This blog owes its readers an apology. For the last eight months, it had been giving the impression that what we were seeing was the tortuous process of the Liberal party merely getting rid of its leader. It now is becoming increasingly clear that we are looking at something more brutal than that, not just his toppling, but his political destruction. Costello said on Monday night that Turnbull has had a far easier ride than Nelson, but this blog is now not so sure. There seems no other way to explain the Liberals’ extraordinary behaviour over the last few days.

Let’s start by looking objectively at where the Liberals were just before Utegate Round 2 began. Turnbull had clearly stuffed up. It was bad enough he chose to go in hard on an issue that was trivial and politically unfavourable, but it was also based on fraudulent evidence. While the former is testament to Turnbull’s political naivety, the latter is perhaps more understandable. After all, here was a mole who had apparently for years been providing reliable information to the Liberals, while in opposition and government, to both Howard and Nelson. It would seem reasonable to assume that he would do so again, especially as he produced what seemed tangible evidence.

As to why someone who was so well known and regarded by Liberals like Howard and such a staunch supporter in return, should suddenly approach Turnbull with a highly damaging fraud – let’s not even go there. Let’s just say that Grattan was right, most journalists would have made the same mistake Turnbull and Abetz did, certainly The Daily Telegraph and its reporter Steve Lewis did.

Beyond questions over Turnbull’s impetuosity, not really a surprise, there was only a slim potential it could have got worse for him, if it was found that he had pressured or forced Grech to act the way he did. Given that Chris Uhlmann had already reported weeks before that Grech was a long-standing and enthusiastic Liberal mole, it was generally regarded as unlikely.

Then the wheels start to turn. First we had Costello’s highly peculiar observation on Monday night that the Utegate affair would do further damage to Turnbull if there was ‘a knock-out development’ like the author of the e-mail ‘suddenly appears from somewhere’. This had been an interview, as others had noted, which was highly undermining of Turnbull. Costello, whose biggest grievance was Howard’s refusal to honour a back-room deal to give him the party leadership, has now suddenly discovered the party’s grassroots, bless him. Never mind the inconsistency, this new stance does allow him to imply that Turnbull is ignoring the party.

Yet Costello’s observation raises the obvious question, why would revealing the email’s author damage Turnbull? Unless it turned out to have been Mal and Lucy whipping it up on the home PC (unlikely given the e-savviness on display in The Australian Story), it is hard to see how it would have made things worse. In fact given that it was widely assumed to be Grech, as it was known to have come from Treasury, it would have cleared things up.

As we now know, by extraordinary coincidence, that very night the author of the email did come from somewhere and was found to be, no surprise, Godwin Grech. All that Costello’s comments did was to try and portray what should have been a non-event into a blow to Turnbull.

The Australian’s report of Grech’s testimony, of course, selectively picked up on the part that was damaging to Turnbull while ignoring the far more damaging claim against Rudd. That The Australian should give credibility to Grech seems odd enough, to be so selective about what to run with seems odder still.

The next day, with Turnbull facing the damaging charge that he had pressured Grech into releasing the email, it was clearly a case of his credibility against Grech’s. Yet all we had on Tuesday were Liberals seemingly more interested in defending Grech’s credibility than their party leader, capped off with the sterling performance from his new best friend, Tony Abbott, that evening. By defending Grech’s credibility, all they did was to keep the issue running.

It was left to Turnbull, almost alone, to defend himself. Dealing with Grech shouldn’t have been too hard, sly innuendos about someone who had checked himself into a psychiatric ward should have been enough. It is unlikely that it would have bothered Rudd, for example, if the media had also run with Grech’s charge that Rudd did send the email after all. Unfortunately left on his own, Turnbull again showed his political deaf ear, acting more like a lawyer than a politician, and produced evidence that Grech had instigated the meetings. Instead of killing the issue, Turnbull stoked it up further and now raised the question over whether the Senate Committee hearing had been a scripted farce. The government latched on to Turnbull’s lack of apology, made worse by Senator Abetz unhelpfully unilaterally apologising himself yesterday.

To cap it all off, we now have Liberal Senate Leader Nick Minchin, who had previously led the blocking of any Senate investigation into the affair, willing to keep the issue running even further by allowing it to go to the Privileges Committee. It might be thought he now had no choice. However, Minchin still feels comfortable enough in insisting that the terms be narrow enough to prevent a ‘witch-hunt’ against Abetz. If Abetz is going to be protected, who could any further investigation be possibly aimed at?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 6 August 2009.

Filed under Political figures

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9 responses to “The slow toppling destruction of Turnbull – an apology”

  1. Ad astra on 6th August 2009 11:27 am

    An insightful analysis TPS. As Peter Costello said in his Lateline interview “the story gets curiouser and curiouser”. On your last point, the predicament for the Liberals is whether or not to support a Senate inquiry. Eric Abetz and Nick Minchin have made comments in favour of one, but George Brandis, who has a good legal brain, said last night on Lateline that Abetz and Turnbull had ‘done nothing wrong’ in consulting beforehand with a Senate enquiry witness, and that this behaviour ‘happens all the time’. This statement has been interpreted on ABC news as indicating that he would oppose an enquiry. However Clerk of the Senate Harry Evans has suggested that there may have been ‘coaching of a witness’.

    If the Libs oppose an enquiry for a second time, that will be interpreted as them being unwilling to expose what they have done to public gaze; whereas if they agree, who knows what might come out? Next week will be fascinating political theatre.

  2. James on 6th August 2009 12:37 pm

    I think the issue of why a trusted Liberal mole provided fake evidence to Turnbull and Abetz does deserve exploration. Was it the grandiosity and deludedness of a person with depression and a life threatening illness wanting to leave his mark by bringing down the Prime Minister and Treasurer or was something else at work? Was Grech’s conduct symptomatic of something at wrong in the Liberal party, ie they only superficially accept why they lost the 2007 election, view the result as an abberation, and consequently have floundered in the transition to opposition? Costello may have hit the nail on the head this week on Lateline. He argued that the report into the 2007 election loss should be released but that the Liberal’s leadership has decided that it won’t be because it argues “the problem has been fixed”. Perhaps the Liberals need to do what they did after the 1943 election loss and form a new party?

  3. janice on 6th August 2009 1:59 pm

    I can’t help but think that the Libs are desperately trying to cover the backsides of others in their party who have been/are involved in using their mole (Grech) to spy on the Government. Things were going along nicely until Grech’s handling was passed over to an impatient Turnbull who was looking for a silver bullet to get him into the Lodge sooner rather than later.

    Grech complains he was ‘pressured’ and by that I think he is trying to say that Truffles was pushing him to produce some explosive information. Truffles pushed too hard so that in order to get some peace, Grech fabricated the email and, together with Turnbull, Abetz and others unknown, conspired to use it, firstly to entrap the PM into misleading Parliament and discredit The Treasurer.

    Turnbull and Abetz were probably unaware that the email was a fabrication but even so neither made any attempt to check it out. They further compounded their sin by meeting with Grech and setting up a sideshow Senate hearing. One of them ‘leaked’ the email to the journalist Steve Lewis. Turnbull almost broke a leg rushing to his press conference to demand the resignation of the PM and Treasurer soon after the Senate hearing.

    All too soon the whole sorry, sordid conspiracy came crashing down on their heads. The email was discovered and declared fraudulent; Grech went to hospital. On his answer machine was a phone call by one Joe Hockey who says he only wanted to inquire as to his health ?(of someone he didn’t know all that well, he said). Turnbull denied ever having seen the email upon which he based his whole case. Not the sort of barrister I would choose to get me out of a hole LOL.

    Now that Grech has been singing sweetly (the song no doubt slanted a little to throw as favourable a light as possible on his own part in the affair), Turnbull releases a sheaf of papers to show that it was all Grech’s doing. Grech is the mastermind who (so easily) conned the highly intelligent ex barrister/banker as well as Senator Abetz.

    The media and the Libs find themselves in a quandary for different reasons. Had the plot not unravelled so badly, The Australian would not have needed to selectively highlight the damaging bits to Turnbull in Grech’s report while ignoring anything to do with Rudd. The paper has been under heavy fire from the public over it’s blatant anti-Rudd reporting and it cannot afford now to defend the indefencible actions of Turnbull.

    The Libs find themselves in the position where they’re scared witless that others in their party will fall in the dirty tricks tank with Turnbull and Abetz. They need to stress the fact that Grech was seen as a paragon of virtue and therefore it is understandable he was able to con their leader with fraudulent information.

    The pity of it is that they probably think the general public will be willing to forgive and forget that the Leader of the Opposition conspired with a senior Public Servant to bring about the downfall of our elected Government. A Mugabe moment, perhaps?

  4. Steve on 6th August 2009 4:38 pm

    Why Godwin Grech did what he did, only he can tell us. He may have done it for love or for approval, but only he will know. However, the Libs have been involved in dirty tricks for a long time, they used to go thru Keating ‘s trash cans looking for dirt on him. They accesssed confidential documents between Keating and a loan with the CBA, we have never found out who actually sent the false letter to Ralph Willis, they trained wharfies in Dubai, they lied about children overboard and they distributed false leaflets during the 2007 campaign. They have form and it is a cultural thing, they simply don’t believe they can win without cheating – and they can’t.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 6th August 2009 7:38 pm

    Setting aside the politics behind Ute-gate for a minute, I don’t think the issue here is so much whether it was right or wrong what Turnbull did. I think any politician faced with evidence from what appears to have been a very long-standing and productive mole would have acted not too dissimilarly to Turnbull.

    The more interesting point for me is the gross lack of loyalty from his party on display over the last few days. From Costello obviously setting Turnbull up on Monday, to Abbott’s more subtle back-stabbing on Tuesday. If the Liberals wanted to, they could have contained this story this week. Instead so eager are they (and the Oz) to destroy Turnbull, they fuelled it. Admittedly Turnbull’s tactics didn’t help either, but he is being hung out to dry it seems to me.

    I think the Liberals would have not much more trouble blocking this in the Senate as they had the first time, just as Minchin could now insist there is no witch-hunt on Abetz. Yet Minchin is now giving in and letting it run longer. You have to wonder why.

  6. Bushfire Bill on 7th August 2009 9:35 am

    ” I think any politician faced with evidence from what appears to have been a very long-standing and productive mole would have acted not too dissimilarly to Turnbull.”

    That’s right, you call on the Prime Minister and Treasurer to resign over one three line email that the source will show you, but won’t allow you to keep. This is despite the PM’s and Treasurer’s (and officials’) denials that one exists, or ever existed.

    The email would usually be used to convince the accuser and journalists that the alleged actions occured, giving them confidence that their accusations were correct, but then they would seek a confession, not use the email as prime evidence in the face of vehement denials.

    I don’t think what Turnbull did was smart at all. He went too far with too little.

    Contrast this with the Joel Fitzgibbon case. The articles were written, the backgrounding ont he allegations done. But documents were never presented. But before the subsequent enquiry found that Defence had NOT investigated its own Minister, Fitzgibbon caved-in anyway, confessed, making the production of the prime evidence moot.

    When you’ve got one piece of ephemeral evidence (not even in your possession) you use it as a lever, not a bludgeon.

    This is what they started out doing, via the Senate Committee evidence on June 19th. They should have left it at that. But Turnbull couldn’t wait. That afternoon he escalated the whole business into a call for the two highest office holders of the government to resign because they were corrupt.

    He wasn’t demanding they resign because they helped a mate. That is the common misconception. But helping out a mate, even if true, is an everyday occurrence in politics. It’s what politics is for, up to a point. It’s not a hanging offence (and I wish Rudd had pointed this out forcefully instead of working a technicality: the fake email). Turnbull’s demands were based on Rudd and Swan’s allegedly misleading Parliament back on June 4th, not the substantial matter of corruption. And for that the only evidence he had was something not in his possession.

  7. Vixen on 12th August 2009 3:08 pm

    It all successfully deflects attention from Queensland, NSW and the NT. People tying themselves in knots trying to interpret Malcolm Turnbull and discredit the coalition while the NT governemnt is fighting being thrown out, Queensland is busy with the wash cloths covering possible large scale corruption and NSW plods along getting everything wrong and shooting itself and the state in the foot. All too precious and devoid of reality for my taste.

  8. ben on 12th August 2009 5:53 pm

    why would gretch fabricate this information? it doesn’t make sense.

    let’s think about the sa liberal scientology email issue; now, if we indulge in some hypothesising.

    we know gretch had been a liberal mole for years, providing valuable information. ok the alp have theirs too. once in power the alp would have found out about gretch or been able to act on him with information they already have.

    let’s imagine that rather than do anything immediate such as try to weed him out, they fed him some concocted but plausible story that they knew would be fed to the liberals. this would need to be totally deniable by themselves but look pretty good to the libs and the mole. voila!

  9. The Piping Shrike on 17th August 2009 11:27 am

    No one is saying Turnbull acted smart BB. But it misses the more fascinating point. Here was a trusted long term mole of the Liberals suddenly turning feral, which fooled not only Turnbull, but also Abetz and Lewis. The only explanation for it has come implicitly from Grech when he checked himself into a psychiatric ward. What seems even more extraordinary than this betrayal is the way that even after Grech caused such damage, senior Liberals (except for Turnbull) were still defending him. Why?

    What you say may be true ben, but here’s a more tempting conspiracy theory that keeps bugging me: did senior Liberals set Turnbull up?

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