What a jolly pair. Pic: Kym Smith
What a jolly pair. Pic: Kym Smith

Single photo that burns Turnbull

TWO of Australia's former prime ministers are throwing serious shade at each other.

Yesterday Nine News revealed audio of Malcolm Turnbull calling out Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd for their failure to let go of politics after being deposed from the top job.

"When you stop being prime minister, that's it," Mr Turnbull said in the recording.

"There is no way I would be hanging around like embittered Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott. Seriously, these people are like miserable, miserable ghosts."

Mr Turnbull quit parliament after losing the prime ministership. Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott both decided to stay in politics, and the former became foreign minister under Julia Gillard before briefly returning to the leadership.

Mr Rudd shot back at Mr Turnbull on Twitter.

"Dear Malcolm. A quick reality check on 'miserable ghosts': First, having told the world you've left politics behind, you seem to be in the media every day talking about it. Second, in case you didn't notice, I left parliament for New York City five years ago. Why not come over for a cuppa?" he said.

His less-than-subtle implication was that Mr Turnbull was a flaming hypocrite. And the photo Mr Rudd chose to include in his tweet really drove that message home.

The image shows Mr Rudd pointing and laughing at Mr Turnbull, who seems to be enjoying the joke rather less than his Labor counterpart.

And to Mr Rudd's left, chortling along with him, is former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson - a man who knows a thing or two about vanquished rivals hanging around like ghosts.

You may not remember Dr Nelson's stint in the job, short and miserable as it was, so here's a quick refresher.

When John Howard lost the 2007 election, the obvious choice to replace him - Mr Howard's treasurer Peter Costello - chose not to step forward, leaving Dr Nelson, Mr Turnbull and, before he pulled out, Mr Abbott as the only contenders for the leadership.

Dr Nelson beat Mr Turnbull in a tight vote, 45-42, and proceeded to endure an excruciating handful of months opposite Mr Rudd in parliament, with his preferred prime minister rating stuck in the teens.

He made Mr Turnbull his shadow treasurer. In return, Mr Turnbull made it his mission to tear Dr Nelson down.

"Turnbull pledged his loyalty to Nelson but gave him absolutely none. He simply refused to accept the decision of the party room, and the undermining began immediately," Paddy Manning wrote in his biography of Mr Turnbull, Born To Rule.

Just days after the leadership vote, Mr Turnbull called Dr Nelson's chief of staff, Peter Hendy, and told him he needed to "get Brendan to resign in the next few weeks" because Dr Nelson was "hopeless".

"In his relentless campaign against Nelson, Turnbull took disloyalty to extremes," Mr Manning wrote.

Dr Nelson was gone within a year, hounded out by Mr Turnbull's ambition.

"If you had any idea of what he said to me over those 10 months, you would be shocked," Dr Nelson told Fairfax Media when he quit parliament.

"Keating wanted power because he knew what he could do with it for the country. Malcolm wanted position."

Which brings us back to Mr Rudd's tweet.

The point was that Mr Turnbull had some serious cheek to criticise fallen leaders for bitterly undermining their successors, given he had done so much bitter undermining himself.

By resigning immediately after losing the leadership and causing a by-election in Wentworth, Mr Turnbull put the government's one-seat majority at risk.

Backed by preferences from Labor and the Greens, independent candidate Dr Kerryn Phelps appears to be a realistic chance of toppling Mr Turnbull's Liberal replacement, Dave Sharma, on October 20.

Then, shortly after arriving in New York, Mr Turnbull took his revenge on the man who precipitated his downfall, Peter Dutton.

He called and texted Coalition MPs, urging them to vote with Labor and refer questions about Mr Dutton's eligibility to sit in parliament to the High Court.

When he was still prime minister, Mr Turnbull himself had voted against that idea.

Sure, he may not be "hanging around" in parliament like Mr Abbott, whose pledge not to snipe, wreck or undermine after he was toppled as prime minister now seems laughable.

But in his eagerness to criticise other former PMs, Mr Turnbull seems to have left an obvious name off his list.

Not the best of friends.
Not the best of friends.

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