The Daily Telegraph has reported today that there is a push among conservative Liberal MPs to urge Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the party as a revolt grows over Turnbull’s signature energy policy the National Energy Guarantee. This comes only a day after Peter Dutton refused to back the National Energy Guarantee when appearing on Radio 2GB with Ray Hadley.
Dutton refused to say what his position was on the policy and said that if found he could not support a Cabinet position then he would have to resign “If my position changes – that is, it gets to a point where I can’t accept what the government is proposing or I don’t agree – then the Westminster system is very clear: you resign your commission, you don’t serve in that cabinet”.
Although the National Energy Guarantee passed the joint Coalition partyroom meeting on Tuesday morning 10 MPs reserved the right to cross the floor if they were not satisfied the policy could significantly reduce power prices and would support new baseload power. Assistant Minister Keith Pitt was also reported to have said he cannot support the policy would resign from the frontbench.
Malcolm Turnbull this week lost his 38th Newspoll in a row and suffered a dip in his own personal popularity. It was the first sitting week after the Super Saturday by-elections where the Liberal Party went backwards in all the seats it contested. So as parliament returned Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership was already under renewed scrutiny.
Conservative MPs believe with Peter Dutton the Coalition could successfully campaign on the issues of energy affordability and lower immigration levels. They have claimed Dutton is “torn” over their approach and is considering his options. To this date Dutton has been a key conservative backer of Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership so if he has shifted it is significant.
Peter Dutton has long been seen by conservatives in Australia as the best possible future leader of the Liberal Party and the person to reclaim the party from the Liberal-left. He has proven himself to be apologetic in protecting the nation’s borders in the Immigration and Home Affairs portfolio as well as speaking up on many other cultural issues. He is easily winning the Daily Telegraph’s poll on preferred leader against Turnbull.
What also would be playing on his mind is that if the current polls were to be replicated at an election Peter Dutton would lose his Queensland seat of Dickson which he only holds by 1.6%. Left wing activist group GetUp have created a fighting fund for a campaign to oust Dutton making his battle even harder.
Parliament sits next week and again for two weeks in the middle of September with the Conservative MPs urging Dutton to challenge during this time. It would coincidentally be near the three year anniversary of when Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership on 14th September 2015.
Up until this week the overwhelming view of Liberal MPs and political commentators was that Malcolm Turnbull would lead the party to the next election. The Super Saturday result and the revolt over energy policy has now thrown this into doubt. Recent history is also against Malcolm Turnbull with no Prime Minister since John Howard having been able to serve out a full term. Nervous backbenchers have always chosen saving their seat over concerns about continuing the revolving door of Prime Ministers.
Today Malcolm Turnbull’s Cabinet colleagues have quickly moved to dismiss any possibility of a Peter Dutton leadership challenge. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann who is the other key conservative backer of Malcolm Turnbull claimed Dutton’s 2GB comments were only stating a matter of fact about Westminster convention. He stated about himself and Dutton who he considers a friend “We are both very committed to the success of the Turnbull government, to winning the next election”.
Christopher Pyne appearing on Channel Nine’s Today Show said the Cabinet was “100 per cent united” behind Malcolm Turnbull and that “Peter Dutton … says he does support the government’s policy”. Pyne also claimed this leadership talk was being fueled by Tony Abbott and his supporters who are “trying to put the band back together from the late 2000s and naughties”.
Labor has been quick to call the reports of a leadership challenge a sign that the government is in a state of “chaos”. Anthony Albanese who appears alongside Pyne every Friday on the Today show said “Peter Dutton went on radio yesterday and outlined the path he is considering, resigning from cabinet to go to the backbench to challenge Malcolm Turnbull,” and he was “just a glove puppet for Tony Abbott – back there on the backbench causing all of this chaos”.
A further development this afternoon has come from the man whose show Dutton made his initial uncommitted remarks on. Ray Hadley has rung into his 2GB colleague Chris Smith’s afternoon show to say about the leadership challenge “It’s happening, for sure and certain” as “I’ve been working the phones all morning. I can confirm that those 10 backbenchers and a couple of people on the frontbench have grown considerably in the last 24 to 48 hours” and “I’m convinced having spoken to people this morning since I’ve come off air, that it’s on, there will be a move”.
Whether a serious leadership challenge eventuates, or if this is just the media looking for a juicy story and being fed one by Liberal troublemakers will hinge on what Peter Dutton himself says in his next public statement. A challenge cannot happen if there is no challenger. But the situation is now a lot more active than it was a month ago.