The gloves were off in Parliament House this morning. After several weeks of building doubts over a possible leadership spill, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull decided to bring the matter to a head.
And he had the numbers to back him.
Malcolm Turnbull declared all Liberal party leadership positions open, triggering a vote. At the end, he stood triumphant with a 48–35 result, narrowly beating Peter Dutton. Dutton has since resigned as Home Affairs Minister, and will now sit on the back bench.
Now we wait for the fallout to begin…
It was only last Tuesday when Mr Turnbull got his initial National Energy Guarantee (NEG) proposal past the coalition party room. But this was quickly followed by cabinet ministers openly admitting an outburst of disunity within the party over the cuts to energy prices.
The balance in House of Representatives is so delicate that even if a few MPs had opposed the policy, it could have meant a very public failure for the prime minister. But his backing down only added fuel to the speculation about his possibly weak position.
Meanwhile, talks in the Queensland Liberal Nationals Party meanwhile centred on votes the party could take back with a more conservative leader — ahem, Peter Dutton — or a leader that could be bent back to their whim.
But what does disunity spell in politics? Death. We’ve already seen that when Mr Turnbull himself came to power, and before that between Rudd and Gillard.
The familiarity isn’t lost here. History tells us that a leadership challenge with such a close vote spills blood in the water.
After all, Tony Abbott endured an initial empty chair spill of 61–39 in 2015.
Labor saw Julia Gillard defeat Kevin Rudd, 71–31 votes, only to be ousted by a second spill.
Before the spill, cabinet minister Christopher Pyne said Mr Dutton had told him the Prime Minister had his absolute support.
‘I’m certain he is telling the truth,’ he told the Nine Network.
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In under two hours Mr Dutton had put up his hand to challenge the prime minster.
Mr Dutton’s group thought it could gain the 43 votes needed to eject Mr Turnbull, but the PM’s supporters showed that he still has majority party room backing.
Mr Pyne has since described his Liberal colleagues fuelling leadership tensions as ‘cowards’.
Turnbull pussyfooting around
Yet a similar term could be applied to a prime minister unwilling to withstand a little fire when it comes to making policies in the best interest of Australia and its people.
After all, the back-down on the NEG this is the second policy change in as little as four days, and the reworked scheme will go ahead without any federal legislation to up hold the 26% reduction to emissions that Turnbull originally proposed.
Which is exactly the outcome that some of MPs opposing NEG wanted. Bridget McKenzie, deputy leader of the Nationals, later said the party stood together and ‘fully endorsed’ the latest policy plan.
‘It’s a great outcome, the fact that the ACCC recommended writing in new dispatchable power, and that coal is part of the wording, that’s important.’
Turnbull is parroting what he said on Monday morning, claiming it was clear that legislation including an emissions target would not pass the Parliament. Meanwhile Barnaby Joyce, former Deputy Prime Minister turned Nationals backbencher, has put this down to the PM’s ‘…capacity to listen…[and] understand the concerns that are out there in the electorate.’
You can soften it in any meaning-to-do-well way, but there’s no avoiding the fact that Mr Turnbull has been forced to change his original policy, agreed upon just last week, in order to prevent his own colleagues crossing the floor and voting against the policy. Nor does it change the reality of a near-run leadership vote coming just one day later.
Remember that Mr Turnbull previously lost the Liberal leadership in 2009 because of his ‘modern-conservative’ approach to electricity.
Turnbull’s new energy policy is a far cry from the guarantee that was meant to deliver cheaper energy, more reliability and lower emissions.
Despite emerging victorious, things are still looking shaky for Malcolm Turnbull with Mr Dutton’s backbenchers telling the Australian Financial Review they will strike again within a fortnight.
With the mid-2019 election fast approaching, the Coalition will need to project unity if they are to win the government again.
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