Laurie Oakes launched Niki Savva’s Plots and Prayers before a packed house at Canberra’s Paperchain bookshop on Friday 5 July. Here is the text of Laurie’s launch speech.
I take as my text a quote from Malcolm Turnbull in The Australian Jewish News today. He said: ‘It’s one thing to see blood on the walls. It’s another thing when it’s your own blood.’
Typical Malcolm. He’s produced his own epitaph. No one else is going to do better than that.
Since escaping from Parliament House nearly two years ago, I’d gone cold turkey on politics. Got it out of my system. Found new interests. Then along came Niki, gave me a fix with her new book, and I find myself back on the stuff.
During the period I was clean, a growing interest in crime-writing largely replaced my obsession with politics. I haven’t done a Chris Hammer and turned my hand to the actual writing. Not yet, anyway. But I’ve been appointed patron of the annual BADSydney crime-writing festival. The title they’ve given me is Godfather.
I’ve recently been one of the judges for an award for true-crime books. And reading crime fiction, always a hobby, has become more of a passion.
Some people might think it’s not a big leap from politics to crime. Plots and Prayers, I’m afraid, will reinforce that view.
On page 36, for example we find this description of the political assassination of Malcolm Turnbull: ‘a sorry saga of betrayal, conspiracy, miscalculation, hubris, and conflicting loyalties and emotions … It was driven by a thirst for revenge, blind ambition, blind hatred, disappointment, and panic.’
If you whacked that on the cover of a crime book, you’d be a lay down misere for the next Golden Dagger award.
But there’s one very big difference between Niki’s book and your classic hard-boiled crime novels. From Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler 90 years ago to Lee Child and Michael Connelly today, they tend to have at their centre a certain kind of protagonist.
Chandler wrote in a famous essay on crime-writing: ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’
But there is no such hero in Plots and Prayers. Attorney-General Christian Porter is about as close as we get. If this book is any indication, just about everybody in the mean streets of Australian politics is mean or afraid, or both. All the major characters are tarnished in one way or another. Men or women of honour are scarce on the ground.
When Turnbull was rolled as opposition leader back in 2009 and replaced by Abbott, there was at least an issue at the heart of the crisis. Not this time, any more than there was when Rudd was rolled. Or Gillard. All the lying and cheating and white-anting and knifing that Niki describes was not in the service of any issue or principle.
It was all about power and position, survival, personal advancement, settling scores.
And I’ll tell you something I’ve learned from retirement. It all looks uglier from outside than it does from the Parliamentary Press Gallery. When you’re in contact with the participants and watching up close, it can seem like a bit of a game. But that’s not how the punters see it.
And that’s why — despite all the excitement and madness, the drama and comedy, and the lively way Niki tells the story — this is, when you get right down to it, a depressing book.
You don’t feel depressed when you’re reading it. On the contrary, it’s immensely entertaining. It’s only later, when you think about the state of politics as Niki describes it, that you get a feeling of despair. Of concern for the country.
It’s not only the Duttons, Cormanns, Abbotts, Turnbulls, Pynes, and so on shown practising whatever-it-takes politics. Look how the new prime minister comes out of it.
Described by Niki as ‘a complex mix of political cunning and religious conviction’, Scott Morrison would have us believe he replaced Turnbull without dirtying his hands. That he did not get involved in any of the grubby stuff.
Yet the book makes a hard-to-argue-against case that he was in the plotting and the deception up to his armpits. More Machiavellian than the others, in fact.
‘It is impossible to get to where he got in 24 hours, which is what he later wanted people to believe,’ Niki writes. Morrison’s supporters, she says, voted strategically for Peter Dutton in the very first ballot of spill week. Their aim, she says, was to undermine Turnbull as well as to mislead the Dutton forces about the extent of his support.
I’m not sure how this sort of thing fits in with all the God-bothering that was going on at the same time.
The Road to Ruin, which covered the first half of one of the maddest periods in our political history, was a big seller. I expect this book, covering the second half of the Abbott–Turnbull Wars, will be popular, too.
Because Niki scorns the sanitised, spin-dominated treatment of politic,s and genuinely takes us behind the scenes. She gives us a look at what the political game is really like — the ruthlessness and the nastiness, the cynicism and the stupidity, the plotting and, yes, now the praying.
At least in the good old days, when Gough Whitlam prayed, he was just talking to himself.
I said at the launch of The Road to Ruin that its sales proved people are eager to read about this stuff. They wanted to find out from that book how and why Tony Abbott, with the assistance of his chief of staff, blew it so royally. How he attained the highest office in the land and then threw it away in a couple of years.
From Plots and Prayers, they want to know how and why Malcolm Turnbull got the chop; how and why the government became and remained for so long an embarrassing, ineffective rabble; how and why Tony Abbott got his revenge and then his comeuppance; how and why Labor got so far up itself that it was incapable of exploiting the very public chaos in the coalition to get itself elected.
People are interested, as they should be. They’re fascinated by the incompetence, the hypocrisy, the venality, the bad behaviour, the frailties, and the foibles of their elected representatives. But that doesn’t mean they want a circus for a government.
I think all of us were struck by the outpouring of feeling when Bob Hawke died. A friend of Hawkie’s suggested to me the other day — and I think this is true — that part of the reason was nostalgia for a better political era. Nostalgia for a time when politics wasn’t so mean, when politicians were braver, when perhaps there were people of honour in the parliament.
The truth is, politicians should hope that Plots and Prayers does not become a bestseller because, like its predecessor — perhaps more so — it will further erode the already low public regard for our political system and those involved in it.
Which is not to say Niki is wrong to pull the scab off today’s politics. People have a right to know the truth. It’s probably necessary if there’s to be any hope of improvement.
When Niki confessed to me that she’d agreed to write this book, I told her she was mad. I think there might have been a frowned-upon adjective thrown in that made the message even stronger. It would obviously be a difficult book to write. It involved a very big cast of characters and a more complex story than the one she told so brilliantly in The Road To Ruin. And the hatreds, feuds, and betrayals resulting from the coalition’s years of madness had the potential to make the whole exercise pretty unpleasant. For her.
She was, after all, put through the wringer by the delcons — the deluded conservatives —and others who should have known better after publication of The Road To Ruin. Why go through it all again?
Niki agreed she was mad, but she’s also tough. She saddled up and rode into battle again. And it’s a very good thing that she did.
The information she prised out of people, the anecdotes she dug up, the colourful quotes she extracted from politicians and others at the centre of events, and the way she got so much of it on the record make this an extraordinary account of an extraordinary period in Australian politics.
The Road to Ruin was a terrific book. Believe it or not, though, there are people who think this one is even better. It’s got everything. Including sex, in the form of what Niki affectionately refers to as ‘Barnaby’s doodle’. And no, she’s not talking about the former deputy prime minister scribbling absent-mindedly on the back of his cabinet documents.
Niki deals seriously with what are serious matters, but in a racy, tabloid style that makes them easily accessible for the reader. Despite the long list of names readers have to keep in their heads, and all the detail about who stabbed who and who lied to who and who double-crossed who and who bullied who, it’s never dull. Even the chapter headings show that. ‘Queensland: perfect one day, shitty the next’ is one of them.
And I repeat — the main strength of this book, as it was in The Road To Ruin, is Niki’s success in getting so many participants to agree to be quoted. There are not many anonymous sources. This engenders trust in the reader. And it shows the extent to which Niki’s sources trusted her and trusted her promise that none of what they told her would see the light until after the election.
Dutton, for example, is remarkably frank. He disputes, quite clearly, Morrison’s claim of clean hands. He alleges that Morrison ‘played’ Turnbull — publicly standing by him while privately allowing lieutenants to muster the numbers to depose him.
I can imagine how delighted Morrison is about that.
Christian Porter is quoted at length over the struggle to stop Turnbull’s efforts to involve the governor-general in the Liberal leadership dispute. This battle of wills is fascinating.
Julie Bishop’s description of Mathias Cormann as ‘the ultimate seducer and betrayer’ is a corker.
Even comments from the head of the prime minister’s department, Martin Parkinson, normally the most discreet of public servants, are not disguised. He confirms that it had become harder and harder to keep the bad Malcolm in the cave.
The notion of a good Malcolm and a bad one keeps bobbing up throughout the book, and it’s related to perhaps the key question in all this. Would Turnbull have won the election if Dutton and Cormann and their mates had stuck with him?
Turnbull and his supporters say he would have won it. Maybe. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that he campaigned appallingly in 2016 and lost a whole swag of seats. He was a lazy campaigner and, worse, an undisciplined one.
Morrison, by contrast, proved to be energetic with an iron self-discipline that kept the campaign focused where the Liberal strategists and researchers wanted it. He also didn’t mind uttering inanities.
Like: ‘It is my vision for this country, as your prime minister, to keep the promise of Australia to all Australians.’
Can you imagine Malcolm saying something as breathtakingly meaningless as that? But that’s politics. I remember a line our greatest political speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg, penned for then Labor leader Arthur Calwell in the 1960s.
He’d have Cocky Calwell say: ‘We’re Labor because we’re Australian, and we’re Australian because we’re Labor.’ And the Labor crowds would applaud wildly.
It will be interesting to see if James Jeffrey can top that in his role as the new Freudy on Albo’s staff. But I digress.
Niki suggests Turnbull would have done better in the 2019 campaign because of changes in personnel running the Liberal Party, a modernising of its campaign machinery and research capability, and considerably more money than had been available three years before.
But can a well-oiled party machine make up for a leader who’s a dud campaigner? I can see why a lot of Liberals had their doubts.
Keep in mind that Turnbull had also performed less than brilliantly in his one other major campaign in a leadership role — as head of the Republican movement in the 1999 referendum.
Factor in, too, that Labor’s campaign in the May election, incompetent as it was, would almost certainly have been more effective against Turnbull than against Morrison. That’s because the big-end-of-town stuff — the claim that the Liberals were primarily concerned with the welfare of the wealthy — was designed to be used against the multi-millionaire merchant banker with the harbourside mansion.
It was pretty pointless against Morrison. Labor’s stupidity lay in not changing it when the Liberal leadership changed.
Something I particularly like about the book, by the way, is that, as well as dealing with the political ins and outs, it gives an idea of the emotional impact on participants.
We read, for example, that after Turnbull’s party-room defeat, Christopher Pyne left Parliament Housed crying. He cried all the way to the airport, and was still wiping away tears on his flight back to Adelaide. He was shattered.
I suspect, though, that the money from Christopher’s new role providing strategic advice on defence matters to a major consultancy firm will help to staunch the tears.
Mitch Fifield, who was talked into joining Mathias Cormann and Michaelia Cash in the resignation press conference that spelt the end for Turnbull, will probably be haunted by it for the rest of his days, Niki writes. He suffered a grieving process that ‘is painful, incites bouts of introspection, guilt, deep remorse, and self-laceration’. What he did also strained some of this closest friendships.
It seems from the book that some people — including, surprisingly, Mathias Cormann — naively thought Turnbull might be pressured into standing down from the leadership. They obviously didn’t know Malcolm. And they must not have read, or had forgotten, Niki’s comments about him in her first book, So Greek, published in 2010.
That’s the thing about Niki’s books, Henry. They shouldn’t be read one at a time. I suggest Scribe needs to consider bring them out as a boxed set.
The point here is that, given the way he fought when his position as opposition leader was under threat, there was never any chance Turnbull would make things easier for those out to dislodge him from The Lodge nine years later.
While Turnbull was opposition leader there was some speculation that Peter Costello, who had declined to take the leadership after the 2007 election defeat, might have changed his mind.
Niki, a former Costello staffer remember, wrote in So Greek that Turnbull ‘sent an unequivocal message to the former treasurer that, if he wanted the job, he would have to “wade through blood” to get it’.
When a move on Turnbull’s leadership did come in 2008, Niki recalled, ‘He pressed the self-destruct button, seemingly determined to leave his successor nothing but rubble from which to rebuild. In what many Liberals saw as an unforgiveable act of betrayal, not only did he take no prisoners, but he set about slaughtering his own troops too.’
Shades of her comment in this book about Turnbull’s apparent willingness to involve the governor-general in a constitutional crisis in a bid to save himself. In 1975, she wrote, Sir John Kerr sacked a Labor prime minister at the urging of the Liberal leader. To stop Dutton, ‘Turnbull was seeking to have his own government sacked.’
No one can accuse Niki of pulling her punches. Yet another strength in her writing.
Before I finish, I want to return briefly to the politics/crime comparison. We all know the adage that crime doesn’t pay. The equivalent in politics is that political careers end in tears.
I sent Malcolm Turnbull a text message after he got rolled, expressing sympathy and saying, ‘The “it always ends in tears” rule seems unbreakable.’ He replied, ‘No tears here. It’s a tough game.’
But he knew the rule, as Niki wrote on the final page of The Road To Ruin. ‘He alluded to it soon after he became prime minister, when he said he would probably go the same way as Abbott went.’
Well, in crime-writing, publishers always prefer a series to a stand-alone. So it was very clever, Niki, the way you set things up at the end of one book for a sequel.
I’ve checked, and thankfully there’s no hint at the end of Plots and Prayers of anything similar this time. Because — I’ll say it again, you’d be mad to do another book.
Now, I’ll get out of your way and go back to my life of crime.