Here's What It Was Actually Like Inside Malcolm Turnbull's Election Night Party
How the PM's big night went disastrously wrong. An exclusive excerpt from the new book, What A Time To Be Alive.
A pall had fallen over the crowd. It was 9pm. The groups of huddled couples had moved away from the carnage on the plasma screens. Malcolm Turnbull’s legendary advancer Vincent Woolcock was now entertaining a group of young men around a tall table in the centre of the room. Recycling billionaire Anthony Pratt was skolling champagne and talking with a young woman in a corner.
Journalists were mingling with party members. I stood with a beer in my hand.
“Excuse me. Journalists aren’t allowed in this area.”
It was Nicole Chant, the senior communications adviser who we’d outed as getting drunk in an Aboriginal community at the start of the campaign. Unlike the selfie, which had showed her with dark hair and without make-up, now her hair was covered in blonde highlights. She was wearing a formal dress and pink, glossy lipstick.
“You have to leave, this is for party members only,” she said, looking directly at me.
Around the room journalists were scattered among the crowd. She’d targeted me and the Australian’s James Jeffrey.
“Oh, we are getting marching orders?” I asked.
“Ah, yeah you are.”
I put down the Vietnamese rice paper roll I’d been eating, drank the rest of my beer and walked slowly back behind the media rope line at the back of the room.
The result was looking like a disaster for Turnbull. A group of his staff, all women, made the move to get away from the disappointing glare of the night. The group, dressed in black dresses, descended the escalators and ed to an upstairs room in the hotel. One young woman had a puffy red face from crying.
"It’s a disaster. If we do win, it’ll be a bee’s dick majority"
I went to the urinal and ran into a senior NSW Liberal member. Literally standing at the bathroom’s trough, both of us midstream, he took out his phone. He shoved the iPhone in my face, still urinating, and showed me the seats they were losing in western Sydney.
"It’s a disaster. If we do win, it’ll be a bee’s dick majority"
Not even a toilet break could stop these Liberal machine men from talking shop. They were three, four, five drinks in now and their usually cautious approach to journalists had been thrown out the window.
Outside the toilet, a female Liberal candidate cursed in a slurring voice.
“Ahhh fuck this whole thing,” she said.
“Nutt and Textor are ...” she now lowered her voice to a whisper, “cunts”.
I asked why.
“They drank the Kool-Aid. They didn’t work with the states. It was run like a presidential campaign. It was a bloody cult,” she said.
“The cult of Malcolm. He’s not Barack-fucking-Obama!”
At 9:23pm, the short, British-accented election mastermind on the ABC, Antony Green, made the prediction that there would not be a result tonight. In the outer room, a middle-aged woman wearing a Malcolm Turnbull hoodie burst into tears. How had it come to this for the Coalition?
In a private room in Melbourne, Bill Shorten was high-fiving his staff . He was ecstatic. Elated. Even if Labor lost from here, he’d be considered a hero within the broader party movement.
At 11:31pm, Shorten came out onto the blank, black stage at the racecourse to huge cheers from the crowd.
“The Labor Party are BACK!”
At the Coalition’s party the faithful watched Shorten’s speech, which was beamed onto the big projector screens above the main stage.
“You LIAR!” they yelled.
Shortly after, the word came that Turnbull was on his way to the party to make a brief speech. Half a dozen cameras and journalists were marshalled outside a gold-reflected elevator for his arrival. I stood there looking into the reflection, zoning out waiting. We adjusted mics, cameras, checked watches. AFP agents nervously confirmed with each other, yes, Malcolm’s pregnant daughter Daisy would be with them. Twenty minutes dragged on.
At 12:23am the elevator doors opened. Turnbull emerged with Lucy, his son Alex, his daughter Daisy and her husband. He wasn’t smiling. He was grinning. It was the face of a man who’d been told to smile. He was staring down a shocking result. He took his first few steps towards the main stage, and watched the media crush forward.
“Mr Turnbull, do you feel responsible for the loss?”
“Prime Minister, have you lost the election?”
Tagged microphones were shoved underneath Malcolm’s chin.
Six bulky AFP agents were used as a battering ram against the wave of questioners, whose sole job was to get the media branding in the shot and try to provoke a response.
I was among them, in the front line, swept along in the wave towards the main stage.
“Malcolm, is it still the most exciting time to b—” SMASH! I met the elbow of an AFP agent who was built like a front row forward. I fell to the ground and was trod on by a cameraman.
Turnbull made it to the front of the stage. The Liberal die- hards were bravely chanting:
Three years earlier those two thunderous syllables were “TO-NY!”. Now, Malcolm Turnbull, forever considered the smartest and most capable man in the room, stood listening to the chants. It was an awful result and there, on stage, all he could do was grin. A huge, reluctant grin. How would he spin this disastrous loss?
I took up a position in the middle of the crowd of 200 people. The Prime Minister was not humbled though. He was defiant and started his speech by claiming victory.
“I can report that based on the advice I have from the party officials we can have every confidence that we will form a Coalition majority government in the next parliament!”
The crowd erupted in cheers. The claps subsided and Malcolm let forth with an angry outburst. On the big screens in the hotel, his face looked red as he went on a rant about Labor’s dishonesty.
“Today, as voters went to the polls, as you would have seen in the press, there were text messages being sent to thousands of people across Australia saying that Medicare was about to be privatised by the Liberal Party. The SMS message said it came from Medicare—an extraordinary act of dishonesty!”
His voice went hoarse on the final word. He was grasping the lectern with both hands and speaking into both mics. He was an outraged man.
“Where the fuck has this Malcolm been?” muttered one Liberal supporter, taking a swig of champagne and then taking a bite out of a prosciutto-wrapped piece of bocconcini.
Malcolm went on to say the police had already been called. It was bizarre. This wasn’t a victory speech. It wasn’t a concession speech. It was an extended attack ad. But the Liberal Party base from the floor of the Sofitel ballroom lapped it up.
Labor had “the second lowest primary vote in its history!” and therefore had “no capacity in this parliament to form a stable majority government”. The PM was leaning into the mics to hammer home political points, transforming into the brawler of the bloke he had deposed nine months earlier. It was catnip to the crowd. But it was universally panned across the nation.
Laurie Oakes, at his blunt best, called it “pathetic”. The Australian’s Caroline Overington wrote later, “If there has been a worse speech than the one Malcolm Turnbull delivered shortly after midnight, I’d like to hear it. No, I wouldn’t.”
It was now approaching 1am and it was time for Malcolm to go. There’d be no milling among the plebs. There’d be no basking in personal adulation. Malcolm had come to the luxury hotel, delivered his speech, shaken a few people’s hands and now he returned to his luxury home.
The house lights came on and just like at a nightclub, people were shocked to see the room without the glossy, gloomy lighting. The room was more than half-empty. Some were wearing Malcolm Turnbull apparel and sported red faces—those who had spent the day in the sun, campaigning on booths. Others were drunk, looking at their phones asking each other, “So what’s the plan now?”
Young men skolled the final remnants of beer and wine that was left in half-full glasses and planned to meet at different locations around the Sydney CBD. Some were heading to The Ivy—the natural kick-on location for this set. Others would head to the casino. Some invited groups back to private rooms in the hotel.
One group had a small bag of coke stored in the back of their room’s TV. It was then racked up using, appropriately, a Medicare card to split the white powder and then hoovered down by young women, clutching at their nostrils.
I packed up my gear and made my way down the escalators of the hotel. Descending ahead of me was a group of the young Liberal faithful, dressed as mini-Malcolm Turnbulls, sporting Herringbone suits, Hermès ties and matching pocket squares. They started a chant:
Arm-in-arm they continued all the way to the bottom floor of the hotel, spilling out onto the street and into waiting taxis.
In Melbourne, Labor’s young party-goers were packed onto buses and out in search of more drinking. They had triumphed today. They had won the campaign. Bill Shorten had taken them to the brink of victory.
When the history books record this election, it will write about Labor confounding expectations, the unexpected skittling of Liberal marginal seats and Bill Shorten’s two week scare campaign on Medicare. It will be about how the longest and most boring campaign of all time produced one of the most exciting results ever.
Now, on a packed bus somewhere in Melbourne, Labor people screamed out seat names they’d won, cheering in delight. A former press secretary to Kevin Rudd, Eamonn Fitzpatrick, a large man in his late 30s with a penchant for taking selfies, started screaming down the aisles.
“WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE!” he yelled, grabbing the collars of young Labor members around him. Malcolm’s mantra was now Labor’s party chant:
“WHAT A FUCKING TIME TO BE ALIVE!”
Extracted from What A Time To Be Alive: That And Other Lies Of The 2016 Campaign, by Mark Di Stefano. MUP is offering BuzzFeed readers a 25% discount on the $27.99 RRP, plus free shipping. Click here, entering promo code BUZZ25 when prompted.