18 September 2015
by Phillip Coorey
Liberal leadership: the faceless men who stalked Abbott and made Turnbull king
Flying from Adelaide to Canberra early Monday morning aboard the VIP jet, Tony Abbott had no idea it would be his last day as prime minister.
Neither was he aware he could have been gone already. Sources have confirmed to The Australian Financial Review that the plot to remove Abbott had been ready for several days. Indeed, it was intended to be sprung on Wednesday last week.
Malcolm Turnbull had the numbers. But it was only on Tuesday night last week that the group co-ordinating events realised the PM was flying to Papua New Guinea straight after question time Wednesday to attend the Pacific Islands Forum.
It was decided to reassess and move the next week or wait until after the September 19 Canning byelection. Had the coup been sprung as planned, it would have been a complete surprise.
By Monday morning, the numbers remained firmly locked in against Abbott. The Prime Minister had no idea, and likely wouldn't have believed it if he had. He had met the night before in Adelaide with Education Minister Christopher Pyne, the most senior Liberal in South Australia, a state where the government was facing a rout under Abbott's leadership due, in part, to anger over the end of subsidies to General Motors-Holden and doubts over the construction of the navy's new fleet of submarines.
It was widely speculated inside Liberal ranks that Pyne, fearful for his own seat, had long deserted his leader but Abbott left the conversation feeling he had Pyne's support. The next morning, Abbott announced a $985 million road project for Adelaide and jetted back for the resumption of Parliament.
Cabinet was scheduled to meet that evening and sign off on the government's response to David Murray's Financial Service Inquiry so Joe Hockey could announce it at 8am on Tuesday, before the markets opened. The government was getting on with business.
But on that Sunday evening, as Abbott chatted with Pyne, his fate was sealed at a house outside Queanbeyan, across the ACT border in the NSW marginal seat of Eden-Monaro, held by Liberal MP Peter Hendy.
Present were those whom Abbott would refer to as faceless men had they been on Labor's side.
There was principal coup strategist James McGrath, who entered the Senate in July last year. McGrath, a former party secretary in Queensland, has a fearsome reputation as a campaign genius. He had spent seven years working for the Conservatives in Great Britain and had masterminded the successful mayoral campaign of Boris Johnson. As Queensland Liberal director, he helped destroy Labor in that state at the 2010 election.
He has long been close to Turnbull. When Turnbull was opposition leader, he wanted McGrath to replace Brian Loughnane as Liberal Party federal director.
Also at Hendy's house were senators Mitch Fifield, who had helped marshall support to enable Abbott to dump Turnbull as leader in 2009, Scott Ryan, and MPs Mal Brough and Wyatt Roy.
SA Senator Simon Birmingham, who was in on the plot, was briefed on the outcome of the dinner when he and Pyne landed in Canberra later on Sunday night.
Time to move
It had been decided at Hendy's house that it was time to move – Abbott would be rolled on Monday. The plotters were mindful of the Canning byelection but also worried that news of a brewing coup was now public knowledge.
One Liberal said he could not believe Parliament rose on Thursday last week without news of the coup having leaked. He attributed it to the genius of McGrath and fellow plotters.
But the Daily Telegraph reported on Friday that Abbott was under pressure to bring forward a cabinet reshuffle amid speculation of a Turnbull challenge. Despite the most vehement protests from Abbott, many Liberals believed Abbott or his office had dropped the story to the Tele and it caused Abbott damage.
"Don't underestimate the effect of the Friday story," a source said.
The Financial Review revealed on Saturday that Abbott faced a well-advanced plot to dump him for Turnbull, with Scott Morrison to become Treasurer and Julie Bishop to remain deputy leader. It would happen regardless of the Canning byelection.
The Sunday papers concurred and on Sunday night, Channel Nine's Laurie Oakes warned that Abbott might call a double dissolution election to head off any coup.
Said one Liberal of the decision to pull the trigger first thing on Monday: "We didn't know what Tony's reaction would be."
Thus, as Abbott was jetting back from Adelaide, deputy leader Julie Bishop was visited in her Parliament House office by a delegation and shown the list of names behind Turnbull.
Bishop, her detractors say, had been aware of shenanigans regarding the leadership but had stayed at arm's length.
So too had Morrison. He chose to run dead and not get involved. He could stay loyal to Abbott, knowing that he would win either way. If Abbott prevailed, he would remain on the fast track.
If Turnbull won, Morrison would supplant Hockey as Treasurer. Like Bishop, he kept a sufficient distance to maintain plausible deniability.
The process around the same-sex marriage debate in August had finally convinced Turnbull that he would inevitably have to heed demands on him since last year to challenge Abbott.
However, one source said it became clear only in the past week that Turnbull was actually going to move. He finally had the numbers but "there were obviously big questions and risks for him that had to be weighed up".
Bishop has told colleagues that only when she saw the list of names on Monday morning was it obvious to her Abbott was doomed.
Back in February, the likes of Ryan and Fifield would never have supported Turnbull. This time, with Liberal internal polling showing a 10-percentage point primary swing against the Liberals in their home state of Victoria, they were helping with Turnbull's numbers.
"I thought Ryan would rather kill himself than vote for Malcolm," Bishop told a colleague.
Bishop insists she was still loyal to Abbott on Monday morning. In her role as deputy, she visited him at midday to tell him he had lost the support of a majority cabinet and the party room. Sources said it was a short meeting and Abbott did not take the news well. He sent her packing.
But the plotters were happy: "Julie was the clincher, we needed her on board," a source said.
"The whole Canning question made Bishop's role even more important. Not only was she the deputy, and the conduit from the party to the leader, but as the senior West Australian, we needed her sign-off on moving before Canning.
"We also needed to 'protect' her, in the sense that we had to make it more or less a fait accompli delivered to her on Monday, like here are the numbers etcetera." Other WA MPs sympathetic to Turnbull, including Michaelia Cash, were also consulted about going before Canning.
Turnbull followed Abbott back to his office at 3.10pm, after question time, and told him he was going to challenge. Abbott responded publicly at 6.15pm and declared the ballot would be that night and that both positions – the leader and deputy – would be spoiled.
Bishop says it was only at that point she switched to Turnbull because Abbott had effectively sacked her by throwing open her job.
Supporters of Abbott blame him and his chief of staff Peta Credlin for failing to heed the warnings and then mangling the ballot process.
On Wednesday last week, before Abbott had flown to PNG, Credlin was warned that a serious coup was brewing.
"She was told 'they are well organised and it's senior and its happening'," one Abbott supporter said. "She dismissed it, she said Turnbull didn't have the numbers."
Even on Monday, as Abbott flew back to Canberra from Adelaide, he was dismissive. He had read all the news reports and knew a plot was afoot but did not expect it to be sprung so soon.
"We all thought it would be in October, when Parliament came back after Canning," an Abbott loyalist said.
"We thought we had two to three weeks to take it on and get the numbers. No one picked it for Monday."
Poor advice blamed
The source blames poor advice and hubris for Abbott calling the spill on that night. He reasons correctly that Turnbull only challenged because he had the numbers. Abbott should have realised this and called the ballot for a week away, even a few days. This would enable the Liberal Party base, which does not like Turnbull, to lobby MPs back to Abbott as it did in February.
"Abbott made the wrong call – he thought he had the numbers," the source said.
"Someone made a key call and they f----d it up. I'd love to know who it was."
As all hell broke loose on Monday afternoon, Abbott urged Morrison to run as his deputy, which implicitly meant he would also be Treasurer. Finally, Abbott was prepared to throw Joe Hockey under the bus to save his leadership.
But it was too late. Morrison declined. He would vote for Abbott in the spill but no more. His followers were free to vote as they wished. The fix was in.
"Sco Mo was smart enough to know things were happening, that Tony wouldn't survive, that he could end up Treasurer," a source said.
"But like Tony, he now has this cultivated media constituency like [Radio 2GB's Ray] Hadley, which thinks it instructs him. He had to support Abbott but he ran dead.
"The PMO clearly thought they had him locked in and the numbers he controls."
Abbott had survived the February push to spill the leadership by 61 votes to 39 but the vote flattered him. The cabinet was bound to support him and there was no challenger. He was always going to come under pressure again around this time if he had not reversed the government's standing in the polls.
Gay marriage debate
The coup began to crystallise one month ago when the Liberal Party had a rancorous debate over gay marriage. Abbott and his camp mistook the majority support of the back bench for Abbott's view on gay marriage as majority support for his leadership. It was a fatal error.
On August 18, two days after the party room debate, the Financial Review reported on its front page that MPs were being sounded out by Turnbull's foot soldiers.
Abbott had refused to allow the Liberal Party room alone to consider same-sex marriage, and instead had a joint party room discussion at which National members would help boost the no case.
Long-silent moderates like Pyne and George Brandis found their voice and spoke out. Abbott prevailed at the meeting but then had no subsequent way forward other than a vague commitment to a plebiscite or referendum.
"The fact [Pyne] got up at that meeting was a sign of how far things had moved. Brandis coming out and repeatedly dissing the idea of a plebiscite/referendum was another," a source said.
"Sco Mo then emerges saying something different. Next thing there is complete public chaos in what the government is saying.
"Once again the process issue comes to the fore. Tony could have closed it down if he'd said to the cabinet, 'Look, shut up, we will have a talk about this at cabinet next week. I'll lay out a plan then for how I think we should proceed'."
But, like so much other good advice concerning process, Abbott ignored it. This time to his ultimate peril.