News National A new prime minister but a government nobbled

A new prime minister but a government nobbled

malcolm turnbull
Australia's prime minister, for now, leaves his explosive press conference on Thursday. Photo: Getty
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Australia will get a new prime minister this Friday. No matter who it is, the damage to the government over the past week is beyond repair.

Even though the Dutton camp abandoned collecting signatures to meet Malcolm Turnbull’s benchmark of 43 members signing up for a special meeting, it will go ahead.

A clue was the PM telling colleagues not to fly out of Canberra on Thursday night.

So the scene is set for Mr Turnbull to quit if a spill motion moved by Peter Dutton is successful. The prime minister says he will take this as a vote of no confidence.

“I’ve made it very clear that I believe that former prime ministers are best out of the Parliament,” he said, going on to infer Tony Abbott’s continued presence in the Parliament caused more harm than good.

It certainly did to Mr Turnbull and he pulled no punches.

He says: “We have witnessed a very deliberate effort to pull the Liberal Party further to the right. That’s been stated by a number of people involved in this.”

He says: “What began as a minority has, by a process of intimidation, persuaded people that the only way to stop the insurgency was to give in to it.”

The “madness” of the past week, as Mr Turnbull calls it, demonstrated his opponents in the party were prepared to blow up the government to get their way. In the process they have also blown to smithereens any facade of cohesive unity.

It is very hard to see how whoever emerges as leader – Mr Dutton, Julie Bishop or Scott Morrison – can put the show back into any credible shape. Indeed, Ms Bishop, who consistently shows up as the next most popular to lead the Liberal Party, would get the same treatment from the right that Mr Turnbull did.

You would have to think the task would be hardest for Mr Dutton. He was the one who publicly wielded the knife on the promise he could save and even win more seats than Mr Turnbull.

But many in the party, particularly south of the Queensland border, recoil at the prospect and are expected to throw their weight behind Ms Bishop or Mr Morrison.

Mr Turnbull’s unwillingness to go without a fight has made this the bloodiest leadership putsch we have seen since the era of disposing of elected prime ministers began a decade ago. Seven PMs in 11 years makes post-war Italy look positively stable by comparison.

Mr Dutton’s task of garnishing votes could be all the harder if the Solicitor-General in written advice finds he has a case to answer before the High Court over his eligibility in light of section 44 of the constitution.

“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 the powers of a minister,” Mr Turnbull says, “so you can understand how important this issue is”.

The shambles forced the government to shut down the House of Representatives in an unprecedented move on Thursday. Mr Turnbull blamed Mr Dutton. Labor MPs shouted “shame” and accused the Liberals of leaving the country without a functioning government.

The farce was even more apparent in the Senate, where two Turnbull loyalist Liberals and a Nationals ministers faced question time, taking responsibility for more than 20 portfolios.

Friday’s ballot will not be the end of the matter. There will be a by-election in Mr Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth, immediately robbing the Coalition of its one-seat majority pending the result.

If two Nationals, Kevin Hogan and Darren Chester, make good their threat and go to the cross bench in protest, the Coalition will go into minority anyway and the new prime minister will have to demonstrate his or her ability to retain the confidence of the Parliament.

The odds are on an election sooner rather than later. The judgement of voters is likely to be very harsh.

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