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Gerard Henderson's masterful treatise on Mathias Cormann's role in delivering us from Turnbull

On each of the past 458 Fridays (back to April 1988 not counting Well Earned Breaks) Gerard Henderson has delivered us his "Media Watch Dog" publication.

You can find it each week here - it's also published in The Australian online

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Yesterday's huge edition was great reading as always.

But for me there was one story that I think deserved a lot more prominence.

It's a little bit buried way down amongst Hendo's huge range of topics - but it's of great importance to conservatives.

This is Gerard Henderson's masterful analysis of Mathias Corman's exemplary performance during the last days of Turnbull - compared with the way the ABC's awfully-named "Insiders" see things.

 

 

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AN INSIDERS COUCH MOMENT: NIKI SAVVA AND FRIENDS PILE-ON MATHIAS CORMANN

It was very much the consensus view of the Canberra Press Gallery that the Liberal Party erred badly in August last year when it successfully moved a spill against its leader Malcolm Turnbull.

In the event, Scott Morrison became prime minister. The leadership change contributed to the prevailing view within the Canberra Press Gallery that the Coalition could not win the 2019 election and that Bill Shorten was a shoo-in to become prime minister soon after Saturday 18 May.

Very few journalists recognised that the Morrison government had a pathway to victory — which it took — and that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had got the social conservatives back on board and attracted increased financial support.

Sure, the Morrison government has a two-seat majority — but in the election it won seats and votes.

In short, in 2019 the Coalition won back some of the seats and votes that it had lost under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership during the 2016 election. Moreover, the Coalition now holds only two of the ten most marginal seats.

Being a journalist means never having to say you’re sorry for errors of judgment.

So, it came as no surprise that Niki Savva, a long-time Turnbull supporter, has refused to concede that Scott Morrison’s success demonstrates that the Liberal Party made the correct decision in August 2018.

Two months ago, Ms Savva had only the final chapter to write for her book which was titled Highway to Hell: The Coup that Destroyed Malcolm Turnbull and Left the Liberals in Ruins. What to do when it became evident that Mr Turnbull’s replacement as prime minister by Mr Morrison had not led to ruin — but rather to success? Simple, just change the book’s title to Plots and Prayers: Malcolm Turnbull’s Demise and Scott Morrison’s Ascension — and structure the concluding chapter accordingly.

And so it came to pass that last Sunday, on the eve of the publication of the freshly-named Plots and Prayers, Niki Savva appeared on the ABC TV Insiders program.

Annabel Crabb was in the presenter’s chair and the other panellists were Laura Tingle (the ABC’s chief political correspondent) and Annika Smethurst (News Corp’s Sunday newspapers).

The segment on Plots and Prayers commenced with Annabel Crabb asking Ms Savva a leading question about Senator Mathias Cormann’s role in the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull. As avid readers will be aware, on Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, Turnbull declared the leadership spilt — without advising his leadership group (which included Cormann) in advance.

Peter Dutton challenged, winning 42 per cent of the vote.

From that moment, Turnbull’s leadership was doomed and it was only a matter of time before he was replaced.

He lost another spill motion on Friday 24 August and stepped down. Scott Morrison defeated Peter Dutton in the subsequent leadership ballot.

In response to Annabel Crabb’s question, Niki Savva immediately weighed into Senator Cormann. Let’s go to the transcript:

Annabel Crabb: Niki, well might the Finance Minister be scanning his phone [at the G20 meeting in Osaka] because he’s featured pretty heavily in the book that you’ve written — Plots and Prayers. It’s out tomorrow. Mathias Cormann has always denied plotting against Malcolm Turnbull but what did you discover in your research for the book?

Niki Savva: Well, I think what is pretty clear is that as a result of what happened last year is that Cormann is a vastly diminished figure within the government … Cormann said at that press conference [on Wednesday 22 August] that he would stand loyally beside the prime minister. And, unfortunately, that loyalty only extended until the setting of the sun. And then after that he told Turnbull that he was deserting. Now I just happen to think, optics and realities right? You cannot stand beside someone at an event and pledge undying loyalty and then a couple of hours later defect and expect that people will take your word on what you’re proposing. I think his credibility has been smashed as a result of that and I think it would be very difficult [sic] for people to say, well, does this guy really mean what he’s saying or is it just a game that he’s playing.

So according to the Crabb/Savva view, Senator Cormann is a diminished figure within the Liberal Party. Then Annika Smethurst declared that the same is true with respect to his position with the six crossbencher senators:

Annika Smethurst: And his credibility with the crossbench too. Whenever I speak to crossbenchers — they’ve always said that right from the start, wherever they sit to the left or to the right, that they took Mathias Cormann at his word. That he was someone they felt they could do a deal with for the government, he was very much in that role. And now there’s just been this sort of walk away from him, and he’s lost so much credibility — not just within his own party but across the parliament.

Niki Savva: I think that’s right.

Then Laura Tingle weighed in with a criticism of Senator Cormann’s role in the leadership change:

Laura Tingle: I think the other thing that really leaps out of Niki’s book, which might have been really obvious to everyone else, is the absolutely shambolic nature of Peter Dutton’s challenge against Malcolm Turnbull. Now without a doubt they were planning to do this later and Malcolm Turnbull surprised them. But the only thing you could say in Mathias Cormann’s defence, if he was in fact not involved, is that you probably wouldn’t have wanted to be involved because it turned out that they couldn’t count. It was — and you compare that with the sort of deadly capacity of the Morrison forces to seize the opportunity. And here is a group of people which Mathias Cormann may or may not have been involved with, who had been plotting to move against the prime minister in that period of time. But they didn’t have the numbers, they didn’t know what was going on and they were not able to seize the opportunity very successfully of what sort of unfolded over those few days. And it became Mathias Cormann’s intervention ultimately that really was the death knell for the prime minister.

Niki Savva: I think that’s right.

And now for a bit of reality.

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٠ Malcolm Turnbull was principally responsible for losing the prime ministership. He led the Coalition to a loss of 14 seats in the 2016 election and the government survived with a majority of one. Moreover, having set Newspoll as the arbiter of political success, Turnbull presided over two score of opinion poll losses. Then there was his disastrous decision to call a leadership spill without consulting most of his supporters at the time. None of this was mentioned on Insiders last Sunday.

٠ As at the afternoon of Tuesday 21 August 2018, the Turnbull prime ministership was effectively destroyed. It fell to Senator Cormann — the most senior figure in the Liberal Party who was not a possible leadership contender — to resolve the situation. This he did, commencing Wednesday 22 August with his resignation from the Turnbull cabinet.

٠ Despite effectively dropping the secret ballot provisions which cover Liberal Party leadership ballots, Malcolm Turnbull lost a second spill motion on Friday 24 August, 2018. He then stepped down. This demonstrated that Senator Cormann (who supported Peter Dutton) could count — in that he achieved his essential aim in difficult circumstances.

٠ It so happened that Scott Morrison defeated Peter Dutton in the leadership ballot after Julie Bishop was eliminated in the first round of voting.

٠ By acting as he did, Mathias Cormann saved the Liberal Party in the short term. As Ms Savva points out in her book, Mr Turnbull threatened to call an early election at this time — which almost certainly would have led to a Labor victory at the subsequent election. The fact that the matter was resolved by the morning of Friday 24 August 2018 prevented such a scenario from happening.

٠ Last night, Mathias Cormann — in his capacity as leader of the government in the Senate — obtained the support of four crossbench senators to pass the Morrison government’s tax reform legislation. This would not have been possible if he was not trusted by the likes of Senators Bernardi, Griff, Lambie and Patrick.

٠ Finally, Mathias Cormann was the key player in the decision of the Turnbull government to change the Senate voting system to make it difficult for candidates with very low primary votes to get elected. This led to a situation where only two crossbench senators won election at the 2019 election. This made it easier for the Coalition to negotiate its tax legislation through the Senate than otherwise would have been the case.

Mathias Cormann may be regarded as discredited by those who presided on the Insiders couch last Sunday, but this does not reflect his position in the Liberal Party or in the Senate.

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