While we’ve been here too often before, and this final Turnbull leadership crisis has — like so many aspects of his Prime Ministership — played out with uncanny parallels to that of Julia Gillard, at some point on Wednesday we went into a wholly new area of political dysfunction and outright chaos.

The unprecedented scenes of Wednesday night, when right-wing media figures joined a concerted and confected campaign by the Dutton forces to engender a spill right there and then, and again on Thursday when parliament was adjourned — at the request, allegedly, of Dutton — would have made tinpot dictatorships blush. 

The role of News Corp’s outlets and 2GB in working in cooperation with Tony Abbott and far-right figures to relentlessly undermine Malcolm Turnbull and bully MPs who backed him was forensically called out by Nine’s Chris Uhlmann this morning. Turnbull appeared to agree, saying today

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The reality is that a minority in the Party Room supported by others outside the Parliament have sought to bully, intimidate others into making this change of leadership that they’re seeking… what we’re witnessing, what we have witnessed at the moment is a very deliberate effort to pull the Liberal Party further to the right. That’s been stated by a number of the people that have been involved in this… what began as a minority, has by a process of intimidation, you know, persuaded people that the only way to stop the insurgency is to give in to it.

News Corp played a similar role of trying to engineer regime change, as Stephen Conroy put it at the time, against both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. But Turnbull had to deal with something they never faced: a night-time pay TV lineup made up of actual fascists, bigots and far-right wingers constantly savaging him and providing a platform for Abbott and his backers, as Alan Jones and Ray Hadley did as well.

But that’s only part of the story. The other part is the constant misjudgment of Turnbull and his office, which guaranteed that rarely would a week go by without some disaster befalling the government. Often the stumbles weren’t of the Prime Minister’s making — they involved ministers like George Brandis or Michaelia Cash, or they struck from entirely outside politics, like the citizenship debacle. But self-induced or not, invariably Turnbull’s handling of them was poor, often blowing them up into even bigger disasters, like the Barnaby Joyce affair.

This week, yet again, poor judgment was on display. Why was the announcement of the retention of the energy supplement left until now, given it was decided in the budget? Why were the ministers who voted against Turnbull allowed to remain ministers after they’d offered their resignations? Why was he seemingly so oblivious to the rapid shifting of his cabinet against him on Wednesday? Why was his defence of Dutton’s eligibility issue so tepid? Why didn’t he use Tuesday’s win as an opportunity for a reset, rather than the bland, business-as-usual stuff we got afterward?

The interference of media organisation in politics raises serious issues about the functioning of Australian democracy. But ultimately Malcolm Turnbull’s term will end pretty much as it unfolded, as that of a brilliant man with terrible judgment.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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