Spills and Thrills: Liberal Party in Disarray Over Dutton Leadership Challenge

Spills and Thrills: Liberal Party in Disarray Over Dutton Leadership Challenge

The marriage of convenience between Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party now appears to be completely and spectacularly imploding, right in front of the public eye, as a second leadership spill now seems inevitable amidst a deeply fractured Liberal Party.

There were reports circulating yesterday evening of a petition for the Prime Minister to call a second party room meeting, with Liberal MP Jane Prentice stated that at least 9 Liberal members had signed it as of last night. Today is the last sitting day of Parliament before a two-week break, so if Turnbull can manage to survive this seemingly fatal second blow, he will have a small amount of reprieve from direct challenges.

It all began last week, with murmurings of a potential challenge from Peter Dutton after Turnbull lost his 38th consecutive Newspoll. This came amidst criticism of Turnbull’s proposed energy policy, which sought to reduce emissions while providing more reliable and cheaper energy. The policy had broad party room support, with three-quarters of Liberals voting in favour of it last week. However, Turnbull was forced to significantly change the proposal on Monday when several MPs threatened to cross the floor on the issue, which would be a devastating blow to a government which barely holds the majority in the House of Representatives. The most vocal of internal critics has been Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister, who appears to be driven more by vengefulness than morality. He has been joined by several Liberal backbenchers who claim concern surrounding power prices, such as Craig Kelly, Tony Pasin, Eric Abetz and Andrew Gee. The consensus, however, is that energy policy is just a Trojan horse being utilised to make a leadership spill appear more policy-driven than the vicious display of playground justice that it truly is.

Initially the rumours of a challenge were met with public denials from Dutton, with him stating on his Twitter feed on August 17th that the “Prime Minister (had his) support” and that he “support(ed) the policies of the Government”. However, after a tumultuous Tuesday morning snap vote called by Turnbull, we know that this was clearly not the case. Although Turnbull managed to survive the vote 48-35, the amount of support for Dutton showed that there was blood in the water for the Prime Minister. Especially considering when later that same day the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten put forward a vote of no confidence motion against Turnbull, comparing him to former Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon who history looks upon as a power-hungry and vacuous Sydney-native. The Deputy Opposition Leader went a step further, with Tanya Plibersek describing the Liberal party as “Frankenstein’s monster” with the “face of (Turnbull), the policies of (Abbott), and … the cold shrivelled soul of (Dutton).” While the motion was defeated 67-76, the Liberal Party must regroup and determine who they are and how they can unite ahead of the next election.

Dutton is an attractive figure to the conservative factions of the Liberal party, as a former police officer who has marketed himself as a protector of traditional values and strong border security. He is also from Queensland, a state with a significant number of marginal seats that will be more inclined to agree with Turnbull’s dissenters regarding electricity prices and energy security. Following his loss in the initial spill, Dutton resigned as Minister of Home Affairs, a position now temporarily being filled by Scott Morrison. As of last night, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the Minister for International Development, is the only other MP whose resignation has been accepted. Others who have offered to resign include Steven Ciobo (Trade), Greg Hunt (Health), Michael Keenan (Human Services), Angus Taylor (Law Enforcement), Alan Tudge (Citizenship) and assistant ministers Senator James McGrath (Prime Minister), Senator Zed Seselja (Jobs) and Michael Sukkar (Treasurer), although it is unclear how many of these have been accepted.

Ahead of today’s vote, many eyes are on the above individuals to see if they’ll stay true to their publicly reconfirmed loyalty to Turnbull and his government. Senator Cormann is being closely watched, as he is not only the Senate leader but also a powerbroker from the conservative faction of the Party. While in the past Senator Cormann has shown support to the Prime Minister, he has a close, personal friendship with Dutton. Senator Cormann’s loyalty is more than likely under great pressure from all directions. Many are describing him as the kingmaker of the Liberal Party, stating that a vote against Turnbull from him would be a fatal blow to the Prime Minister.

UPDATE: Cormann, Fifield and Cash have all publicly abandoned Turnbull. Keenan, Hunt, Taylor, Tudge and Ciobo’s resignations now appear to have been accepted. The second party room vote Turnbull was hoping to avoid now seems inevitable as Dutton tells him in a private meeting that he no longer has the backing of the party. In a 70-68 vote, Turnbull has now successfully dissolved parliament for the day in order to resolve the leadership issue, meaning no 2:00 pm question time, and a barrage of criticism from the Opposition. It also appears as though Scott Morrison will run as a third candidate for leader of the party, as National MPs such as Darren Chester threaten to move to the crossbench should Dutton become the leader, making him vulnerable to a vote of no confidence due to the coalition’s position as a one-seat majority in the House.

It now seems inevitable that we will have a new Prime Minister by the close of business today.