Analysis: Clear Q, vague A — the big stumper left hanging in ousted PM’s TV appearance


Naming names. Defensive of his record. Casting for money-making investments. Calm. Optimistic. Even joyful.

Malcolm Bligh Turnbull's hour of live television was at times a health check on the 29th Prime Minister's trauma recovery — "painful" was his assessment — a diagnosis of what ails the Liberal Party and a therapy session to publicly establish the legacy of his three years in office.

But from the outset, it became obvious the ABC's Q&A program was, on this episode, something of a misnomer; the first and biggest question was the one the former Member for Wentworth could not answer.

That question, posed by audience-member Stephen less than a minute into the program, "why aren't you still Prime Minister?" was left hanging for the 63 minutes that followed, just as it has for the 76 days since Mr Turnbull was dumped in the leadership spill ballot in late August.

Stephen's best hope of an answer would be to squeeze a line-up of roughly four to nine Liberals around Tony Jones's studio table for a future episode, to extract an answer from them.

"As to why a number of them chose to blow the Government up at the time they did — you'd have to ask them," Mr Turnbull deflected, before helpfully suggesting to Q&A's production team which ministers would be worth inviting on.

For starters, there'd be Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott, Greg Hunt and Matthias Cormann.

But as evidence the former PM has memorised each and every name on the petition demanding that fateful August 24 party room meeting, without notes he effortlessly rattled off a few more names for good measure.

Mitch Fifield, Michaelia Cash, Steve Ciobo, Michael Keenan, Angus Taylor — "the insurgents" — might also be worth interviewing.

At the core of Mr Turnbull's inability to explain the leadership implosion is incredulity at the conduct of colleagues, first from his spilling of it on the Monday: "I did not anticipate that Cabinet ministers would act so self-destructively," and subsequently by the events of the next four days that led to Scott Morrison replacing him.

Peter Dutton sitting on the member's bench peers up at Mr Turnbull over the arm of a colleague. Turnbull is looking other way.

Self-confidence is a trait leaders are amply endowed with, but in Mr Turnbull's case it was bolstered by a faith in private party polling data only he and a select few in the leadership group had access to.

Now, as then in August, he believes those "tracking" figures drawn from up to 20 key marginal seats had placed his government in an election winning position and the 51-49 per cent deficit to Labor in Newspoll was near enough not to matter.

Presumably these trends were shared in the many conversations the former leader had with the "insurgents" and if they still chose to ignore them, what might their real motive have been?

On this, Mr Turnbull hints at darker reasons of personal revenge; "maybe they were worried we would win the election, maybe they weren't worried we'd lose it, maybe they were worried we'd win it!"

Nothing about recent polls suggests the Coalition is any longer gripped by a real or apprehended fear of victory under Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Answers came there some

Repeatedly stumped by the "why" question, the post-political Malcolm Turnbull was disarmingly frank about some of the "hows" of his final few days in office.

Viewers learnt how the prime minister did, in fact, call on media mogul mate Kerry Stokes for help — and got it — and how he tried and failed to win assistance from another two, Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan.

Scott Morrison is 'tactile and 'friendly'

"According to Kerry [Stokes], Rupert said: 'three years of Labor wouldn't be so bad'", when the News Corp titans were apparently reminded that the price of Liberal leadership instability would be a Bill Shorten-led government.

Quizzed on his own role in leadership instability since the end of the Howard era, Mr Turnbull emphatically rejected comparisons between his ousting and that of Tony Abbott in September 2015: "I explained very openly my reasons" was the difference.

And although sparing Scott Morrison direct criticism, Mr Turnbull did mark his successor harshly for the political judgement exercised before the loss of his own seat of Wentworth on a 19 per cent swing last month.

He reckons the Liberals' Dave Sharma might have clung on, had it not been for a "messy" final week of the campaign with the Senate stuff-up supporting Pauline Hanson's, "It's OK to be white" motion and the review of foreign policy in Israel and the Middle East — all of them on Mr Morrison's watch.

"He has dealt himself a very tough hand of cards and now he has to play them."

Fighting the fight and defending the legacy

Mr Turnbull is seeking to do as every former prime minister does; defend his achievements and define his legacy.

Prime Minister designate Malcolm Turnbull makes a point after winning the Liberal Party leadership ballot.

But as Sydney backbencher Craig Kelly proved within minutes of the end of the Q&A program, the wounds are still raw among Liberals caught up in the fighting, and Mr Turnbull's rough outline of recent history is hotly contested.

Still a fully paid-up member of the party he first joined 45 years ago, the former prime minister happily volunteered that he's "not miserable or bitter or resentful at all" about his time in parliamentary politics.

As for complete peace and contentment?

It doesn't appear there's much chance of that until the nine named knee-cappers who brought him down provide some compelling As to that hanging Q: "Why?"

[contf] [contfnew]

ABC .net

[contfnewc] [contfnewc]