News National Tony Abbott is now Peter Dutton’s problem
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Tony Abbott is now Peter Dutton’s problem

tony abbott peter dutton
Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton didn't have the numbers they claimed to have. Photo: AAP
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Now we wait. It’s only a matter of time before Malcolm Turnbull is replaced as Liberal party leader.

On Tuesday we saw an eruption of the anxiety and dissent that has been roiling just below the surface of the federal Coalition since Mr Turnbull almost lost the federal election in 2016.

Having looked into the abyss that is electoral oblivion, nervous supporters of his shifted their gaze to the small but noisy rump of Tony Abbott supporters and wondered if maybe the reactionaries didn’t have a point.

As a result, eight formerly loyal supporters reportedly shifted their support from Mr Turnbull to Peter Dutton. If the list of names published by Sky News is correct, two of those turncoats are in the Turnbull cabinet and one was a parliamentary secretary.

How did it come to this? As we have discussed before, the dissent has been cultivated by Mr Abbott and his small band of parliamentary supporters, and then inflamed by his cheerleaders in the conservative media. The campaign strategy, which Peta Credlin may proudly lay claim to one day, has used a number of policy flashpoints, such as gay marriage and electricity prices, to undermine the PM and rally the anxious to the rebel cause.

Add a very bad by-election result to the mix, along with a fumbled attempt to fix the National Energy Guarantee, and we’ve ended up with a very unpopular conservative MP falling for his colleagues’ desperate hope that he can save them at the next election.

Thanks to another politically dumb decision by the PM to flush out the rebels by calling for a leadership ballot on Tuesday, Mr Dutton managed to garner 35 votes, which is more than respectable for a first outing. Even more so when almost a quarter of those votes were lodged for Mr Turnbull in 2015.

Mr Dutton only needs to recruit seven more to see off Mr Turnbull. When will that occur? It could happen as early as this Thursday, which was reportedly the rebels’ preferred day for the coup.

The plan was to bring the challenge on after question time on the last day of the parliamentary fortnight, so the new leader had a couple of weeks’ grace before having to face the Parliament.

However, that won’t occur if Mr Dutton doesn’t have enough votes by that time. In a practical sense, he only needs seven votes to win, but in a political sense he’ll need many more to prove his legitimacy. If those additional votes don’t come easily or quickly, the coup may need to wait until the September sittings of Parliament.

There is one big difficulty for Mr Dutton in securing those votes – what he plans to do about Tony Abbott.

When the Liberal party room meeting was under way on Tuesday morning, it emerged that Sky News journalists had been fed two very different stories from their Coalition contacts about the role Mr Abbott would play in a future Dutton government.

One version claimed the former PM would be Mr Dutton’s “attack dog” in parliament, and would be given an appropriately senior role in cabinet, such as the Defence or Home Affairs portfolios. (No prizes for guessing where that version came from).

The other version claimed Mr Dutton had resolved not to put Mr Abbott in the cabinet at all, in an effort to prove he was “nobody’s puppet”.

Despite repeated requests from the media to clear this up, Mr Dutton has since refused to comment on what role Mr Abbott might have in a hypothetical Dutton government.

This avoidance strategy might work with the media, but it’s not going to go down particularly well with his colleagues – either those in the Abbott camp who want to see their man as close to the levers of power as possible, or the Liberal MPs who have reluctantly shifted to Mr Dutton but are still concerned he’s little more than a front for Mr Abbott.

We won’t get to see how Mr Dutton manages to juggle these two concerns, given the negotiations will occur behind closed doors. But we may get an indication of how well he’s doing if there appears to be a delay to bringing on the second stage of the coup.

Meanwhile, we wait. As does our dead-duck Prime Minister. Unless Mr Turnbull stages a coup of his own by handing over the Liberal leadership to someone who’s acceptable to the ‘anyone but Abbott’ camp, which remains the largest group in the Liberal party room.

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