‘Very dangerous PM’: Turnbull attacks Abbott on ABC’s Nemesis
Malcolm Turnbull has labelled former Liberal colleague Tony Abbott “a very dangerous prime minister” in the first episode of the ABC’s political expose Nemesis.
The three-part series, which began on Monday night, documents the terms of Liberal prime ministers Abbott, Turnbull and Scott Morrison from 2013 to 2022.
Abbott did not take part – becoming the first former prime minister to refuse in 30 years of such ABC documentaries.
Episode one revealed Abbott had considered the option of sending a “large military deployment” to Ukraine after the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russia-backed separatists.
Thirty-eight Australian citizens and residents were among 298 on board who were all killed in the 2014 incident.
“It was a genuinely crazy idea,” said Turnbull, who was then communications minister.
“To send armed personnel … no one would’ve welcomed it, and particularly our Western allies would not have welcomed it.
“It showed, if you like, the elements of Tony that started to make me feel that we had a very dangerous prime minister.”
Turnbull also unleashed on Abbott for “amping up the rhetoric” on the risk posed by homegrown Islamic terrorism “in a way that was calculated to frighten people”.
“He would do press conferences, not just with generals and admirals, but with more and more flags,” he said.
“I think the highest number we got to was 10, five on each side. It was right over the top.”
‘Provocative’ MH17 response
Turnbull believed putting Australian troops on the ground in Ukraine would have been crazy and dangerous, according to the ABC.
“If we had sent armed personnel into that part of Ukraine, it’s quite clear what would’ve happened,” he said.
“Putin would’ve … captured them and we would probably still be trying to negotiate for their return.”
“I just didn’t think it was worth the risk.”
Angus Houston, who was Australia’s special envoy to Ukraine at that time, received a call from Abbott seeking his opinion on a military-led operation to retrieve the bodies, or police-led.
“[Tony Abbott] was very determined to do whatever was needed to basically recover the remains of the Australians and repatriate them to their loved ones, and he had a great concern for the welfare of the families,” said Houston.
“I was concerned that the military option would be provocative because the crash site was only a short distance from the Russian border and already I was aware of a huge build-up of Russian forces on the border adjacent to the crash site.
“It was going to be quite a large military deployment, and I just didn’t think a large military deployment would cut it in those circumstances with a very large force on the other side of the border only 30 kilometres away. I just didn’t think that was a smart way to go.
“The risk factor would’ve gone up substantially in terms of a miscalculation, a misunderstanding, the possibility of somebody inadvertently firing on our guys and the thing escalating from there. I just didn’t think it was worth the risk.”
Houston advised that he thought a police-led option was really the only way to go “because it would be more acceptable in terms of less provocative”.
“We had what I would call a very sensible discussion about all the factors at play. I gave him my views. I mean, it was advice, and at the end of it all, he said, ‘OK Angus, I accept your advice. It’ll be a police-led option’.”
Abbott missing from series
Abbott became the first PM not to be interviewed for the documentary series that began with 1993’s Labor in Power and most recently charted the fortunes of the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard governments in 2015’s The Killing Season.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton was also conspicuous in his absence as he joined former foreign minister Julie Bishop and OECD chief Mathias Cormann in refusing to take part.
Journalist Mark Willacy said the latest series was compiled over several months of filming and featured 60 on-camera interviews with Coalition politicians.
In a post-episode blog at abc.net.au, Jessica Riga revealed that Willacy had mixed success in obtaining on-air talent.
‘‘While we got most of the Coalition figures we wanted for the documentary, a few held out,’’ the blog read.
‘‘Former finance minister Mathias Cormann, now the head of the OECD, was a hard ‘no’. “He’s probably pleading diplomatic immunity,” joked former prime minister John Howard.
‘‘Opposition leaderPeter Dutton didn’t respond to our repeated requests for him to participate.
‘‘The team tried half a dozen times to get Julie Bishop to be part of the series, but she was a non-starter.
‘‘Former prime minister Tony Abbott met with us a couple of times before politely declining an interview. To this day, he hasn’t written a memoir about his prime ministership, nor has he done an in-depth television interview about his overthrow. Maybe the wounds run too deep.’’
What was aired
The first episode focused on the rise and fall of the slogan-happy Abbott government as it rose from opposition to the day-to-day business of governing.
Among other topics, the interviews with past and current MPs examined the inclusion of only one woman – Bishop – in Abbott’s first cabinet, the influential role played by chief adviser Peta Credlin, Abbott’s many gaffes, Ken Wyatt’s challenges of ‘‘being on the outer’’ as Indigenous Affairs spokesman, and various leadership challenges, including the infamous empty chair spill.
It also touched on scandals including then-speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s Choppergate saga, ill-conceived post-budget cigar celebrations by Cormann and Joe Hockey, broken election promises and Abbott’s captain’s call of knighting Prince Philip.
The reaction to Nemesis on X, formerly Twitter, was positive.
Member for Warringah Zali Steggall wryly noted that the program highlighted why she entered politics.
High-profile Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter FitzSimons described the first part of Nemesis as ‘‘terrific’’.
‘‘Best line was from Malcolm Turnbull, who was asked what Abbot (sic) would say to him after the spill, when Malcolm would reach out to make sure he was ok: “Generally, he told me to f— off.” Craig Kelly was surprisingly sane. Laundy compelling.’’
The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott author Andrew P Street tweeted: ‘‘It’s glorious to see a bunch of people admitting things they furiously denied back when I wrote a perky little book about the Abbott government for AllenAndUnwin…’’
Nemesis is available at iView. The second part screens next Monday at 8pm.