Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

It’s hard to see how Malcolm Turnbull can survive

It was a surprisingly jovial press pack, covering its nth leadership contest, that greeted newly minted backbencher Peter Dutton in the Senate courtyard this afternoon. The man who now is odds-on to become Australia’s 30th prime minister strode up and pointed out that he was glad he could speak outside the confines of his home affairs ministry, perhaps even smile a little. Dutton was so effusive in his praise of the work of his department, the government, and even the prime minister, that one could be forgiven for thinking it was all sweetness and light in the Coalition, and that the only danger to Australian politics was the potential for Bill Shorten become prime minister.

And yet, by winning the support of more than a third of his Liberal Party colleagues today, Peter Dutton made a Shorten Labor government that much more likely, whether or not he takes the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull now is so wounded, his authority so shredded, that it is very difficult to see him remaining as leader for long, let alone carrying the Coalition to victory. Commentators are almost unanimous that, given this morning’s surprise leadership ballot was hardly prepared, Dutton is bound to come back for a second strike. If or when Dutton does succeed in knocking Turnbull off – on Thursday, next month, or later this year – it is equally hard to see the broader electorate either discovering a sudden affection for Dutton or rewarding a Coalition that has served up more of the leadership vendettas and backstabbing so loathed by the public.

Dutton justified his challenge today by saying that he had “the best prospect of leading the party to success at the next election”. Dutton said he would respect the view of the party room and would now work for the return of the government from the backbench. It was all bulletproof, boilerplate pollyspeak that gave nothing away. He refused to rule out a second challenge: “I want to contribute to public debates. I very much want to support the government and make sure the government can win … I will work every day to make sure the Coalition is elected at the next election and I want to make sure that I support the prime minister.”

Dutton said he harboured no animosity for Turnbull and – against the view that he would now be free with his criticisms of the government, having done the right thing and resigned from cabinet – he said: “I’m not going to provide critiques. As I say, the critique I’m willing to provide is in relation to Bill Shorten.” It was not as strong as Abbott’s statement when he was condemned to the backbench – “no wrecking, no undermining, no sniping” – but it was pretty firm. Let’s see if he sticks to it. This afternoon, Dutton went straight on to Sky News, denying that he was a puppet for Tony Abbott, and playing a straight bat: “I lost the ballot today and I accept the outcome.”

Turnbull hoped to catch Dutton off guard by springing this morning’s ballot, but the 48–35 result was a devastating blow. On top of Abbott and the usual suspects were dozens of nervous backbenchers and, crucially, at least seven of Turnbull’s own ministers. They reportedly include hardline assistant finance minister Michael Sukkar, doing the numbers for Dutton, as well Greg Hunt, running as Dutton’s deputy, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo and Abbott loyalist Angus Taylor. The defection of key strategist James McGrath, assistant minister to the PM – who helped Turnbull topple Abbott – into the Dutton camp is especially telling. Rounding out the list are Michael Keenan, Alan Tudge and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who remains loyal to the PM for now, will prove the kingmaker. There is intensifying speculation about a Dutton-led government, including frontbench roles for Abbott and Joyce. If ousted, what would Turnbull do? The government could not be assured of a majority in the house.

Labor had a field day in Question Time this afternoon, as Shorten launched into a long motion of no confidence in the PM. Turnbull’s response fell flat. He may no longer have the stomach for the fight ahead. He has lived by the sword and, when he toppled Abbott, acknowledged that his own leadership was likely to end the same way. Today, Turnbull is being widely described as a dead man walking, and towards the end of Question Time he was starting to sound like one.

For the PM, it seems the only way to avoid another challenge may be to go to an early election, as commentators, including The Australian’s Peter van Onselen [$], suggest this afternoon. Yet the Liberals are simply not ready, with preselections still underway or unfinished, including in the key battleground state of Queensland. Election timing was not even discussed at the Coalition’s joint partyroom meeting today – the government’s message remains that the election will be held in May.

Labor is ready to go. In her contribution to the no confidence motion, deputy leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek declared that it was the only way to resolve the political uncertainty, and that Labor was “ready to govern”. Let’s hope so, because Australia’s democracy may not survive another lost decade.

since this morning

Amid acres of leadership coverage today, Crikey analyst William Bowe writes [$] that Malcolm Turnbull remains the most popular Coalition candidate for PM while support for Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton is “best described as a rump: a constant 10 per cent or so for Abbott, and barely half that for Dutton since the pollster first felt it worth including him as an option in March last year”.

The Guardian reports on a new survey that shows 85 per cent of Australians believe most or all MPs are corrupt, and two-thirds support the creation of a federal anti-corruption body.


In The Conversation, constitutional law expert Anne Twomey writes that the financial interest Peter Dutton’s family trust holds in two child care centres could make him ineligible to sit in parliament, which would “open a Pandora’s box of litigation”.

The Age reports that independent schools are backing away from a proposal that would help repair the government’s fraught relationship with the Catholic schools sector.

by Oslo Davis
In Light of Recent Events
When you talk about your home renovation
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by Robert Manne
Malcolm Turnbull: A brief lament
The climate-science champion of 2010 has morphed into the fossil-fuel supporter of 2016

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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