Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull threatens to quit parliament if party doesn’t back him as battle for leadership deepens

Even if Peter Dutton is able to force a party meeting, he may still have to vie with Treasurer Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for leadership, according to local media reports

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2018, 7:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2018, 9:10pm

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was defiant on Thursday in the face of a new leadership challenge, refusing to “give in to bullies” and vowing to quit politics if he loses a leadership challenge.

“I have made it very clear that I believe former prime ministers are best out of the parliament,” he said on whether he would remain in politics if ousted.

Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton has demanded Turnbull call a Liberal party meeting to decide his fate, but the prime minister said he was still waiting for official notification that he had lost majority support. If he gets the petition, a party meeting will be held at midday on Friday and Turnbull will not stand as a candidate.

However, if it comes to that, Dutton may still have to vie with Treasurer Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, according to local media reports.

The parliament shut down on Thursday while the party’s lawmakers grappled with the crisis.

Furious opposition lawmakers argued against the motion to adjourn the House of Representatives until September 10.

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Opposition lawmaker Tony Burke argued that the government wanted to avoid question time, a daily period when the prime minister and ministers answer opposition questions for more than an hour.

The government does not have a majority in the Senate, which has not been shut down.

Turnbull suffered what looked to be a fatal blow to his leadership when the three ministers resigned ahead of the shutdown and pledged support for Dutton, a right-wing populist.

Dutton, who narrowly failed to unseat the prime minister earlier in the week, said he had the party’s support and demanded that Turnbull call another leadership vote.

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“Earlier this morning I called the prime minister to advise him that it was my judgment that most the party room no longer supported his leadership,” Dutton said in a brief statement.

“As such, I asked him to convene a meeting of the Liberal party at which I would challenge for the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal party.”

Turnbull survived a ballot on his leadership on Tuesday, winning the vote 48-35.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash held a news conference after to announce their resignations and demand Turnbull convene an immediate meeting.

“I was wanting to continue to support Malcolm Turnbull for years to come as leader of the Liberal Party. But I can’t ignore reality,” Cormann told reporters.

“When I have five Cabinet colleagues telling me that they supported Malcolm on Tuesday ... but they have changed their position, that is not something that I can ignore.”

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The resignations “mean it’s game over for him and Australia will have a new leader by the end of day,” said Haydon Manning, an associate professor of politics and public policy at Flinders University. “My money would be on Dutton but you can’t rule out another candidate giving it a go.”

Australia’s latest political upheaval has been driven by infighting between moderates and conservatives in the ruling Liberal party as its poll numbers fall ahead of an election due by May. The main opposition Labor party led by 10 percentage points in a poll released on Monday.

Since 2007, the world’s 13th-largest economy has seen five leadership changes and no prime minister has lasted a full term, contributing to policy paralysis.

Turnbull himself came to power in 2015 in a party coup before winning an election the next year with a razor-thin majority. Amid internal party dissent, he abandoned signature policies this week designed to restore energy security and give tax relief to big businesses.

Dutton, a 47-year-old former policeman, has used a raft of television and radio interviews this week to outline a populist policy manifesto, including removing a tax on electricity bills for families and pensioners, a wide-ranging investigation into energy companies blamed for spiralling prices, and cuts to immigration.

The father-of-three is seen as a leader of the party’s right wing, and as the minister in charge of immigration rose to prominence as a staunch supporter of the government’s hardline policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore camps.

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Human rights activists have accused Dutton of stoking racial division by urging a crackdown on “African gang violence” in Victoria state. He also criticised Alan Joyce for using his position as chief executive officer of Qantas Airways to advocate for legalising same-sex marriage.

Dutton has recently sought to show off his softer side in a bid to appeal to more voters.

“I just came from a middle-class family,” Dutton said in one radio interview. “My dad was a bricklayer, mum worked a second job so she could pay for school fees, so we didn’t have a privileged upbringing at all. We were brought up in a wonderful family environment, so family is incredibly important to me.”

With the tide turning against Turnbull, moderates who back him may field their own challenger in a bid to ensure Dutton doesn’t claim the top job.

Turnbull appointed Morrison as his treasurer – the nation’s chief economic minister – after ousting Tony Abbott for the top job in 2015. He has since shrunk the budget deficit and promised a return to the first surplus in more than a decade by fiscal 2020, helped along by a hiring boom and continued resources profits amid the nation’s record 27 consecutive years of growth.

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Morrison was born in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, attended a top state school and earned an honours degree in Applied Economic Geography at the University of New South Wales. He is married with two daughters, a committed Christian, and lives in Sutherland Shire – an area in Sydney’s south that was the scene of a race riot in 2005.

Bishop was born in South Australia and grew up on cherry farm before studying law and practising as a barrister and solicitor in Adelaide. She now lives in Western Australia. She is regarded as a moderate within the Liberal Party.

Turnbull’s authority over the party has always been in doubt. The self-made millionaire tried to appease conservative forces by retreating from some of his most strongly held convictions such as tough action against climate change. Yet those same people are now trying to tear him down, and voters have become disillusioned with his policy reversals.

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Dutton’s economic credentials have also been called into question. On Wednesday he announced a plan to scrap levies from energy bills, prompting a top business lobby to warn such as move risks distorting the tax system.

He has also facing media speculation he may have breached constitutional law by being a beneficiary of a trust that owns a childcare company and receives government subsidies. Dutton issued a statement on Thursday labelling the allegations “spurious and baseless.”

With reporting by Associated Press, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press