News National Dutton vs Turnbull: What’s behind all this talk of a leadership challenge

Dutton vs Turnbull: What’s behind all this talk of a leadership challenge

Peter Dutton same-sex marriage
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has nothing to fear from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton... yet. Photo: AAP
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With the Abbott rebels and state governments bizarrely united in their calls for the Paris emissions reduction target to be excluded from the proposed National Energy Guarantee, it would have been relatively easy for Malcolm Turnbull to decide to comply.

Late on Friday it was reported the PM had committed to setting the target by ministerial order or regulation, which will make it possible for future governments to change the target without getting approval from the Parliament.

This was one of the key demands being made by the state Labor governments as a condition for agreeing to the NEG. Tony Abbott’s reactionaries had also demanded the target be taken out, using tinfoil hat claims that legislating the 26 per cent cut would ‘cede Australia’s sovereignty to Paris’ and turn a ‘voluntary target’ into a mandatory commitment.

However the PM shouldn’t think this decision will actually do much to slow the ‘Terminate Turnbull’ campaign.

The next stage of the campaign became clear on Friday, as journalists close to the Abbott camp reported that Coalition backbenchers (read ‘Abbott supporters’) were urging Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to challenge for the leadership.

The planting of this story was a transparent attempt to fabricate a leadership crisis by inflaming the legitimate concerns of Coalition MPs about power prices into a rebellion against the PM.

By floating the idea, Team Abbott would be hoping to create a sense of momentum against the PM, prompting uneasy MPs that weren’t necessarily Abbott supporters to nevertheless encourage Mr Dutton to consider the move.

Tony Abbott did his best on Friday to foment the unrest, telling one of the same journos who wrote the story about Peter Dutton: “If the PM had been as attentive to his own backbench as he is to the senate cross bench, the government would not be in its current fix.”

Completely coincidentally (not), a column from Mr Abbott appeared in Friday’s Daily Telegraph outlining his “seven-point plan for a new energy policy that aims to cut electricity bills”.

Earlier this year, there were reports that the small rump of Coalition MPs that were rusted-on supporters of Mr Abbott had identified the August sitting of federal parliament as an optimal time to bring on a change in the Liberal leadership. This would theoretically give the new prime minister and ministry time to rework the government’s election policies before Christmas, and the federal election in early 2019.

Having failed to destroy Malcolm Turnbull via the gay marriage plebiscite, which turned into an exploding cigar for the conservative forces, the National Energy Guarantee became the favoured vehicle for the job. That’s why last Tuesday’s joint party room meeting was touted as a big test of the PM’s leadership.

But when an overwhelming majority of Coalition MPs said they would back the NEG in the interests of party unity, the Abbott camp went berserk. Mr Abbott issued a press release calling his colleagues lemmings. Peta Credlin did the same and more, dragging conservative Liberal Jim Molan over the coals on her TV show for putting party unity over his dissatisfaction with the policy.

As a result, the handful of Coalition MPs who’d said on Tuesday that they reserved the right to cross the floor over the NEG had grown to two handfuls by Friday. And a very junior member of the frontbench was reportedly thinking of resigning.

However this wouldn’t be enough to bring on the showdown that Mr Abbott and his supporters want. Particularly if most of the dissidents withdrew their threats in return for commitments from the PM, such as dropping of the emissions target from the NEG or the proposal to introduce a ‘price guarantee’ that would effectively place a cap on electricity prices.

Which is why the story about Peter Dutton being urged to run for the leadership was planted on Friday. If Mr Dutton hasn’t welcomed Friday’s increased attention on his leadership intentions, then he shouldn’t have encouraged them during a radio interview on Thursday with another member of the Abbott cheer squad, Ray Hadley.

Peta Credlin has lashed out again.
Tony Abbott’s former adviser Peta Credlin admonished conservative MPs on her television show.

Like Ms Credlin, Mr Hadley spent most of the week berating Coalition MPs for not having the stones to stand up to Malcolm Turnbull on the NEG. However the shock jock had to take a different tack with Mr Dutton, who as a minister is obliged to support the government’s position.

The Home Affairs minister pushed back at Mr Hadley’s repeated attempts to get him to break ranks, saying he would not bag his prime minister or colleagues publicly, “as was the case with Tony Abbott”. But he added: “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 position…”

In case you missed the implication, the mention of ministers bagging Tony Abbott when he was PM was a clear swipe at Malcolm Turnbull. And it was taken as a sign that Peter Dutton may be getting tired of being a team player.

Mr Dutton is a canny conservative politician who clearly has a good reason, along with the other senior conservative Mathias Cormann, to hold the Turnbull ship together. That reason may include a tidy mid-term handover of the leadership if Mr Turnbull wins the next federal election.

But if Mr Dutton lets his vanity override his political smarts, even to unofficially gauge the numbers in the party room, that would be enough to bring on the spill that the Abbott camp wants.

It would be wrong to assume that Tony Abbott or his supporters actually want Peter Dutton to become PM. They’re using him to bring on the spill, paving the way for Mr Abbott to become the ultimate winner. One of the former PM’s chief cheerleaders, the tabloid radio host Alan Jones, made this clear in a tweet on Friday.

“Don’t tell me they are going to replace Turnbull with someone who for the last three years has been supporting every stupid policy move he has made,” Mr Jones posted.

“Am I the only person who thinks that might create a credibility problem?”

There are no prizes for guessing who Alan Jones thinks has the credibility to do the job.

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