In an extraordinary gamble to stay in power, Malcolm Turnbull has attacked his leadership rival Peter Dutton as possibly ineligible to be prime minister, and demanded written proof of party room discontent.
At a press conference on Thursday, Mr Turnbull refused to allow a second leadership ballot unless he received 43 signatures – a majority plus one of the party room.
Mr Turnbull promised to hold a party room meeting at noon on Friday if the signatures were presented to him – a move that would force his detractors to put their names on the public record.
“These are momentous times and it is important that people are accountable,” he told reporters at Parliament House.
“If, assuming I get that letter, which I read in the press is already in place but perhaps maybe it isn’t … my intention is to hold a party meeting at midday tomorrow.”
Mr Turnbull also raised “very, very serious” doubts that Mr Dutton could stand as a candidate at such a vote, given constitutional questions about his eligibility.
“I cannot underline too much how important it is that anyone who seeks to be prime minister of Australia is eligible to be a member of Parliament because a minister, let alone a prime minister, who is not eligible to sit in the house is not capable of validly being a minister or exercising any of the powers of a minister,” he said.
The Solicitor-General, the government’s chief legal adviser, will deliver his verdict on Mr Dutton’s eligibility under Section 44 on Friday morning, Mr Turnbull said. The matter relates to government subsidies received by Mr Dutton’s family trust.
“That may, you know, impact on his decision to run or not,” Mr Turnbull said.
If a party room meeting is called on Friday and a motion to hold a spill is successful, Mr Turnbull said he would treat this as a vote of no confidence and immediately resign.
This would pave the way for the two leading contenders, Mr Dutton and Scott Morrison, to potentially compete for the leadership.
The Prime Minister also criticised the ‘bullies’ who had fuelled the leadership tension, an apparent veiled jab at the media.
It’s been described by many people, including those who feel they cannot resist it, as a form of madness.”
Mr Turnbull raised the prospect of leaving parliament if he was forced to stand aside, potentially crippling the coalition’s ability to govern.
Asked if he would stay if he lost, Mr Turnbull replied: “No, I made it very clear that I believe former prime ministers are best out of the Parliament and I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest that that conclusion is … not correct.”
He also hinted darkly at the prospect of an early election or even the loss of a vote of no confidence if he was removed.
“The public will be crying out for an election, clearly,” he said. “And … assuming [there is a new prime minister] that person will have to obviously satisfy the Governor-General that they can command a majority on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
It was a sensational plot twist after three messy days of civil war in the Liberal Party as Mr Turnbull attempted to stave off a challenge from the home affairs minister with the hard-man image, Mr Dutton.
Despite calling a leadership challenge on Tuesday, which he won 48 votes to 35, Mr Turnbull continued to bleed supporters throughout Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
The death knell came when an influential trio of senior ministers – Mathias Cormann, Michaelia Cash and Mitch Fifield – fronted the media to announce they were abandoning the PM. Others followed soon after.
Michael Keenan, Greg Hunt, Steve Ciobo, Alan Tudge and Angus Taylor resigned in quick succession.
Amid the chaos, Labor tried to pass a motion to refer Peter Dutton to the High Court. It was narrowly defeated. While the votes were counted, Scott Morrison could be seen deep in conversation with Turnbull supporter and government parliamentary strategist Christopher Pyne.
The government also had a few tricks up its sleeve. Shortly before midday Mr Pyne shut down Parliament early, not to resume for weeks, prompting fierce condemnation from Labor. It narrowly succeeded, 70 votes to 68.
It was a “de facto vote of no confidence” in the government, according to election analyst Antony Green, and would have been “very embarrassing” if lost.
“The house stands adjourned until Monday, 10 September at 10am,” Speaker Tony Smith confirmed, to cries of “shame” from Labor MPs who stood their ground in the House of Representatives as the live feed was cut.
At the same time, senators voted to refer Peter Dutton to a senate inquiry over the issuing of visas to two young women working as au pairs.
Mr Dutton has previously denied any wrongdoing over the issuing of the visas but refused to reveal their employers.
The chaos in the houses of Parliament was mirrored in the halls of power.
While MPs scrambled from office to office trying to figure out who would become the next leader of the country, ministerial staffers were reportedly seen discarding loads of shredded material on Thursday morning.