Never underestimate two things, I told someone yesterday, with one eye on coining a calendar quote. “Malcolm Turnbull’s capacity to piss people off, and the Liberal Party’s capacity for truly spectacular self-immolation.”
Courtesy of that splendidly combustible mix — cooled, oh so briefly, by the wet blanket of Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong assuring us that black was white, up was down and the CPRS will do something about carbon emissions — yesterday we discovered just how flat political journalism had become.
There are, of course, still insiders, and well-connected journalists, but it’s now possible for everyone inside and outside this building to know exactly what’s going on when things become truly extraordinary, as they did about 2pm yesterday when we learnt Andrew Robb had risen and urged his colleagues to oppose the government-Turnbull CPRS package. All you had to do was follow enough political journalists on Twitter and you knew precisely what was happening mere seconds afterward.
Gone are the old days of careful information management, not merely by political parties but by journalists and media outlets. There’s still, notionally, a rule agreed earlier this year, that coalition MPs don’t take mobile phones into the party room. It’s lucky half of them didn’t end up with RSI of the thumb last night given the volume of texts coming out of the room.
It was the Robb Rebellion that transformed yesterday. Until then, it looked like Turnbull and his supporters easily had the numbers. The usual suspects would indulge in the usual theatrics, and there might be some uncomfortable moments for Turnbull, but he looked headed for what would have been — and, leadership angst aside, still is — a remarkable victory given the coalition happily voted the CPRS legislation down earlier this year.
But once Robb — one of the most substantial figures in the party room, a former Turnbull backer, and one of the few MPs across the CPRS detail — said his piece, Turnbull was in for the fight of his life. In question time, he looked like he was attending a funeral, possibly his own. The whole Liberal frontbench was distracted and silent. The were so downcast Lindsay Tanner simply stopped as he began launching into a CPRS Dorothy Dixer, said he understood the opposition were in the middle of an important meeting and didn’t want to waste time, and sat down.
When even your opponents take pity on you, you’re in awful trouble.
When they returned to the meeting after question time, the texts started flying, and they were tweeted and retweeted instantly, political news as a virus. Numbers were tight. It was all locked up, with six speakers to go. Suddenly, Tuckey had called a spill. One wag — OK, me — suggested he had spilt his cup of Bonox. Tuckey was ignored, we were told in the next tweet.
This is fundamental change in political journalism. The last leadership contest, Nelson-Turnbull, was just over a year ago and Twitter played virtually no role. I remember being told to tweet the contest from my mobile phone. At that stage it was in its infancy. I didn’t know whom to follow. I didn’t even know that I could “follow” anyone. Few political journalists — most of whom trained in the analog era — used it anyway.
Now it’s a vast combination of news outlet, rumour mill and commentary chamber, and it’s virtually instant. Media in its purest form, with all the flaws and benefits of media similarly magnified. And the journalists to follow are not Oakes and Grattan and Kelly (although Grattan does tweet). The important ones might be well known, such as Maiden, Speers and Crabb, or less well-known, such as Latika Bourke. Follow the right ones and you’re as well informed as most people in the building.
The break came not long after 7pm. Senators had been dragged several times off to vote in divisions. The party room meeting had continued. Some senators emerged and said they were returning at eight. We groaned. How long, oh Lord? Quite apart from anything, Malcolm Turnbull’s Christmas drinks for the press gallery had notionally kicked off at 7.30, and journalists were being kept from free food and grog. But people were already tweeting that Turnbull had — as per Richard Russell’s famous advice to LBJ on Vietnam — declared victory and left. Confusion reigned. Conservatives were saying it wasn’t over.
Then the spill was back on. It looked real this time. MPs and Senators returning to the party room were assailed. Kevin Andrews held an impromptu press conference to more or less call Turnbull a liar, insisting the numbers were the conservatives’ way. Andrews again suggested he would be a leadership candidate if need be.
We were all too over-stimulated to laugh.
Thumbs flexed on Blackberries, fingertips stabbed at iPhone screens, out went the tweets. Turnbull walked in, smiling his way through a ravening horde of journalists.
No spill, we then heard from inside the party room. They were only in there for a few minutes. Turnbull called a press conference for 8.45. Channeling Muhammad Ali, he declared “I am the leader” repeatedly. Once what Dennis Shanahan correctly called a “surreal” press conference concluded, we checked our phones again. David Speers had already tweeted the follow-up: “lib source: spill thurs morning”.
Now when it comes to politics, there’s virtually no difference between journalists camped outside the party room and voters in Sydney, Perth or on the other side of the world. Instantaneous live coverage is just a tweet away.
Sometimes all that rubbish we go on with about media revolutions is actually true …