Embattled Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has come under a historic and blistering attack from Labor for “shocking and selfish” conduct, just hours after narrowly surviving a leadership spill.
Labor leader Bill Shorten interrupted question time on Tuesday to move a no confidence motion in the Prime Minister.
In a rare move, Mr Turnbull took up the challenge, allowing the motion to be debated, a sign he was sure of his numbers. If lost, he would, according to convention, have been forced to resign. He won, 76 votes to 67.
“Australia has a Prime Minister in name only. Without power, without policies. This is an appalling outcome for the nation,” Mr Shorten said as he moved the motion.
Labor sensed weakness after Mr Turnbull survived a leadership ballot against Peter Dutton on Tuesday morning, 45 votes to 38, a margin of just 57.8 per cent.
“If nearly half of his own government do not want him to be the Prime Minister, why should the rest of Australia have to put up with them?”
Mr Shorten saved perhaps his sharpest barb for the end, when he accused Mr Turnbull of being “the weakest Prime Minister we’ve seen since Billy McMahon”.
His attack covered the “turmoil” of the leadership spill, “dismal paralysis” on policy, the Prime Minister’s “notoriously poor judgement”, the charge that he had ignored “the real challenges of the Australian people”, and the “divisions at the heart of this government which cannot be papered over by simply changing the salesman”.
And he predicted more policy backflips, this time on company tax.
“This Prime Minister is so afraid of people’s reactions to him, he so needs the approval of people, that you will drop the corporate tax cuts because you never fight for anything you believe in,” Mr Shorten said.
Cheers from Labor punctuated his attacks.
Before question time, it emerged the government had circulated an amendment to its big business tax cuts that would carve out the big banks, those with assets worth more than $500 million. It would save the budget $7.4 billion over a decade.
Mr Shorten said he had thought, when Mr Turnbull first took power, that it would make his own job as opposition leader harder.
“But I thought we could build a national consensus on climate change, having an Australian head of state, doing something to look after the middle and working class but the Prime Minister, having obtained the highest office in the land, we have discovered that he never fights for anything except his own job.”
But his defence inspired little noise from his own side.
He returned to his frequent attack on Mr Shorten for having “sold out” union members’ penalty rates while Australian Workers Union leader.
Mr Turnbull then went through a detailed history of his policy achievements, including personal income tax cuts, pointing out he had endured a one-seat majority in the lower house and minority in the upper house.
Labor’s frontbench laughed throughout.
But the government benches fired up when a red-in-the-face Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, loudly condemned Labor for wrecking the federal budget.
“They did not give a ship,” he said, a reference to ship building in South Australia. It drew a surprised look from Tony Burke, who thought he swore.
Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek drew laughter when she said Peter Dutton was “sitting on the lap of the member for Warringah [Tony Abbott] like a really scary wooden puppet brought to life, with the hand of the member for Warringah up his …”
Here she paused. “Back. His back. Like Chucky, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.”
She then accused Mr Dutton of having a “cold shrivelled soul”.
Throughout, Mr Dutton sat comfortably at the very back of the chamber, having resigned his cabinet position. Earlier in the day he had claimed to be “the best prospect of leading the Liberal Party to success at the next election”.
Tony Burke had the Labor benches crying out “doomed” in unison as he went through each policy backflip.
Mr Albanese pointed out that the ministers who had spoken before him, against the motion, defended the government, not Mr Turnbull personally.
This prompted Christopher Pyne, a close ally of Mr Turnbull, to go harder in support of his leader – and against Bill Shorten.
He added: “W
Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison, Chris Bowen and Anthony Albanese rounded out the debate.
Apart from Mr Pyne, it was largely a pummelling of Mr Turnbull, with little defence from his own side.
Mr Turnbull had already been bleeding support since he set up the recent by-elections as a leadership contest with Mr Shorten, only to lose all four seats in play.
The Prime Minister defeated the no confidence motion, thanks to his one-seat majority, but he can expect further attacks on the remaining sitting days, on Wednesday and Thursday.