Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may be going out, but he is going out fighting. Finally.
In a media conference on Thursday, after being informed by most of his cabinet that he no longer had the support of the majority of the Liberal party, Turnbull stood his ground.
Importantly, he said he would wait until a majority had put their names to a letter calling for a spill of the leadership – and that will require 43 to make clear their intentions. It has not yet been achieved.
If it was received, Turnbull said he would call the party meeting for midday on Friday. He would ask if they wanted a spill of the leadership, and if the answer was yes, then he would step aside and not contest a vote.
That would likely pave the way for a contest between former Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, who wants to lead the country out of the Paris climate treaty, and the “moderate” Treasurer Scott Morrison, infamous for brandishing a lump of lacquered coal around the House of Representatives.
In a short while, Australia will either have a PM that is happy to brandish coal in the Parliament or one that jokes about the impact of sea-level rise on Pacific Islanders. Both are unacceptable as the climate crisis deepens. #Auspol #LibSpill pic.twitter.com/vsoXSDFnzk
— Leigh Ewbank (@TheRealEwbank) August 23, 2018
But before that meeting is called, Turnbull says he expects to receive advice from the solicitor-general on the eligibility of Dutton to stand in parliament.
Dutton’s status is under question because of his family trust’s interests in two childcare centres, which have reportedly received $5.6 million in subsidies from the government since 2010. This is said to be a potential breach of section 44.5 of the parliamentary act.
The implications are significant, for Turnbull, Dutton, refugees, and refugee advocates.
“This issue of eligibility is critically important,” Turnbull said. “You can imagine the consequences of having a prime minister whose actions and decisions are questionable because of the issue of eligibility.”
Should the advice from the solicitor general be that the matter be referred to the High Court, that would cast a huge doubt not just over Dutton’s eligibility for parliament, but also the whole right-wing push to install him in the Lodge.
A reference to the High Court must come from the House. Turnbull could easily cross the floor, wielding in the face of the Far Right the perils of the one-seat majority that he would say had hampered his prime ministership since his razor-thin win in the 2016 election.
A finding from the High Court would then potentially allow any rulings made by Dutton as minister to be contested, an invitation that refugee advocates are unlikely to refuse.
It also raises the question about whether a spill would indeed occur, given that the right wing may have no one else to offer. Dutton’s rumoured deputy, the former environment and health minister Greg Hunt, is not exactly their pin-up boy.
If the spill does occur, and Turnbull steps down, he made it clear he would not stay in parliament.
“I made it very clear that I believe former prime ministers are best out of the Parliament,” he said, and in reference to Tony Abbott and possibly Kevin Rudd, said nothing he had observed changed that view.
If he resigns, the Coalition loses its majority in the House of Representatives, and there is no sure thing the seat of Wentworth will return to the Liberals.
It is an extraordinary situation. Turnbull, at the last, finally showed some spine and some fight against the right wing that had forced him to cower on the issue he once said were so important – climate and energy.
“I think what we’re witnessing, what we have witnessed at the moment, is a very deliberate effort to pull the Liberal party further to the right,” Turnbull said. “And that is a… that’s been stated by the number of people who have been involved in this.
“The reality is that a minority in the party room supported by others outside the Parliament have sought to bully, intimidate others into making this change of leadership that they’re seeking,” Turnbull said, in a clear reference to the Murdoch media and the radio talk-back shows.
“It’s been described by many people, including those who feel they cannot resist it, as a form of madness, and it is remarkable we’re at this point where only a month ago we were being, as you all know being avid readers of polls, just little bit behind Labor and in our own polls a little bit ahead, but in any view thoroughly competitive.”
It just makes you wonder what could have been achieved in climate and energy policy had he done that from the start.
As it stands, the renewable energy industry can’t be sure what is going to happen. Will Turnbull, still in power, continue to prosecute a policy that threatens to abandon emissions and have no new investment in wind and solar.
A Dutton government – led and including the Far Right – would bring a swift end to subsidies for renewables, as the commentariat is calling for. A “Scoal-Mo” Morrison government would, well who the hell knows?
Morrison has brandished a lump of coal lacquered for him by the Minerals Council in the floor of the House, but he has at least admitted that any new coal generator would not mean cheap energy, and taxpayers would also be left on the hook.
In the meantime, if you want some cheap entertainment, watch Sky News “after dark” this evening and/or listen to the talk-back radio. It should be hilarious.