September 22

Destabalisation in Canberra



The Federal government has just emerged from its biggest crisis since it came to office in 1996.  It seems that the Prime Minister had commissioned the Foreign Minister to sound out the cabinet on what should best be done about the government’s low standing in the opinion polls.  So Mr Downer met with some senior ministers involved in the Sydney APEC meeting.  Then, armed with a well placed but distorted leak, Sky News reported that two senior ministers had told the Prime Minister it was time to go.  The resulting media and political frenzy was only resolved days later when the Prime Minister announced that if the Coalition were to win the election, he would stand down well into the term, and that he expected that Mr Peter Costello would follow him.

So who was the cause of this destabilisation? Piecing together the events and based on the accounts of several Liberal insiders, the Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Miranda Devine on 20 September, 2007 pointed to Environmental Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had led the republican movement in the 1999 referendum.  She said he was Liberal Party’s "most destabilising force."  Using strategic media connections and new internal alliances, she claimed he had tried to "stitch up a deal" that would remove John Howard from the leadership and bring him, Turnbull, closer to that prize.  According to a biography of the Prime Minister, Howard had supported Turnbull’s preselection against sitting member for the Sydney seat of Wentworth, Peter King, and that he had then “jet-propelled” Turnbull into the cabinet.  But Ms Devine says some Liberals believe the Prime Minister had done himself and the party a "great disservice" by promoting Turnbull so quickly.  "He has had the effect here of a shark in a tank of fish," she quotes an unnamed fellow Liberal MP saying: "I don't think he's used to an environment where he is not top of the class, and boss of everyone else."

In a letter to the Herald on 22 September, 2007 ,“Column a fiction to me,” Malcolm Turnbull says Miranda Devine's article, "Going like Turnbull “…was a political fiction from beginning to end.  I called Ms Devine to point out that it was full of errors and I asked her why she had not called me before writing it. She said that she had not bothered to call me because she knew that I would contradict what she was planning to write. While at least candid, Ms Devine's statement is an admission of the worst sort of journalism and is unworthy of The Sydney Morning Herald.”

Unusually Ms. Devine’s comment was published under the letter: “I reject the notion that my column contained errors. It was based on what sources in Mr Turnbull's party told me about his conduct. Since publication I have received further unsolicited corroboration. I stand by my column.” 

In any event, Mr Costello should have been pleased. While he had never mounted a formal challenge, he had been prepared to tell Mr Howard’s biographers know what he thought about the Prime Minister, and how he should stand aside. When three journalists reported a similar conversation, he denied this. . With the succession now in place, he seemed to be most encouraged, and this showed in the Parliament where he is a formidable debater.  But when he granted an interview to the ABC on 21 September, 2007, he made it very clear that he was not going to abandon his earlier attempts at brand differentiation from Mr Howard.  As ABC reporter Gillian Bradford observed of it was hard not to draw the conclusion that “he was setting his own agenda – one quite different to Mr Howard's.”

 He said "I think we should hold out the hand of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia.” "I think the public wants it. I think they want to feel that those of us who are doing well, who are part of this prosperous society, can reach out and hold the hand of those that've been marginalised in Aboriginal communities." 

And on a republic, he thinks “ Australia will evolve in that direction, and will evolve in that direction when you have more agreement in relation to the method of selecting a president. Obviously, I want to be part of that."  After almost two decades, agreement among the declining band of republicans is no closer. And even if there were such agreement, there is no guarantee that the Australian people would want it.

One thing is clear.  The senior ministers who are mentioned as possible leadership contenders, and who have behaved impeccably about it , Messrs Downer, Abbott, and Nelson, all remain faithful to the views of the founder of the Liberal Partyare happen to be supporters of the existing constitution.        


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