Amid cries of “shame!” and “you’re a disgrace” from the Labor opposition, the Coalition closed down the House of Representatives earlier today and Malcolm Turnbull left the chamber for possibly the last time as Prime Minister.
But he’s not going without a fight.
Mr Turnbull may have agreed to his opponent’s request to adjourn the lower house to fend off any further attempts by Labor to bring on a no-confidence vote, but he wasn’t about to give any other ground to Peter Dutton, whose supposedly surgical strike on the leadership is showing all the sharpness and dexterity of an ice-cream sitting in the sun.
The extraordinary suspension of half the parliament took place after the last of the PM’s praetorian guard, the Finance Minister and Senate Leader Mathias Cormann, added his name to the growing list of ministers who’d resigned last night and today to support Peter Dutton as leader.
Most of the other defectors were ministers who’d previously offered their resignations to the PM after the first leadership vote, but had been convinced by Mr Turnbull to stay.
But after a failed attempt on Wednesday night to bring on a second leadership vote, the Dutton supporters subsequently doubled down and insisted their resignations be accepted. And when that didn’t work, they took the nuclear option by wheeling out the Cormannator to deal the final blow.
Regrettably for the rebels, the PM still has three deadly weapons of his own to deploy.
The first is The Letter.
On Wednesday night, the Dutton camp selectively leaked to the media that it was collecting signatures on a letter that requested a fresh party room meeting to decide the leadership. There was even a claim that 43 signatures had been secured, which would be a majority of the 84 Liberals in the party room.
However this turned out to be a vast overstatement, aimed at spooking the PM into calling another meeting (or even better, resigning) and creating a sense of momentum that would bring wavering MPs over to the Dutton cause. Kevin Rudd tried a similar ruse when he challenged Julia Gillard, although no one to this day has even seen that letter.
Instead of conceding, Mr Turnbull said ‘show me the signatures’. The Dutton camp went into apoplexy, shelving any hopes to bring on a second spill that night. It’s been reported Dutton supporters were reluctant to put their names on a letter that would be seen by the PM.
Mr Turnbull continued that demand today, saying he would call a leadership meeting on Friday if the signatures were presented to prove he no longer had the confidence of the majority of the party room. The Liberals have no formal rules for calling such a meeting, other than it being the PM’s prerogative to do so.
If the meeting eventuates, Mr Turnbull will ask for a spill motion (instead of initiating the spill as he did earlier this week), and if the motion is successful, he will stand down. And he will resign from Parliament, removing the Coalition government’s one-seat majority.
That’s his second weapon.
The third piece of Mr Turnbull’s artillery is the cloud hanging over Mr Dutton’s eligibility to even be in parliament. Thanks to his wife running a child care centre, and it receiving government funds to do so, there is an argument that Mr Dutton could be in breach of the Constitution.
The PM has sought advice from the Solicitor-General on the matter, which he will receive on Friday morning. If the S-G advises that Mr Dutton should be referred to the High Court to clear up the matter, Mr Turnbull will argue there’s no point holding another leadership vote until Mr Dutton’s eligibility is resolved.
Such a delay will give any other leadership aspirants, such as Scott Morrison, a better chance to work the phones and win over the many Liberal MPs who are concerned that Peter Dutton is little more than a front man for Tony Abbott.
Other leadership contenders will also be able to point to the omnishambles that the Dutton/Abbott camp has created of the parliament and the Liberal party, all to remove a leader that most of them are not prepared to say a bad thing about.
It will be easy to argue, ‘if they can’t even pull off a coup, how on earth could they run the country?’
For when the smoke finally clears from the wreckage that has been created by Peter Dutton and his supporters, this leadership putsch will go down as one of the most cack-handed campaigns in Australian political history.