The death of kings

| February 15, 2024

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

– Shakespeare, Richard II

ABC-produced post-mortem documentaries on national governments have a distinguished pedigree. The latest instalment, Nemesis, dealing with the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison years, is the fourth of these series since the pioneering Labor in Power screened in 1993 chronicling the Hawke-Keating era. The Howard Years (2008) and The Killing Season (2015) followed examining respectively the Howard and Rudd-Gillard governments.

The changing tone of the titles of these series is telling. Though Labor in Power and The Howard Years had their fair share of preoccupation with leadership rivalries, they were also concerned with the substance of the governments. By contrast, The Killing Season and Nemesis focus predominantly on the leadership wars that blighted Australian politics between 2007 and 2022.

The most striking takeaway from Nemesis is that the Coalition’s decade in office from 2013 to 2022 was a time of abject irresponsibility. Rather than dedicated to delivering effective public policy, the Coalition spent a large part of that time consumed by infighting and ravaged by a cycle of treachery and retribution. It was blood sport feigning as government. And even when the leadership stabilised under Scott Morrison from August 2018, there was little guiding purpose.

There is no questioning that Nemesis is a significant piece of television documentary making. Eighteen months in creation, it is based on interviews with 60 participants. Mark Willacy, the reporter and interviewer of the programs, was surprised how easy it was to recruit the interviewees. Their motivations for participating were a mixture of a debt to posterity, vindicating actions and score settling.

But there are also some notable non-participants, most conspicuously Tony Abbott, who became the first former prime minister to decline to be interviewed in the three-decade history of these programs. We can only speculate why Abbott, who is also unusual among former prime ministers in not having written an account of his term of office, refused to participate.

Perhaps his “action man” persona disinclines him to reflection, perhaps the memories of his unfulfilling two years in office are too painful to revisit, or perhaps he recognised that participating would only mean further debasement. Other high profile non-participants include Julie Bishop, the senior woman and deputy leader of the Liberal Party for the majority of the Coalition’s term in office, and Peter Dutton.

For keen students of Australian politics, Nemesis contains few major revelations. The series mostly confirms what we knew. But to witness the sheer awfulness of the era distilled into four and a half hours of television is both gripping and sobering.

The Abbott years

The first episode deals with the Abbott years. It is remarkable how early his prime ministership unravelled, beginning with the government’s first budget delivered by Joe Hockey in May 2014, notoriously invoking “a nation of lifters, not leaners”. It was a catalogue of swingeing cuts and broken promises (Abbott had pledged no cuts to health or education during the 2013 election campaign). When some Liberal colleagues dared to broach with the prime minister the budget’s breaches of trust, he dismissed them with angry invective.

The Abbott government never really recovered. The prime minister’s other problems included internal resentment at his overbearing chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and his own leadership idiosyncrasies. The latter was exemplified by his captain’s call to knight Prince Philip on Australia Day 2015. This rendered him a national laughing stock.

One new thing we learn about the Abbott years is that the prime minister proposed deploying the military to Ukraine in the wake of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russian-backed separatists that killed 38 Australian citizens and residents. He was thankfully talked out of the plan by Angus Houston, who Abbott had appointed as a special envoy to Ukraine to repatriate the bodies of the Australian victims.

The end for Abbott came less than two years into the job. Easily forgotten, Nemesis revisits the so-called “empty chair spill” of February 2015, prompted by a backbencher motion to declare the leadership vacant.

Despite there being no challenger — Malcolm Turnbull was biding his time until Abbott’s leadership “burnt down to the water line” — the spill motion garnered 39 votes providing a comical scenario of a sizeable minority of the party preferring an empty chair to the incumbent. Chastened by that result, Abbott then caused incredulity among colleagues by proclaiming that “good government begins today”. Effectively his leadership was now on death watch, with Turnbull and his allies circling and counting numbers.

In September 2015, Turnbull struck. He sanctifies the challenge as in the national interest: “I owed it to Australia”. Scott Morrison was party to the deposition and would be rewarded with the position of treasurer in Turnbull’s government, though he characteristically dissembles about the role he and his lieutenants played in Abbott’s fall. Nemesis has a delicious footnote to Turnbull’s ousting of Abbott. The former recalls that in the weeks that followed he reached out to inquire about his predecessor’s wellbeing. According to Turnbull, Abbott did not welcome the approach, telling him “to fuck off”.

The Turnbull years

Episode two, the most compelling of the series, commences with the Turnbull prime ministership’s buoyant beginnings. The public were relieved to see the back of Abbott and welcomed enthusiastically the ostensibly progressive Turnbull. He soared in the polls.

But his leadership was compromised from the start. Attorney-general in the government, George Brandis, refers to the Faustian bargain Turnbull had made to win the prime ministership. He had agreed to not rock the conservative boat in crucial areas like climate change and same sex marriage. With time, this eroded his authenticity.

Turnbull’s hope was that a decisive election victory in 2016 would empower him to assert his true political colours. Yet, as Nemesis records, the opposite happened. The double dissolution election of July was ruinous to his leadership. The eight-week campaign was too long, his performance on the hustings uninspired. Losing the electoral fat that Abbott had won in 2013 and returned to office with the barest majority, the result diminished Turnbull’s authority and emboldened his conservative critics, not least a vengeful Abbott.

As Nemesis tells it, notwithstanding some achievements on the international stage led by Turnbull and Julie Bishop, there were few bright spots for the government after that. The successful same sex marriage plebiscite of the second half of 2017 occurred on Turnbull’s watch but, fascinatingly, Liberal champions of that measure are grudging about his leadership on the issue. The suggestion is that he was circumspect in his advocacy, fearing a right-wing blowback.

As when he lost the Liberal leadership to Abbott in December 2009, it was climate change policy that finally lit the fuse under Turnbull’s prime ministership. The National Energy Guarantee (NEG), a policy crafted by Josh Frydenberg, was meant to end the climate wars but instead became a lightning rod for conservative dissent in the winter of 2018. With the NEG meeting resistance in the Coalition joint party room, Turnbull retreated, symptomatic of his prime ministership.

The fulcrum of Nemesis’s narrative of Turnbull’s prime ministership is a blow by blow account of his extraordinary week-long overthrow in August 2018. For this cause, he would dig in and fight. With regicide in the air, the week opened with Turnbull endeavouring to salvage his leadership by calling a surprise spill motion. Dutton, the right-wing hard man who Turnbull scathingly describes as “a thug”, challenged for the leadership, losing relatively narrowly. Eric Abetz, Abbott’s henchman, recalls mirthfully that at that point Turnbull’s leadership was “over and out”. Revenge was sweet.

Mortally wounded, Turnbull nevertheless remained determined to stave off Dutton, the conservative’s candidate. A revelation about events during that febrile week is that Turnbull considered heading off his opponents by calling an election. It is a remarkable admission, and we are left to wonder whether the governor-general would have granted an election in those circumstances and if the government would have completely imploded in the event of him taking that course.

In recounting his downfall, Turnbull seems strangely blind to the parallel between his deposition of Abbott in 2015 and the conservative insurrection of August 2018. It takes chutzpah for him to protest that the latter was “an obscene parody, a complete travesty of democracy”.

With support leaching away, including the defection of senior ministers, Turnbull bowed to the inevitable. Choosing not to stand in a second leadership ballot, it became a three way contest between Dutton, Bishop and Morrison, with the latter manoeuvring through the middle to prevail. Morrison insists he only entered the race when it was clear that Turnbull’s leadership was terminal. Turnbull alleges otherwise, accusing Morrison of having “played a double game”. The episode ends with Turnbull offering another pungent character assessment, this time of his successor: “duplicitous”.

The Morrison years

Nemesis concludes with Morrison’s prime ministership. The leadership conflict might have been over but it is still has many unedifying moments. Being most recent, the story is familiar with even fewer surprises. It errs towards generosity to Morrison, not fully capturing why his leadership became a byword for inauthenticity, a prime minister whose obsession with the theatre of politics consistently trumped substance.

The documentary springs directly to Morrison’s self-proclaimed “miracle” re-election of May 2019. Christopher Pyne puts a more realistic note on the result observing that many in the Coalition “decided they had won the election because they were geniuses as opposed to the fact that we had won because Labor had thrown it away”. As a consequence, a “lack of humility infected” the government.

The episode recalls many of the notorious statements made by Morrison, which by suggesting he was evading responsibility, was a bully or lacked empathy corroded his public image, especially among women voters. “I don’t hold a hose, mate” (after disappearing to Hawaii in the midst of the Black Summer bushfires), “she can go” (monstering Australia Post CEO, Christine Holgate), and “not far from here such marches, even now, are being met by bullets” (about a women’s justice rally at Parliament House) are examples.

Asked about the comments, Morrison admits to poor choices of words. Yet, he is equally quick to complain of his words being “weaponised” and to protest that he was misrepresented. The effect conveys that he continues to struggle to accept responsibility. An unfortunate habit of smugness when explaining himself adds to this impression.

Nemesis shows that the COVID pandemic was both a blessing and curse for the Morrison government. Fighting the pandemic gave the government a purpose that it otherwise lacked. The early decisions such as creating the national cabinet and intervening in the economy headlined by the JobKeeper program were its finest hours.

Things went awry, however, as the pandemic progressed. Political game playing resurfaced and tensions with the premiers festered. And then, of course, there were delays in procuring and distributing vaccines. Health bureaucrat Jane Halton is damming: “manifestly we had longer lockdowns than we actually needed to have because we didn’t have supply and rollout as others”.

Nemesis devotes considerable time to the AUKUS pact and the reneging on the agreement to buy submarines from France. Morrison paints AUKUS as the proudest legacy of his prime ministership. He was concerned that the French built conventional submarines would have been “obsolete before they got wet”. He is unfazed that French President Emmanuel Macron labelled him a liar: “I’ve got big shoulders”. Turnbull, who signed the agreement with Macron for the purchase of the French submarines, provides the critical commentary on AUKUS: “Morrison sacrificed Australian security, sovereignty and honour”.

The picture that emerges of the final months of Morrison’s prime ministership is of a divided government that was a spent force. A commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 brought relations with the Nationals to breaking point. It was too little too late to change the public’s opinion that the Coalition was a laggard on climate change action.

Morrison then expended dwindling political capital by fruitlessly pursuing religious rights protections, causing ructions with Liberal moderates. Nemesis draws a connection between Morrison’s evangelical religious faith and this prime-ministerial frolic. The viewer is also invited to draw the dots between his faith and his politically disastrous and morally culpable handpicking of the anti-transgender Liberal candidate Katherine Deves to contest the 2022 election.

Morrison’s colleagues are unsparing in assessing him as politically toxic by the time of the 2022 election. Some even approached Treasurer Josh Frydenberg about challenging Morrison’s leadership: Frydenberg rebuffed their overtures. Tim Wilson, like Frydenberg a casualty of the Teal insurgency, compares the depth of public sentiment against the prime minister to “having a 10,000 tonne boulder attached to your leg”.

Morrison’s secret commandeering of five ministries was the sting in the tail of his prime ministership. Nemesis records the shock and appal of his colleagues when those actions were revealed. His explanations of his behaviour are unpersuasive as are his expressions of contrition. He says he has apologised to former treasurer Frydenberg and that they have “reconnected and as good a friends as you could hope for”. Frydenberg puts it differently: “it impacted the relationship and does to this day”. We are left with the suspicion that once again Morrison is bending the truth.

A decade of banality and pettiness

What can we take away from all this? Participants in the documentary draw on classical allusions in making sense of the chaos. We are told, for instance, that the leadership feud between Abbott and Turnbull was Shakespearean. Yet what Nemesis exposes is the banality of these events and the pettiness of the actors. One searches vainly for a sense of higher mission or nobility of bearing.

None of the three major protagonists emerge well. Abbott is deeply eccentric, leery of criticism and hopelessly incapable of adjusting to the positive tasks of governing; Turnbull is bloated with self-regard, merciless about the faults of others and yet timorous when he had the chance to make his mark; and Morrison is deceitful and bullying, a man whose governing declined into vacuity.

There have been other occasions in the past when national leadership has descended into tawdriness. The Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard years were defined by internecine warfare, but at least Gillard exhibited resoluteness in the way she governed and dignity in the way she left office.

The post-Menzies Liberal triumvirate of Harold Holt, John Gorton and William McMahon were respectively overwhelmed by the office, reckless and pygmy like. We can go back further for episodes of leadership delinquency to the debilitating feuding between Earle Page and Robert Menzies on the eve of the second world war and even further to the egomaniacal and conflict ridden prime ministership of Billy Hughes.

Yet arguably the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison era represents a nadir when it comes to Australian national leadership.

Focussed on the blood-letting and human follies of the Coalition years, Nemesis is silent on the bigger forces roiling national politics, the eroding bases of the major parties and a hyperactive and polarised media to name the obvious.

The task of leadership has become more fraught in this environment. Yet this does not afford an alibi for the degraded governance of 2013-22. Successful incumbents from the past — Alfred Deakin, John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard — provide a template for prime-ministerial achievement in all seasons. It begins with being steadfastly bound to a larger purpose, without which politics can easily degenerate into destructive vanities and mindless absurdities as Nemesis painfully illustrates.

As ghastly a spectacle as it presents, this is its powerful lesson.