It’s a rare sight to see a government split in two, but that’s exactly what we’ve seen in Canberra this week. The sad debacle of the Rudd–Gillard leadership fiascos between 2010–13 is nothing on the Liberal Party version of the same drama: in comparison, the 2018 version is like a leadership tussle on meth-amphetamines, speed and acid, topped off with crack-cocaine. This is the biggest political crisis in Australia since the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government.
Malcolm Turnbull is still the Prime Minister but, in all likelihood, it’s the end of his tenure in the position. He has been a poor Prime Minister since September 2015 and, at New Politics, we’ve been quite critical in many of our online articles and podcasts. However, his credibility is still far advanced than any of his likely successors – Peter Dutton, Scott Morrison, or Julie Bishop.
Dutton is Turnbull’s key challenger and, if he becomes leader of the Liberal Party, will be the weakest and most ill-prepared Prime Minister since Federation in 1901. He has no gravitas, little intellectual depth or background, was an incredibly poor Health Minister during 2013–14, and covered his incompetence through the secrecy of the Department of Home Affairs.
He has constantly fanned racist sentiment throughout the community at many opportunity, keen to whip up angst about asylum seekers, and there are now questions about his eligibility to sit in Parliament, relating to receipt of Commonwealth funding to childcare centres owned by a discretionary family trust.
It must be galling for Turnbull to be challenged by such an intellectual lightweight.
It also says much about the conservative wing of the Liberal Party that they’ve thrown their support behind such an ill-conceived and disastrous candidate. If he makes it to the position, Dutton will be a disaster as Prime Minister and a disaster for the Liberal Party.
Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison certainly have more credibility than Dutton as leadership contenders, but even to suggest that these two are the best the Liberal Party have to offer shows how far their stocks have fallen.
These are the known challengers. There’s also the possibility Malcolm Turnbull could simply stay in the position – under Liberal Party convention, it’s up to the leader to determine how leadership of the party should be resolved so, if he wanted to, he could challenge all three contenders to a best-of-three chess tournament, drawing pistols at dawn, or an arm wrestle. This, of course, would be unlikely but Turnbull can make up the rules, and keep changing them.
He has currently stipulated two conditions – he wants 43 signatures on a petition calling for a party meeting to resolve the leadership, and has requested a legal opinion from the Solicitor–General on whether Dutton is eligible to sit in Parliament. But even if these conditions are reached, he could change the rules again – if he wanted to.
He could continue this charade until the next scheduled sitting of Parliament on 10 September but that’s where it would end – he has no ministry and in the current circumstances, he would be rolled on the floor of Parliament.
There is also the outside chance of former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, claiming the leadership. Dutton has been too open and too forthright in his leadership ambitions and it wouldn’t surprise if Dutton has been Abbott’s stalking horse all along and Abbott replicates his performance from the 2009 Liberal Party ballot, where he was a late contender and won against Turnbull by just one vote.
But whatever happens from hereon is difficult to predict and there are too many permutations and factors that will affect the final outcome. We previously suggested that Turnbull’s position was terminal after the LNP’s poor performance in the recent Super Saturday byelections but we expected the forces working against Turnbull to at least be more organised. But, true to this government’s performance since 2013, its conservative wing couldn’t even organise a leadership coup efficiently and the current shambles will resonate through Australia’s political system for some time.
The demise of political parties is always predicted – and incorrectly overestimated – during tumultuous circumstances and bad electoral losses. The future of the Liberal National Party was questioned after the 2007 election thrashing, but they returned to government in 2013, albeit with the assistance of Labor Party backroom incompetence and the removal of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard before they’d completed their terms.
The future of the Labor Party was queried after the 2004 election – already eight years in the wilderness and nothing on the political horizon to suggest this would change – but managed to win the 2007 election after Rudd was elected leader and, all of a sudden, John Howard looked like an old, tired and out-of-touch Prime Minister.
Questions are being asked about the viability of Liberal Party – the conservative wing of the party is great in number, but out of kilter with the values of mainstream Australia, and there is large chasm between this rump and the moderate wing.
But it would be more pertinent to ask questions about the political skills and performance of Turnbull as Prime Minister – who has been found wanting – rather than querying the future of the Liberal Party.
In what could be his final media conference as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull blamed “others outside the party” who have bullied those within the party to make this leadership change, and alluded to media outlets such as News Limited for pushing forward Dutton’s challenge. This is too cute. The worst day in Australia politics for a very long time has been caused by Turnbull’s incompetence, and others have filled in the space created by his vacuum.
And if his vacuum results in victory for Peter Dutton, it will also result in a Prime Minister who is going to be fundamentally worse and disastrous for the country.