While everyone was thumbing their way through Niki Savva’s Road to Ruin for all the juicy gossip on Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin, there were also a number of interesting tidbits, both old and new, about MPs on the transition from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull.
After the 2010 election, Savva states former trade minister Andrew Robb had considered challenging Julie Bishop for the deputy leadership on the proviso that he would get to choose his portfolios, and then would take Treasury from Joe Hockey. Savva claims Hockey “threatened to bring the house down” if he lost the portfolio.
Much was made, particularly by shock jock Alan Jones, of Wyatt Roy’s decision to abandon Abbott for Turnbull in the leadership change, but Savva explains Abbott never really backed Roy anyway. In 2010, before Roy was elected to Parliament at the age of 20, Savva stated Abbott tried to talk Roy out of running. Turnbull and Julie Bishop both visited Roy during his election campaign, and that’s why Savva says Roy became close to the pair. Abbott only visited Roy two days out from the election when it was clear he would win.
Savva says Environment Minister Greg Hunt did not vote for Abbott in the 2009 spill, and part of his agreement with Abbott to stay in the shadow environment portfolio was on the basis that: the science of climate change was never challenged; there was no fight over targets; and that he could design an emissions reduction fund the way he wanted to. Eventually, Abbott had to agree to a deal with Clive Palmer over a $2.5 billion emissions reductions fund, despite Credlin’s reported opposition.
Abbott’s office was reported to have found O’Dwyer “too lippy”, or outspoken, but asked her to write an op-ed in favour of Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme. She refused. O’Dwyer asked Abbott’s office what she should tell the media about why she had been left out of Abbott’s cabinet and was told to say that selections were “on merit”. Savva blames O’Dwyer’s treatment, and the exclusion of Tony Smith from Abbott’s first ministry, entirely on antipathy to anyone connected to Peter Costello (O’Dwyer took over his seat of Higgins; Smith worked as his senior political adviser from 1998-01) because of columns Costello was writing at the time, which were offering, er, let’s say constructive advice to Abbott.
Abbott was reportedly against Tony Smith becoming the Speaker to replace Bronwyn Bishop. “Anyone but Smithy,” Savva said was the message going around, because Abbott thought Smith (contrary to his even-handed and calm approach as Speaker) would have panicked in the job.
Howard, the monarchist himself, tried to talk Abbott out of reintroducing knights and dames when Abbott brought it up with him several times. Howard viewed them as an anachronism. As had been reported earlier, Howard also advised Abbott to remove Joe Hockey and install Turnbull as treasurer.
To Abbott, on knighting Prince Philip: “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Savva says Abbott’s handling of the same-sex marriage issue was a “critical step” on his road to ruin, and the six-hour Coalition party room meeting was “pivotal” in Abbott’s political demise. In addition to Senator Scott Ryan shifting to Turnbull after that meeting, Leader of the House Christopher Pyne was particularly put offside; as was reported at the time, Pyne accused the PM of branch-stacking by including the Nationals in the party room meeting. Abbott allowed backbenchers to speak first in the debate, thereby “setting the mood” of the room. He allowed those who opposed same-sex marriage to speak first. He also set the debate topic as whether MPs wanted to “stick by the existing position that marriage was between a man and a woman” or whether there should be a free vote. For Pyne, “his comments in the party meetings that day sent an unmistakable signal that he had made a complete break with the prime minister”. Pyne had told colleagues he felt he was “in a constant state of warfare” with the PM over the mismanagement of issues.
Turnbull had the first “G8” meeting with like-minded Liberal MPs about potentially unseating Abbott two days after the marathon party room meeting, Savva says, and wanted to challenge then but held off. Turnbull was reported to have an uncharacteristic calmness about him on the night before he challenged Abbott. Turnbull, ever agile, kept a spreadsheet in Google Docs that listed all Liberal MPs and where they stood, with different colours for whether they were in his or Abbott’s camp, and whether they could be shifted. Savva also reports Turnbull wanted a full year in the job, though he won’t get it if the Senate refuses to pass his industrial relations legislation.
Just days before the spill, members of the G8 were meeting in then-assistant minister for education Simon Birmingham’s office to discuss where Julie Bishop stood on a potential change. Birmingham was reportedly paranoid that people, including his staff, would get suspicious about the meeting, so he asked a staffer to buy a carrot cake. Savva says they put a candle on it and sang happy birthday to fellow plotter Peter Hendy, even though it wasn’t his birthday.
Briggs was sounded out by Turnbull and was convinced things were moving. Savva reports Briggs came home one evening and told his housemate Joe Hockey: “We are fucked”.
News of Senator Arthur Sinodinos’ decision to resign from the ministry — while he waited for ICAC to exonerate him — was leaked to Fairfax Media’s James Massola days before it was due to be announced, and Sinodinos is reported by Savva to believe this was a deliberate leak from Abbott’s office to “finish him off”.
After he was sacked as whip following the first leadership spill, Liberals described it as like “shooting your mother”.