News National Malcolm Turnbull is in for a rough few weeks, fighting battles on all fronts

Malcolm Turnbull is in for a rough few weeks, fighting battles on all fronts

Malcolm turnbull leadership in trouble
Malcolm Turnbull backed the Yes case. Now he wants the bill amended to protect "religious convictions". Photo: AAP
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If you can be bothered following the ongoing Liberal leadership saga (and we won’t blame you if you’ve already switched off for the year), you’ll know the next few weeks are littered with land mines for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Some of these hazards have been created by the PM himself, while other perils are helpfully being orchestrated by the PM’s political colleagues.

Next week, the Senate will return to debate Dean Smith’s private member’s bill on same-sex marriage. This will unleash the Liberal and National conservatives who’ve been grinding their teeth in denial since the result of the postal survey was announced.

These unhappy MPs are mainly supporters of Tony Abbott, steadfastly hopeful they can bring on a party room showdown and a leadership change before the end of the parliamentary year.

Malcolm Turnbull’s cancelling of next week’s sitting of the House of Representatives has helped to stave off that possibility, at least until the following week.

Unfortunately for Mr Turnbull, it also appears that some of his supporters have judged the PM is terminal – given how they’ve been jostling in the media for pole position at the unofficial starting line for the next leadership challenge.

One of the contenders, Peter Dutton, looks to be appealing to Turnbull supporters, backing the PM and Cabinet’s decision to hold off the contentious “religious freedoms” issue until the New Year.

Meanwhile Scott Morrison is trying to repair his relationship with the conservatives, asserting the issue must be addressed in the current debate on marriage equality.

The two men have similarly taken opposing positions on the call by disgruntled LNP MPs for a commission of inquiry into the banks, with Mr Morrison backing the rebels. Meantime, another leadership contender appears to be leaking Cabinet discussions to the media in the hope of damaging both Mr Dutton and Mr Morrison.

Even though the Prime Minister is not the target of the leaks from Cabinet, he has been damaged by his apparent inability to keep his ministers in line. This has done more to damage Mr Turnbull’s authority than a week of Sky News anchors squawking that he’s finished.

It’s unlikely this weekend’s state election in Queensland will have any direct implications for the PM. Nevertheless, if the Labor state government is soundly returned, the Liberal National MPs who’ve turned against Mr Turnbull over marriage equality will blame the PM.

A good result from One Nation would further amplify that discontent, providing Mr Turnbull’s detractors with “proof” that only a conservative PM can prevent the LNP vote from leaking to Pauline Hanson at the next federal election. Unsurprisingly, supporters of Mr Abbott in the media are already promoting this line.

More important for the PM will be the two byelections currently underway in New England and Bennelong. These are expected to be followed by more byelections in the New Year due to a swathe of resignations arising from MP citizenship declarations that will be lodged in early December.

There may well be a swing against both the Coalition candidates in the current byelections.

Former deputy PM Barnaby Joyce is unlikely to lose New England, but John Alexander in Bennelong may be routed in a traditional byelection protest vote.

This is on the cards because Bennelong voters – the same voters who threw out John Howard in 2007 – are likely to be unimpressed with the dysfunctional Turnbull government as well as the outcome of the gay marriage survey. Just over half the electorate’s respondents voted No in the survey.

In short, there has probably never been a worse time to be Malcolm Turnbull.