Just when the leadership chaos appeared to be quietening down, Scott Morrison has had to fend off extraordinary interventions from ousted Liberal leaders Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop.
Several hours before question time on Thursday, Mr Turnbull tweeted from New York to confirm media reports he had urged Liberal MPs to refer Peter Dutton to the High Court over concerns he is ineligible to sit in Parliament.
Soon after, Ms Bishop – a close friend and former loyal deputy to Mr Turnbull – threatened to cross the floor to support such a move. “If there’s a vote, I will make up my mind at the time,” she said.
It gave plenty of fodder to Labor in question time.
When asked if he would “agree” with Mr Turnbull, the Prime Minister signalled his new attack dog, Attorney-General Christian Porter, to answer instead.
And there were roars of laughter when Labor’s Mark Dreyfus asked if Mr Morrison was “aware of a chance meeting today between [Julie Bishop] and the entire press gallery”.
“Yes, I’m aware of those comments, and no, I don’t agree with the assertion put,” was the Prime Minister’s curt reply.
Labor then asked if there was a “double standard” because Barnaby Joyce had been referred to the High Court, but not Mr Dutton.
It prompted another short response from Mr Morrison. “I don’t agree with the member’s premise of her question and therefore there is no response to make.”
Mr Joyce himself had earlier accused Mr Turnbull of trying to bring down the government.
“Why is Malcolm doing this? What is the purpose of it?” the former Nationals leader told Sky News.
“These things are just starting to look like malice.”
.@Barnaby_Joyce on @TurnbullMalcolm texting MPs to urge them to refer @PeterDutton_MP to the High Court: He’s got a good legacy, and he shouldn’t impugn it with an action subsequent to what I know is the great hurt of losing your position.
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) September 13, 2018
Conspicuously absent from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s lap throughout question time were two binder folders with the names of Labor ministers written on them. And gone with there were his fiery attacks of a few days before.
When prompted, Mr Dutton refused to refer himself to the High Court, but there was none of the vitriol of earlier question times.
“I have taken advice in relation to my position which put the question beyond doubt,” he said quietly.
Mr Turnbull’s open lobbying to set up a court date for Mr Dutton – the man who brought down his prime ministership – may indeed be revenge, as it threatens to bring down the Liberal government.
It is already in peril, according to recent polling, of losing Mr Turnbull’s former seat of Wentworth. A by-election in Mr Dutton’s seat of Dickson as well, were the High Court to find him ineligible, could doom it.
Early in question time, Mr Morrison made his first open reference to the looming by-election on October 20.
“Those electors out there in Wentworth, they will be looking very carefully … at the plans of the Labor Party to increase the taxes paid by hard-working Australians,” he said.
And there he faces yet more internal trouble, as a preselection battle is raging in the seat between Dave Sharma – reportedly the preferred candidate of John Howard – and Katherine O’Regan, backed by Mr Morrison because it is thought a female candidate will be more likely to win. The Liberals will confirm their candidate for the by-election on Thursday night.
The pressure is showing. When Labor pushed again on ‘why’ he was now Prime Minister, Mr Morrison appeared to lose his cool.
“Once again … no questions on drought, no questions on schools, no questions on hospitals, no questions on mental health. [It’s] an important day today, R U OK day,” he said.
When Labor interjected on a point of order, Mr Morrison said, “You’re going to sit me down on mental health are you?” and threw a sheet of paper angrily down on the desk.