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Niki Savva on ‘Plots and Prayers’ and the downfall of Turnbull

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“…when Antony and Dolabella were accused of plotting revolution, Caesar said: ‘I am not much in fear of these fat, long-haired fellows, but rather of those pale, thin ones,’ meaning Brutus and Cassius” – Plutarch, ‘The Parallel Lives

Plots and Prayers by Niki Savva is a fast-paced chronicle of the events that led to the ousting of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and the rise of Scott Morrison as Australia’s latest prime minister.

Morrison is Australia’s seventh PM in 11 years after Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and John Howard.

“It cemented Australia’s humiliating status as the Italy of the Pacific,” writes Savva in her book, Plots and Prayers, which reads like a melding of hard-boiled detective novel and a Shakespearean tragedy.

Niki Savva is a journalist, author, ABC Insiders panelist and former adviser to Howard government treasurer Peter Costello. She interviewed all the main players involved in Turnbul’s demise last year until Mathias Corman went into radio silence after siding with Peter Dutton against Turnbull.

“I talked to everyone to hear their stories and asked why, and what happened. “On the Monday, I asked Corman if he was going to stick with Turnbull, and he said ‘until the bitter end’. Corman kept his counsel after that and he never got back to me,” Savva told Daily Review.

Corman is described as a ‘plank of wood’ as he stood next to Turnbull giving him assurances of loyalty, which we reneged on a few hours later.

Scott Morrison is presented as strategically shrewd. He supported Turnbull to the end while his lieutenants worked hard on the ground with their databases – adding and subtracting numbers. They knew that Peter Dutton would have around 35 votes against Turnbull, enough to terminate him.

Morrison’s men, according to Savva, made sure all the moderates knew that Turnbull was finished and pushed them to vote Dutton. Once Turnbull vacated, Morrison stepped into the rupture, taking all the moderate votes and permanently wounding Corman and Dutton.

“The Morrison crew were extremely clever. They could see what was happening and two of the key numbers men, Stuart Robert and Steve Irons, shared an apartment with Morrison.

“They had discussed their strategy in advance,” Savva says. They could sense “that something was about to happen” and knew Turnbull was finished so they planned ahead.

Robert and Irons belonged to Morrison’s weekly prayer group. Morrison was clear that he would never endorse a move against the PM. They told Morrison they did not need his authority.

Savva says that Morrison was kept “aloof from the dirty work so he could emerge at the end with clean hands, but he knew what they were doing”.

Morrison was going to “make Bill Shorten his John Hewson”, and he did.

He was driven by a deep belief that he could repeat Keating’s feat in 1993 and win the unwinnable election.

Savva’s book describes the plot’s phone calls at all hours of the night, the WhatsApp messages, monkey pod meetings, conspiratorial dinners at Turkish and Italian restaurants, doors opening to surprise meetings of people that shouldn’t be there, bullying, crying, hand wringing and betrayal after betrayal.

As Savva writes: “Turnbull’s denouement remains a sorry saga of betrayal, conspiracy, miscalculation, hubris, and conflicting loyalties and emotions”. Turnbull, we are reminded, was not the prime minister that we thought he’d be, but many liked him. Parts of Queensland loathed him.

“Howard never called a spill,”Morrison had reminded Turnbull, but the PM failed to heed that advice. Turnbull ignored Julie Bishop’s warning not to trust Corman as he was convinced of his loyalty. He also distanced himself from his moderates, including Kelly O’Dwyer and Julia Banks.

The terrible 2016 campaign when the Coalition lost 14 seats made Turnbull reliant on Corman and Dutton as bridges to the right and “more beholden to the conservatives in the party”.

Abbott had a very deep and special hate for how he saw Turnbull as a Labor-lite PM. Regardless of a spill, Abbott, and what Savva calls his “surrogates”, Craig Kelly, George Christensen and a murder of crows, had it in for Turnbull.

“Maybe if the right, Abbott and his surrogates, had let Turnbull do his job he could have won,” says Savva, “but some of the wounds were self-inflicted”.

“If Turnbull had not called the spill, Dutton was going to challenge and at whatever point he challenged, there were supporters of Morrison who were pushed to vote for Dutton so as to inflate the vote for Dutton, and then come into the middle and vote for Morrison,” she says.

“Turnbull did what he could to keep then conservatives in the tent, but in doing that he abandoned many moderate friends (such as Kelly O’Dwyer and Julia Banks).”

So visceral was Abbott’s hate for Turnbull that it even turned off Dutton and Corman.

“Dutton did not take Abbott into his confidence. They did not want him around and knew that he was toxic. If he was part of the putsch (then) Abbott would lose Dutton votes,” says Savva, adding that many on the left and the right of the party were relieved when Abbott lost his seat.

“Abbott went around insinuating that he was promised a cabinet position – there was no truth as far as Dutton and Corman were concerned.”

Savva’s book is an intriguing insight onto into a divided party led by a smart, albeit at times, naïve Prime Minister. After the 2016 disastrous election, Turnbull abandoned many of his moderate supporters to assuage the right who detested him.

“The idea being that you keep your friends close and enemies closer, only Malcolm forgot the former.”

Turnbull, like Hamlet, becomes a victim of his attempt to catch out his enemy, Dutton.

“He had the honour in the end that ensured he would not die on his knees while making sure that Dutton never became prime minister,” Savva says.

Mitch Fifield and others were in tears, as they were forced to vote for Dutton in the second vote. Morrison’s lieutenants pushed the vote to Dutton and then once PM was out, they shifted all votes to Morrison.

In the end, Scott Morrison, the ‘pragmatic conservative’ beat Labor almost single-handed with Josh Frydenberg having delivered a well-received budget and spending time sandbanking his seat.

The ALP suffered the “deadly combination of a deeply unpopular leader, Bill Shorten, trying to sell deeply unpopular policies”.

Shorten was incapable of “selling those policies, so he kept throwing out other policies like electric cars that he could not explain.”

Morrison knew it was the beginning of the end for Labor.

“Senator Penny Wong refusing to shake hands with the moderate Simon Birmingham and then calling the Liberals ‘little men’ was a godsend to Morrison,” says Savva.

Morrison is a “social conservative but he’s not an economic conservative,” Savva says.

She argues that if Morrison can shift the Liberals away from the vicious right to the centre and Anthony Albanese can shift the Labor party away from the nutty, identity focused-class warriors, we may have “normal” politics again.

We may have a prime minister that last longer than the last six.

Plots and Prayers by Niki Savva is a book that should stand the test of time as a political manual of the cruel comedy that politics can be.

Plots and Prayers is published by Scribe

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