All the political signs have pointed to Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership being terminal. There have been leaks out of cabinet, there was the unnamed Coalition MP threatening to quit unless Turnbull was replaced (now revealed to be George Christensen), then this week there was the stunning backflip on the Banking Royal Commission. Probably worst of all was the New South Wales Deputy Premier and State Nationals Leader John Barilaro openly calling for Malcolm Turnbull to quit.
Next week is the final sitting week of parliament before the summer break, traditionally known as the parliamentary killing season when leadership challenges are launched. It would be the most vulnerable time for Malcolm Turnbull especially with the question of religious protections in the same sex marriage legislation before the House proving to be contentious amongst Coalition MPs.
It is likely for this reason that the big guns of the Coalition came to Malcolm Turnbull’s defence over the weekend. And no one is bigger that former Prime Minister John Howard, when speaking to the weekend Australian he called on the “madness” engulfing the Coalition to end and offered a strong endorsement of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership “I continue to support Malcolm Turnbull very strongly. The best option for the Liberal Party is to help make Turnbull’s leadership work and succeed. In my view, he can still be successful”.
Despite Turnbull and Howard coming from different factions in the Liberal Party they have always been closely aligned. When Malcolm Turnbull first ran for federal parliament John Howard’s right-hand man Bill Heffernan was Turnbull’s unofficial campaign manager in Wentworth. When Turnbull announced he would retire after losing the leadership in 2009 John Howard convinced him to stay.
After Barnaby Joyce’s sweeping victory in the New England by-election last night which will see him return as Deputy Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was by his side and Joyce offered strong praise for Turnbull “I’m really looking forward to going back to work with this guy here” and offered an indication that Turnbull was still the best option to led the nation “You need someone who’s got the skill set of this guy here … Ask yourself a very clear question: ‘Do I want Malcolm Turnbull or do I want Bill Shorten?’ I’m going this bloke”.
After Nationals MP George Christensen was revealed to the unnamed Coalition MP threatening to quit if Turnbull was replaced Barnaby Joyce told the media yesterday afternoon that he had received confirmation from Christensen that he would remain in the Coalition now that the banking royal commission had been establishment. Joyce’s intervention here helps Malcolm Turnbull more easily navigate through the final sitting week?
As with his relationship with Howard Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce are not that aligned philosophically but Joyce is another key ally especially at during a time when tensions between Liberals and Nationals running high. Both of these men are hoping that this showing of support is enough to placate conservative concerns about Turnbull’s ability to lead the broad church of the Liberal and National Parties and other Liberal MPs who are becoming more alarmed about the ability of Turnbull to provide effective leadership.
Will these two interventions from senior Coalition conservatives be enough for Turnbull to fend off a leadership challenge? Maybe in the short term, but if the polls remain where they are closer to an election the situation will be more dire in the view of Liberal MPs. The fear of losing their seats will override all other considerations. There was a time when Labor MPs would never entertain returning Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership, but their own survival in the end overcome they personal distain for Kevin Rudd.
The New England by-election result certainly takes the pressure of Malcolm Turnbull for a short time, however it should be no surprise it was a easy victory for Barnaby Joyce given that the Labor candidate pretty much ran dead, as reflected by the fact they only obtained 11% of the primary vote. The Bennelong by-election on December 16 will be the big test and if Labor pulls off a victory (which is likely) the euryopia of today and the authority of the Coalition big guns defence of Turnbull’s leadership will very quickly evaporate.