’s credibility.
One cabinet minister told me a few months earlier that a reshuffle was likely in mid-December. It could create a sense that the government was being revitalised, remove ministers who weren’t doing a good job, and satisfy ambitious backbenchers and junior ministers who could cause trouble if they didn’t believe they would ever be promoted under Abbott.
The primary problem for Abbott wasn’t the article’s content. It was the timing. If the information came from Credlin, this looked desperate: foreshadowing the removal of several top ministers in order to save the prime minister. Were Abbott and Credlin trying to land a pre-emptive blow on Turnbull?
“Despite the most vehement protests from Abbott, many Liberals believed Abbott or his office had dropped the story to the Tele [Daily Telegraph],” long-time political journalist Phillip Coorey wrote that day. Some on Abbott’s side suggested it was a “false flag” ruse – a leak designed to look like it came from Credlin or another Abbott loyalist, when in reality the source was the Turnbull camp.
When an Abbott supporter ran into Turnbull that day, he claimed Turnbull pointedly said: “Did you see the Tele article today?” Scott Morrison spoke to Credlin. Morrison later said he told her to be on “high alert” for a challenge. Credlin denied to Abbott that Morrison had spoken in such strong terms. Morrison also spoke to Abbott that day and didn’t mention the brewing challenge, according to Abbott. There “was not a hint of warning” from him, Abbott later said. Other journalists reported on the Saturday that the plot to challenge was well advanced. Morrison was to become treasurer, and Julie Bishop would remain deputy leader, they said, regardless of the Canning by-election result.
Bernardi texted Abbott and told him he had a problem and needed to respond – immediately. Abbott didn’t show any sign of panic or even imminent danger. “Timing is everything,” Abbott said. “You’re running out of time,” Bernardi replied.