Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Liberal MP John Alexander

“Crisis” seems to be the word journalists have fixed upon to describe what is besetting the Turnbull coalition government. Up until yesterday, the term was more journalistic overreach than reality.

And of course framing by the Abbott camp.

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But the government’s decision to “open the kimono” on the citizenship status of Coalition MPs has changed both the mechanics and atmosphere of federal politics. As was widely predicted, the first of what is expected to be a number of Coalition MPs in the lower house has come forward to admit their election may be invalid.

And it will take only a few such confessions to throw the Turnbull administration first into minority government status and then out the door altogether.

With the House of Representatives currently reduced to 149 members, Turnbull still has a majority of 75 MPs, making it hard for Labor to do too much damage before the New England by-election. Labor and the crossbench would need to find 75 MPs to move a vote of no confidence, and they only have 74.

This calculation will shift if the government loses any more lower house members, making the crisis a potentially existential one

And that’s why another word must come into play when describing the current trials and tribulations of the Turnbull government. That word is revenge.

Followers of federal politics will know there are only two weeks left this year in which both the Senate and the House of Representatives will be sitting. That means there are only two party room meetings left in which Tony Abbott can take revenge on a successor by bringing on a leadership coup.

If Abbott was currently Prime Minister, any talk of palming off the tortured souls on Manus Island to New Zealand would be depicted as an unacceptable softening of Australia’s border protection policy. Yet in the past few days we’ve seen Abbott acolyte (and former defence minister) Kevin Andrews suggest that our prime minister “at the moment” should consider the option.

Andrews has also been helpfully commenting on a range of other fronts over the past week, fanning the embers of the Catholic school funding row and joining the other Abbott supporters Eric Abetz and Craig Kelly in calling for a citizenship audit.

Arch conservative commentators and media outlets are also doing their bit to create more leadership tension and momentum. Aside from the weekly observations from Peta Credlin and Alan Jones that Turnbull is finished, there have been confected stories about Julie Bishop’s leadership ambitions, and of Turnbull loyalists James McGrath and Scott Ryan “crab-walking” away from the PM.

It’s no coincidence that dubious citizenship stories were levelled against Josh Frydenberg and Alex Hawke, two of the conservatives who continue to back Turnbull against Abbott. Hawke is also leading the resistance against Abbott’s “democratic” reforms of the NSW Liberal Party.

Then there is the man himself, who travelled to the US last week to speak to a hate-group to make it known he would fight to impose stronger religious “freedoms” under any proposed legislation to allow same-sex marriage. Abbott will have judged that this threat may be enough to bring on a partyroom showdown over the issue.

Also completely unsurprisingly, Abbott bought into the citizenship imbroglio this week, essentially implying that finding a solution was a test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.  No doubt he’ll claim credit for the solution that Turnbull unveiled on Monday afternoon.

What is less clear is what Abbott and Co would do if they actually forced Turnbull’s resignation before the end of this year, reducing the Coalition’s numbers in the House of Representatives by at least one (supposing that no other MPs resign in disgust, and none are caught up in the new citizenship reporting requirements).

Revenge is the clear destination, but little thought is being given to what must come after.

This also applies to the Nationals. The Nats threw their toys over Julie Bishop being appointed acting PM while Turnbull was overseas last week. They stamped their feet and grizzled about having won the 2016 election for Turnbull (despite the Liberals actually being the only coalition party to win a seat off Labor).

And they are now threatening to spit the dummy if a Nat isn’t elected as Senate president to make up for them losing a cabinet position.

Crisis may well be the buzzword for reporting what is going on in the Turnbull government right now, but we don’t need a thesaurus to find words that better reflect the actual state of play. Malcolm Turnbull is shambolic and inept, while Tony Abbott is delusional and destructive. As for the Nationals, they’re simply entitled and embarrassingly out of touch.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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