Hitherto infuriating, inexplicable and ridiculous, the Liberal leadership crisis last night turned sordid, absurd and pathetic as one of the two major institutions of Australian politics fought with itself openly and utterly incompetently. These supposedly professional politicians appear to have zero clue about how to engage in the time-honoured political practice of stabbing each other in the back.

The Dutton forces circulated a petition to force the prime minister to call a Liberal partyroom meeting last night — a tactic used successfully by the Rudd forces in their final assault on Julia Gillard in 2013. Problem was, the Rudd backers had the numbers. It became clear that the Duttonites did not — one MP, Jane Prentice, went home last night saying when she’d seen the petition it had just nine signatures. But what they lacked in numbers they tried to make up for in bullshit. They backgrounded media supporters at Sky News that a party room meeting was definitely on, that Turnbull was finished, that Mathias Cormann had resigned, that ministers were bailing out left and right, so to speak.

It was all nonsense, designed to engender a sense of chaos. Turnbull’s office said later in the evening he’d simply gone home, having never seen any petition. Smartest thing he’s done for a while. 

Along the way, there were reports the Duttonites had tried to bully female MPs into signing the petition. Coincidentally, supporter Andrew Bolt had earlier attacked Liberal female MPs because they “act like passengers”, referring to (behold the pun) “the silence of these lambs.”

The sheer incompetence of the conspirators beggars belief. As anyone who has been in Canberra for five minutes knows, on Wednesday nights many MPs are dining or drinking in Manuka and Kingston, not sitting quietly in their offices waiting for a piece of paper to be slipped under the door.

So this morning Dutton threw off the cloak of darkness to directly demand that Turnbull call a partyroom meeting to dump him — although as of writing, reports are that the PM has told him to go jump.

And what was the rush?

Two days ago it seemed Dutton had the option to do Turnbull slowly — retreat to the backbench, burnish his image, snipe at Turnbull, build support. That’s looking increasingly problematic as an option. First, some Nationals MPs have made it clear they’ll move to the crossbench if Dutton becomes PM. Darren Chester — by a country mile the best Nats MP and the man who, if there was any meritocracy in politics, would be party leader — has said he will do that; this morning Kevin Hogan declared he’d had a gutful and would do likewise. Second, there’s a real issue around Tony Abbott: has he been promised a ministry by Dutton or hasn’t he? Abbott says he has, but a number of Dutton supporters won’t back him if he’s going to reward the bastardry and treachery of that hollow hypocrite.

Then there’s the section 44 issue around the childcare centres operated by Dutton’s wife. Quite how payments to parents for childcare services trigger the “direct or indirect pecuniary interest” provision is unclear but lawyers are divided, even if it is manifestly absurd that something like that should block someone from participating in public life. But in flagging yesterday in Question Time that he’d have the solicitor-general examine the issue, Turnbull was perceived by his opponents as having thrown Dutton under a bus.

Dutton’s other problem is that, as he showed yesterday, when it comes to policy, he’s a bear of little brain, with his half-arsed ideas of a royal commission into energy and some cherrypicking of the GST demonstrating that experience in central ministries is important in teaching a minister how to think about policy. The longer he’s on the backbench spouting bad ideas, the more he might lose support.

And finally, the longer this mess goes, the more likely a compromise candidate will emerge, especially if it’s one that angry Nats will stick with.

Thus the rush to get it done today, before Dutton and his chances are damaged any further. And apparently his supporters will stop at nothing to do it.

Peter Fray

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