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Malcolm Turnbull under threat from dangerous friendly fire

malcolm turnbull
Mr Turnbull will this week replace Sussan Ley in his ministry team. Photo: Getty
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Malcolm Turnbull has taken two rides on the New York subway. The second was the day after the Chelsea bombing. He makes a point of people going about their normal lives and not being cowed by terrorists.

His show of defiance is not without risk but he has his security detail at all times. The Australian Federal Police and his US Secret Service detail never let him out of their sights.

But back home he is under greater threat from “friendly fire” in his own ranks. Labor says he is not only cowered, he has capitulated to what Tanya Plibersek calls the extreme elements in the Coalition.

malcolm turnbull
The Prime Minister enjoys an espresso in New York. Photo: Twitter

She says Nationals rebel George Christensen is in charge “of practically everything” in the government.

He, of course, is not alone. He is ably supported by senior Liberals Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews with former prime minister Tony Abbott chipping in.

Not as ‘iron clad’ as you might think

Last week’s capitulation on the “iron clad” superannuation package the Liberals took to the election was a case in point. Mr Christensen threatened to cross the floor unless it was changed.

When it was, he called a news conference to withdraw the threat only to reserve his right to revive it if he doesn’t like other policies.

changes to the dole
George Christensen has been a thorn in Malcolm Turnbull’s side. Photo: Getty

What gives him the clout to bully his own government is the fact that without him it would lose its majority.

Before the election he told one of the local newspapers in his electorate that he would even quit the Liberal National Party – he is LNP in Queensland but sits as a National in Canberra – unless the backpacker tax was axed.

One Nation calling

There are real fears that he would sit on the crossbench as a One Nation MP. He is close to Pauline Hanson and convinced her not to run a candidate against him in his seat of Dawson, because “he was advocating the same sort of views” as her.

If he did follow through as feared it would give him more clout than Ms Hanson’s four senators. While she claims the balance of power in the Senate she does not have it in her own right.

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George Christensen could potentially end up in Pauline Hanson’s court. Photo: ABC

It is almost impossible to think of a situation where if the Greens and Labor voted against a bill the government would be able to muster nine of the 11 crossbenchers to vote its way.

As Senator Nick Xenophon says, it’s “nine metres too far”. Their positions and policy stances are just so disparate.

Whereas Mr Christensen on the crossbench would have the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

For now he is staying put. His leader Barnaby Joyce is in constant touch with him. He appointed him the Nationals’ Chief Whip to keep him on side. In itself an irony as the Whip is precisely paid more to make sure backbenchers toe the party line.

Next challenge

The next flashpoint could be the same-sex marriage plebiscite. The Prime Minister and Attorney-General George Brandis are sending shudders through conservative ranks by suggesting they are open to negotiating with Labor on it.

Tanya Plibersek has a way with words. Photo: AAP

Ms Plibersek says the opposition is not inclined to “put lipstick on a pig”.

So if it fails to pass the parliament George Christensen and his conservative mates are threatening an open revolt if the Prime Minister then agrees to a free vote in the parliament.

Mr Turnbull is worrying them by not unequivocally ruling it out.

It fits in with this declaration the PM made after securing two wins last week, one on super and the other on the budget savings omnibus bill: “We are determined to consult, negotiate and achieve for the people of Australia in this their 45th parliament.”

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets  at @PaulBongiorno

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