Ever since Scott Morrison emerged as Australia’s latest prime minister, there were questions over whether he was secretly behind the leadership spill that saw Malcolm Turnbull toppled.
Some suggested Mr Morrison had been plotting for “some time” and used failed challenger Peter Dutton as an “unwitting stooge” to orchestrate the spill, according to reports in The Saturday Paper and ABC.
But a new essay has shed more light on how Mr Turnbull was forced out and the “clever campaign” Mr Morrison’s supporters used to secure his victory.
Investigative journalist and six-time Walkley Award winner Pamela Williams has looked into the coup for an article due to be published in The Monthly this week.
She told ABC this morning that the coup had been in the works for a long period of time.
“I think the Longman by-election had really focused the minds of those Queenslanders and this was in many ways a coup that unfolded in Queensland,” she said.
Ms Williams said she thought angry Queensland backbenchers had sort-of inflamed Mr Dutton and the potential challenge was being fuelled by his ideology, the debate on energy and Tony Abbott’s position. It really took off about a week before the challenge, once the media started reporting on it.
But despite Mr Dutton’s role in orchestrating the spill in August last year, it was Mr Morrison who emerged as the new leader.
When asked whether Mr Morrison was the “loyal deputy” as he had been portrayed or whether there was something more Machiavellian going on, Ms Williams said she thought Mr Morrison had remained loyal, almost to the end.
“I think it would be fair to say that it was a very clever campaign that operated around Morrison,” she said.
“He ran a two-level operation. One was to stay loyal to Turnbull, to give him his backing but if Turnbull fell, Morrison wanted to be in position, with enough numbers to run.
“Morrison himself did remain loyal — I’m convinced — to Turnbull all the way through.”
She said she had seen WhatsApp messages that showed Mr Morrison had told a very close member of his circle “I’m not in”, in response to a request that moderates bring their votes across to him.
Ms Williams said Mr Morrison only switched his position on running for the leadership the day after the first spill.
She also noted that Julie Bishop would have been able to leverage her high-profile position to claim the leadership, if it wasn’t for the fact that Mr Dutton was running.
Moderates were reportedly worried that she couldn’t win against Mr Dutton and this was why they backed Mr Morrison instead.
During the spill that saw Mr Morrison became Liberal leader, he beat Mr Dutton by 45 votes to 40.
Some have suggested that the result showed some of Mr Morrison’s supporters must have supported the vote to bring on the leadership spill.
“Supporters for both Dutton and Turnbull say they believe it was actually Morrison’s backers who secretly forced matters to a head, voting for Dutton in the first ballot to boost his numbers and generate a crisis for Turnbull, while intending all along for their man to prevail,” journalist Karen Middleton wrote in The Saturday Paper.
Mr Turnbull brought on the first leadership spill and won this by 48 votes to 35 votes for Mr Dutton.
He refused to call another party room meeting for a second spill unless a petition with 43 signatures was delivered to him. Mr Dutton did eventually get the numbers for the spill but fell short in the leadership vote, losing to Mr Morrison.
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