RODNEY TIFFEN. Malcolm Turnbull on the Murdochs, his Liberal opponents and the 2019 election

May 26, 2020

There is an established tradition in Australian politics that those in power or seeking power say nice things about Rupert Murdoch, while those distant from power or whose time has passed are more critical.

Thus when Murdoch was moving on the Herald and Weekly Times in 1986, Prime Minister Hawke was supportive, while his predecessor as Labor leader Bill Hayden was warier.  Opposition Leader John Howard was supportive, while his out of favour former frontbencher Ian McPhee was critical.  Malcolm Fraser was a beneficiary of Murdoch support for most of his prime ministership but became a critic afterwards.

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard both courted Murdoch on their way to power, but Rudd, especially, has become an eloquent critic since.  There are exceptions: Tony Abbott remains a rusted-on supporter, and Bill Shorten stayed aloof from the media mogul.  However Anthony Albanese’s gushing praise for Alan Jones last week suggests Albanese may abandon the Shorten strategy.

Malcolm Turnbull was never a sycophant, but since the coup that threw him out of the prime ministership, he has been a scathing critic.  His recently published memoirs A Bigger Picture are a treasure trove of material on recent Australian politics.  Largely unremarked in public commentary so far is his account of the Abbott prime ministership, especially the important chapter ‘A very dangerous prime minister’ on how Abbott used national security to play political games.

The focus here is on his main claims about the Murdochs, the Liberals who overthrew him and the 2019 election.

Turnbull’s Opponents and Their Motives

There wasn’t a lot I could do to appease these insurgents – after all, they wanted my head (p.618).

[After the 2016 election, News Corp] increasingly bought into the Abbott madness of destroying the government to bring about its defeat so that Tony could come back as a leader in opposition before returning to government in 2022 (p.482).

Kerry Stokes said to several people that Murdoch had said to him we need to get rid of Malcolm, because he can’t win, he can’t beat Shorten.  Stokes argues and Murdoch says three years of Labor wouldn’t be too bad (p.627).

The first proposition above is undoubtedly true: it was an existential opposition to Turnbull, and not to any particular policy that animated the core group of rebels.  The policy disputes, and especially the last one over the National Energy Guarantee, were simply a means of achieving their larger end of changing the leader.  Moreover, increasingly over time, the right-wing in the Liberal Party played by their own rules, as had Tea Party Republicans in the US.  On the NEG, they simply defied the clear majority in the Liberal party room. Moreover, their internal brinksmanship was not punished but succeeded in building a sense of crisis.

Turnbull is on trickier ground in the second quote above.  Certainly from the beginning of Turnbull’s prime ministership, Abbott was an implacable foe, intent on destroying his successor’s leadership.  Turnbull says of him: ‘More than just about anyone I’ve encountered, Abbott is primarily driven by hatreds, fears, prejudice – anything negative’ (p.210).

Turnbull is right to call the scenario of Turnbull being overthrown, the Coalition losing the election, and then Abbott leading them back triumphantly in 2022 ‘madness’.  For a start, Abbott would be likely to lose his seat; secondly only once (1931) has a federal government lost at its first attempt at re-election.  Despite its madness, it might have been Abbott’s plan, but it is hard to believe many others shared it.

I think there were two main groups who voted against Turnbull.  First, a solid core, who were so eager to be rid of him, they were indifferent to the electoral consequences and/or had no real sense of the public except they imagined their own views were majority views, or at least ought to be. Secondly, there was a group who thought their chances would be better without Malcolm, and this included some who – as Turnbull points out – thought the internal conflict had to be ended if they were to have a chance of external victory.  It is in this sense that leadership coups generate dynamics that become self-fulfilling and make it very difficult for incumbents to survive.

Turnbull has said that some who mounted the coup were worried not that he would lose, but that he would win the upcoming election.  Perhaps, but in the infamous exchange between Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes above, Murdoch’s justification for believing Turnbull had to go was that he couldn’t beat Shorten.  While it perhaps confirms the obvious – that the Murdoch press was campaigning against Turnbull – to me the outstanding feature of this exchange is the awful banality of these media moguls’ political analysis.

News Corp

News Corp operates now like a political party.  It attacks its enemies and protects its friends, as it did Abbott and as it is today protecting Morrison to the point of ignoring big issues of accountability (p.482).

Again Turnbull points to an important truth.  News Corp has rarely been a beacon of journalistic integrity, but in the old days it would mount campaigns and have its biases, but there was a bit more flexibility, as Rupert still had some populist touch and responsiveness to political currents.  Now the long term consequences of a strict hierarchy and little respect for professionalism has led to a hardening of the editorial arteries: mediocrity, conformism and utterly predictable tribalism.

The end of Turnbull’s sentence above is particularly interesting.

News Corp Effects

I discussed this with Rupert and Lachlan on many occasions.  Each time they tried to minimize the issue by saying Sky didn’t have many viewers or the Australian readers.  True, but they had a lot of influence with Liberal Party branches (p.482).

Murdoch’s capacity to directly influence the outcome declines with each passing election.  The central reason is the radically shrinking reach of his newspapers.  In addition, they mainly reach the least politically relevant demographic.  Their readership is not only shrinking, it is aging, and these readers are largely fixed in their political attitudes.  Moreover, the shrill anti-Labor tone of these papers has been fairly constant for about a decade now.  If their constantly campaigning coverage was going to affect voters, it would have done so by now.

While the direct impact of the Murdoch papers (and Sky News and 2GB) on potentially swinging voters is minimal, their indirect influence is still pertinent.  As Turnbull points out, their major impact is within the conservative constituencies, and here they galvanise the more reactionary elements.  Their most direct influence is on issues where the conservative side is split, for example defeating Premier Mike Baird’s efforts to ban greyhound racing on ethical grounds.  News Corp is notable not only for its constant anti-Labor bias but that it has increasingly been a player in internal Liberal Party politics, and constantly on the right-wing side.

They also still have indirect effects in influencing political atmospherics and in affecting the agenda of other news media.

Erasing Media and Political Boundaries

I’d reluctantly concluded not only that Dutton was planning a challenge but that it was being coordinated with supporters in the media (p.620).

The old boundaries between journalists and players have been all but obliterated among these groups.  Just as Turnbull’s right-wing opponents did not seem to think themselves covered by party discipline and party rules, several key figures in the media had no sense of professional detachment.  Partly this is because many of the most prominent media soapboxes – among Murdoch columnists, Sky News panellists, 2GB shock jocks – are now occupied by people who never had experience as a reporter.  Their market value lies in the strength of their opinionated rather than the quality of their evidence.  For many still engaged in reporting, their priority is to stay on the drip rather than probe their sources’ claims.  Dutton had the unqualified backing of the anti-Turnbull media army.

Why did the Murdochs dislike Turnbull?

So while it is easy to say that the Murdochs thought I was too liberal, at the heart of it was the fact that they knew I was my own man (p.481).

Turnbull attributes several motives to account for the Murdochs’ antagonism to him.  One is that for this organization increasingly tied to social conservatism in its output, he was too liberal, for example on issues such as marriage equality and global warming.  Another is that he was his own man, due to his great personal wealth – ‘Media barons and many other billionaires like politicians who are dependent on them’ (p.481).  I find this unconvincing.  Trump’s wealth has not stopped him having a mutually obsequious relationship with the Murdochs.  The last is that he did not give the Murdoch press the same privileged access that Abbott had done.  This is much more plausible – the Murdoch media seem increasingly to function on a basis of mutual patronage rather than an adversarial relationship governed by professional norms.

Turnbull in Trouble

I’d gone to bed on Wednesday night resolved to call an election the next day (p.635).

This is understandable but as a realistic plan of action, it is pure fantasy.  A besieged political leader is under enormous stress, matched by few other experiences in politics.  An election campaign might seem attractive because, at the height of the inter-party battle, internal discipline is at a premium.  However, to launch an election campaign straight after an uncomfortably close vote on a spill motion would be suicidal.  Not even News Corps could paper over the Coalition’s fissures for a five-week election campaign.

Could Turnbull have won the 2019 election?

To the surprise of everyone, including himself, Morrison won the 2019 election and for much of the same reasons, I would have done (p.653).

The first piece of evidence Turnbull furnishes are polls from Crosby-Textor showing the Coalition ahead in the last months of his leadership (p.640).  I must admit I had not believed this.  Whenever politicians say their private polls are better than the published polls I always remember Neville Wran’s press secretary Brian Dale saying how he used to nudge the figures a bit in Labor’s favour.  Nevertheless, the polls are cited here and they further heighten questions about why the published polls were so consistently and unanimously wrong.

Turnbull says that it was an election that Labor lost because of their ‘class warfare’ and the lack of appeal of their leader, and admits that Morrison was helped by ‘ferociously partisan support from the Murdoch media’ and Clive Palmer’s $80 million worth of anti-Labor advertising.

We are in the realm of counterfactuals here and there can be no definitive evidence either way. However, my guess is that Turnbull would have lost the election.

The first reason for Morrison winning in a way Turnbull couldn’t was the universal expectation that Labor would win meant that all the scrutiny was on them.  Morrison achieved the unusual feat of being both the incumbent and a small target.  The Liberals’ campaign was almost entirely negative (focusing on Labor’s alleged inability to manage the economy and their higher taxes rather than class warfare).  If the polls had not had Labor so consistently ahead, the Liberals could not have escaped with such a policy-lite platform, consisting of tax cuts (and we now know, lots of pork-barreling) and little else that addressed any of the big issues facing the nation.

The second is that Morrison’s daggy-dad was the perfect counterfoil to Shorten’s serious persona.  He produced five weeks of colour and movement for TV news while Shorten provided a head talking of lots of policy detail.

Thirdly, Morrison won in the regions, not the capitals.  One way of picturing the election was that Labor was saying face the future while the Coalition was saying the past can continue.  Morrison seemed to offer reassurance to sections of the population which were feeling insecure and sick of instability.  Turnbull, with his emphasis on innovation and Australia’s dynamism, would not have appealed to this constituency.

Turnbull said that after the leadership coup, the Liberals did not deserve to win.  It is the ultimate – and for Labor the bitterest – irony that this act of political vandalism possibly delivered them victory.

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