Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Turnbull fights back
It’s an omnishambles, and it’s not over yet


All sides of the Liberal Party are appealing to the iron laws of arithmetic today, in homage to former prime minister John Howard, but none of them know the numbers. As of this afternoon, Peter Dutton’s challenge to Malcolm Turnbull appears to be very finely balanced. Dutton confirmed today that he is calling around potential supporters ahead of a second leadership spill that could come as soon as tomorrow morning.

For his part, at the end of a press conference this afternoon Turnbull said that he had refused to accept the resignations tendered by four of his cabinet ministers, not counting Dutton, and they had given him unequivocal pledges of loyalty, whatever that may mean. Flanked by his treasurer, Scott Morrison, and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who both pledged unconditional loyalty, it was a solid performance from the PM, even if the three were confirming the failure of the last tranche of their signature economic reform, big business tax cuts. Turnbull, in short, is fighting back hard and it cannot be assumed that the same two-strike strategy that worked for Paul Keating in 1991 will necessarily work again now for Dutton. History may not repeat itself on this occasion. As Turnbull fights back, however, the parliament is being reduced to chaos, perhaps even sliding toward a genuine constitutional crisis.

If he is to pull it off, Dutton’s challenge will need to be quick, because the more he speaks the more questions he raises, and the more doubt is generated. On 3AW with Neil Mitchell this morning Dutton floated the idea of taking the GST off electricity bills, to ease the pain for consumers. That idea was shot down very quickly by the treasurer this afternoon, who reckoned the cost to the states’ revenue would be in the billions – it would be a “budget blower”. It could even jeopardise the sweetened GST deal that has shored up support for the Coalition in Western Australia, Morrison said, a sideways signal for Cormann not to jump to the Dutton camp, which would be fatal for Turnbull.

Dutton ummed and ahhed his way through the Mitchell interview and was hardly bursting with ideas. It was a proper grilling, unlike the treatment he gets from 2GB’s Ray Hadley, who Fairfax reported made an embarrassing gaffe this afternoon when he read out a text message, apparently from Dutton himself, backgrounding that Morrison had been pushing a leadership ticket with himself as Dutton’s deputy. It may be that the Liberal Party is being manipulated by the media, warns former party staffer and senior journalist Imre Saluszisnky in David Crowe’s story. 

In Question Time this afternoon, Labor targeted each of the ministers who reportedly backed Dutton on Tuesday, and offered their resignations overnight. Labor quoted from the cabinet handbook on the principle of solidarity and asked whether these ministers continued to support the prime minister. “Yes I do” came the reply from Greg Hunt, to uproar in the house. Hunt is touted to be running as Dutton’s deputy. Likewise Alan Tudge, Michael Keenan, Angus Taylor and so on ... all professed their support for the PM on the floor of the house, as Dutton watched on from the back row.

Labor’s other attack this afternoon was over the child care centres owned by Dutton’s family trust. The centres attracted millions in Commonwealth payments, potentially putting him in breach of section 44 of the Constitution, and Labor asked whether Dutton had absented himself from cabinet decisions due to a potential conflict of interest. The prime minister confirmed that advice had not yet been obtained from the solicitor-general, but at the end of Question Time, Sky News was reporting that it would be. As we have seen before, Dutton’s own legal advice may carry no weight.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle to a successful Dutton challenge, however, is the possibility that it could cause the government to lose its one-seat majority on the floor of the house. To the amazement of his colleagues, the Nationals’ Darren Chester warned last night that he may not support a Dutton government if it came to a confidence vote. Both Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie and independent Cathy McGowan have reportedly reserved their positions on confidence and supply should there be a change of  PM.

Then again, there is always the possibility that a vanquished Turnbull, or a dumped Julie Bishop, may cross the floor or go AWOL, leading to the loss of a vote on the floor, which could in turn trigger an election. The governor-general today was reported to have cancelled a plan to travel interstate this week, just in case. The ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, poured scorn on the idea that the governor-general would acquiesce to any move by the PM to call an early election, if it was simply to ward off a likely leadership challenge. Green’s tip? Most likely, the unready Liberals will try to muddle through to an election next May. The alternative could be a genuine constitutional crisis.

since this morning

The AFR reports [$] that the Senate voted this morning 36 to 30 to kill off the second tranche of the government’s plan to reduce the company tax rate to 25 per cent for all businesses by 2026–27.

The Australian reports [$] that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions is considering whether to lay charges over leaks from Michaelia Cash’s office about raids on union offices, after receiving a complete brief of evidence from the Australian Federal Police.


The Guardian reports that Peter Dutton is an unknown quantity to voters – even in his own seat.

In The Australian, Janet Albrechtsen describes [$] Malcolm Turnbull as an “infidel in Howard’s broad church”.

All past and present Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioners have announced a plan for constitutional reform within five years.

Fairfax reports that Emanuel Exports, the company at the centre of a horrific live exports scandal involving the deaths of thousands of sheep at sea, has had its licence to export animals permanently cancelled.

by Chloe Hooper
Could he actually win?
On the road with Bill Shorten

by Richard Cooke
The Australian right is startling for its incoherence

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


The Monthly Today

PM’s humble pie

The government’s economic reform agenda is threadbare

Labor frays on tax

The Opposition risks becoming a rabble

Medivac “floodgates”? Hardly

Peter Dutton’s fearmongering is despicable

Victoria forges ahead

Voluntary assisted dying laws won’t please the religious right

From the front page

PM’s humble pie

The government’s economic reform agenda is threadbare

Image of the University of Sydney


The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities

Image of Quarterly Essay 74, ‘The Prosperity Gospel’, by Erik Jensen

Everymen don’t exist

On the campaign trail with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten – a Quarterly Essay extract

Image from ‘Fleabag’

Falling for ‘Fleabag’

On the problematic hotness of Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest