What did Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes have to do with the Liberal leadership spill?
19th Sept 2018
Malcom Turnbull’s demise as Australia’s 29th prime minister was unusual for many reasons, and truly unique for one: his was the first known prime ministership to be the subject of a billionaires’ tug of war between the nation’s most powerful media moguls.
The final blow for Mr Turnbull came in the Liberal party room on Friday August 24, but since then the ABC has pieced together an emerging picture of critical contacts with two media titans in the days before, as the prime minister sought to fend off the assault.
It began some weeks ago when Mr Turnbull and Kerry Stokes, the chairman of Seven West Media, began discussing what looked very much to the then-prime minister like a campaign to oust him by News Corp.
He believed it was being led by The Australian newspaper and the Daily Telegraph, egged on by 2GB’s Alan Jones and Ray Hadley and Sky News commentators “after dark”.
Mr Stokes sympathised with Mr Turnbull and confided he was worried by what the continual destabilising of the prime minister through the media and from inside the Liberal Party would deliver: a Labor government under Bill Shorten.
“Kerry was frightened about the [industrial relations] regime under Shorten, especially given his mining interests,” a source said.
“He fears industry-wide bargaining under the likes of the militant CFMEU.”
But it was more than that. Mr Stokes had high personal regard for Mr Turnbull.
Mr Turnbull and Mr Stokes have long had a good relationship, curated and then nurtured by the wily Bruce McWilliam, one of Mr Turnbull’s best friends and closest confidants.
Mr McWilliam, a lawyer, was a business partner with Mr Turnbull and is now Mr Stokes’ “Mr Fix-it”, also known as the media mogul’s commercial director at Seven West Media.
Mr McWilliam is known to be furious at sections of the media because he believes they “killed” the prime ministership of his good friend.
The ABC understands that Mr Turnbull and Mr Stokes were in contact a lot in the final days.
Mr Stokes has told the ABC in a statement the answer to the question of what he had to do with the Liberal leadership spill was: “Absolutely nothing, full stop”.
Mr Stokes said he had never been involved in leadership events “nor autopsies of them like the one you have published”.
His statement suggested there had been “spin from parties attempting to re-write history” that the ABC should not be “accepting on face value”.
Murdoch told Stokes ‘Malcolm’s got to go’
Mr Stokes took it upon himself to inquire with Rupert Murdoch what was going on inside News Corp for the company to be going so hard against Mr Turnbull.
Exactly when and how this happened is unclear, whether it was in person or by phone, but the 87-year-old Mr Murdoch was in Australia the week of Mr Turnbull’s leadership calamity.
He had arrived in Australia on August 10, when his Sydney-bound corporate jet flying from California was diverted to Canberra because of fog.
He was still in Australia on August 20, on stage with former prime minister John Howard for the 75th anniversary of the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne.
In any case, the two billionaires spoke about this time.
“Malcolm has got to go,” Mr Murdoch told Mr Stokes, according to multiple re-tellings of the conversation, relayed back to Mr Turnbull by Mr Stokes.
Mr Stokes told Mr Murdoch that rolling Mr Turnbull would deliver government to Labor, that the industrial relations landscape would see the likes of the CFMEU thrive.
Mr Murdoch’s reply? One version, told to the ABC, is that Mr Murdoch told Mr Stokes:
“We have got to get rid of Malcolm. If that’s the price of getting rid of him then I can put up with three years of Labor.”
A remarkably similar version was told to the Australian Financial Review. In it, Mr Murdoch told Mr Stokes: “They’ll only be in for three years — it won’t be so bad. I did alright under Labor and the Painters and Dockers; I can make money under Shorten and the CFMEU.”
2GB, Daily Telegraph crank up leadership speculation
Concern inside the Turnbull camp had been mounting in the week before the leadership coup. But concern became a sense of awful dread on Friday, August 17.
Sydney radio station 2GB’s Twitter account tweeted at lunchtime to say:
“Ray Hadley confirms there will be a move against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the next two weeks. ‘It’s happening for sure and certain … 100%'”
That morning, the Daily Telegraph’s Sharri Markson had a front-page story headlined “MPs hit the panic Dutton”.
Markson’s story read: “Conservative MPs are urging Peter Dutton to seize the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull within weeks, on a policy platform of lower immigration and cheaper energy bills.”
The next day she followed up with a more foreboding front page splash: “Dutton ready to roll,” the Tele screamed.
“Peter Dutton is seriously considering a leadership challenge for the prime ministership,” Markson wrote.
The ABC understands that Mr Turnbull’s concerns about his political mortality drove him to call Mr Murdoch himself, just days before he lost his job.
The billionaire told him he was not driving any campaign against him but said he was not responsible for what “Boris” might be doing. By Boris, he meant Paul Whittaker, the editor-in-chief of The Australian.
Turnbull in trouble
By Monday evening, August 20, Mr Turnbull knew he was in substantial trouble.
That night, Turnbull lieutenant Craig Laundy had dined with Luke Howarth, the Liberal occupant in the ultra-marginal Queensland seat of Petrie.
Mr Howarth told Mr Laundy he was “gone” as an MP under Mr Turnbull, and would rather he stepped down.
The Brisbane MP planned to use the partyroom meeting the next day, August 21, to call on Mr Turnbull to step down for the good of the party. This he did not tell Mr Laundy.
Mr Howarth had rehearsed what he would tell Liberal colleagues, but when he rose to speak at the very start of the Tuesday meeting at 9:00am, Mr Turnbull cut him off immediately to bring on a motion to spill the leadership positions.
Mr Dutton nominated for the leader’s job. There were no speeches.
From that moment on, Mr Turnbull was cooked.
He hadn’t anticipated that as many as 35 Liberals in a party room of 84 should, in effect, cast a vote of no confidence in his leadership in favour of Mr Dutton.
Mr Turnbull was now very worried about where Mathias Cormann’s allegiances lay.
The Belgian-born Finance Minister and Leader of the Government in the Senate is Mr Dutton’s best friend.
He and Mr Dutton had formed Turnbull’s right-wing Praetorian Guard and been the reason why, since Tony Abbott’s ouster in September 2015, there’d been relative stability up until the third week of August 2018.
The ABC has been told that Mr Stokes, a proud West Australian, was also keen to know where Senator Cormann stood. He made it known to Senator Cormann that he didn’t want Mr Dutton to become Prime Minister.
He believed that Mr Dutton’s pledge to take GST off energy bills might come at the expense of the $4.7 billion GST deal that benefited WA over a decade, a deal that he knew had to be navigated in Cabinet past Mr Dutton, who thought the sweetener for the West had come at the expense of Queensland.
But Mr Stokes also knew that Mr Turnbull would likely not survive, and while News Corp newspapers swung behind a Dutton ascendancy, Mr Stokes had other ideas.
West Australian touts Morrison for leader
On Thursday, August 23, Mr Stokes’ Perth newspaper The West Australian splashed a picture of Mr Turnbull and Scott Morrison on its front page, imploring a “BETTER CHOICE”.
The sub-headline said the “PM SHOULD STAND ASIDE FOR SCOMO”.
The editorial inside the newspaper daily opined:
“Mr Turnbull’s leadership is damaged beyond repair and he should stand aside. And while the focus has been on Mr Dutton as an alternative, there may be a better option — [Scott] Morrison.”
The Stokes masthead presciently noted what would become the new Prime Minister, Mr Morrison’s, mantra too:
“It was a quintessentially Australian way of expressing a core Australian value: the notion of a ‘fair go for those who have a go and who put in the hard yards’. And it sums up well what our leaders should strive to deliver. The sentiment was expressed in a speech by Treasurer Scott Morrison on Tuesday that was all but lost amid the heat and chaos of the failed bid by Peter Dutton to replace Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.”
Mr Stokes’ statement said it is wrong to assert “that The West Australian backed Scott Morrison at my direction” and “that is not the way I operate”.
But The West Australian is not Mr Stokes’ only conduit. He has long had a warm relationship with Julie Bishop, then the Liberal deputy leader.
At a meeting of several WA Liberals at 10:30am on Thursday, August 23, in a room in Parliament’s Ministerial Wing known by politicians as the ‘Monkey Pod Room’, Ms Bishop laid bare the Stokes strategy.
Ms Bishop told the WA Liberals in the room — Nola Marino, Ken Wyatt, Steve Irons, Melissa Price, Dean Smith and Ben Morton — that Mr Stokes didn’t want Mr Dutton to replace Mr Turnbull.
“In good conscience, you cannot let Peter Dutton become Prime Minister,” she told them, telling them that the GST deal delivered by Mr Turnbull for WA might be unravelled by the Queenslander.
Whether her intervention made any difference is debatable, but Mr Wyatt, Mr Irons, Ms Price and Mr Morton are known to have voted for Mr Morrison in the final vote the next day.
None of them voted for her.
Which is ironic, given that on Friday, August 24, the day Mr Turnbull fell, The West Australian seemed to have forgotten it had anointed Mr Morrison the fail-safe alternative to Mr Turnbull.
“JULIE FOR PM,” its front page shouted.
“The wreckers have been manipulated by former leader Tony Abbott, News Corp — including Sky News commentators — and Sydney radio host Alan Jones,” the paper said in its editorial.
“By moving to tear down another leader who was endorsed by the people — an action at odds with the way our system of government is supposed to work — they have treated the Australian public with contempt. Do they think we are mugs?
“Yesterday, The West Australian backed Treasurer Scott Morrison against Mr Dutton in expectation of a two-way Liberal leadership contest … but then Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop threw her hat into the ring should there be a ballot.
“Ms Bishop worked hard to get the Government to fix the GST and understands how vital it is for WA. Her colleagues, in particular every WA member, must back her.”
Until the end, News Corp’s The Australian had been unabashed in its advocacy for an end to the Turnbull prime ministership.
In its final editorial of the Turnbull era, on Friday 24 August, it described the PM’s behaviour the preceding day as sinking “to a new low”.
As for its own conduct, The Australian editorialised with pride on its “mission” of backing economic reform and tax cuts, but added “we warned repeatedly about dangers” which, in its view, Mr Turnbull had failed to address at his own cost.
It’s a curious postscript that neither Mr Murdoch nor Mr Stokes might’ve got their final pick for Prime Minister, even though one of them got closest.
It is understood one of them, Mr Stokes, made contact with Mr Turnbull on the weekend after the leadership tumult.
Mr Stokes urged him to move on, for the sake of himself and the country.
The former prime minister greeted this entreaty coolly, noting with some venom that what was so frustrating for Australian politics is that everyone knew what was happening and “no-one” wanted it said.
Andrew Probyn worked for News Corp for eight years, and Seven West Media for more than 11 years.