Australian prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull narrowly survived a leadership challenge Tuesday from within his ruling Liberal Party, but now faces a battle of attrition with the right-wing faction that wants him ousted.
Turnbull declared all leadership positions vacant following weeks of speculation over his weakening grip on the government and prevailed 48-35 over his only rival, Peter Dutton. The home affairs minister stood down from the cabinet and will now build support on the back benches.
“I believe I had the best prospect of leading the Liberal Party to success at the next election,” Dutton, a former police officer, said. “That was not to be today and I understand and I respect the outcome and I fully support the prime minister and the cabinet.” He refused, however, to rule out another challenge.
The prime minister, meanwhile, called for unity: “We cannot allow, as I said in the party room today, our internal issues to undermine our work.”
Turnbull has so far had little success in bridging the ideological divide within the Liberals, and the scale of the swing against him in the ballot suggests his days are numbered. Turnbull’s foes will be keen to tip him out before the 2019 poll, which he is given little chance of winning. The polls must be held by May.
Thirty consecutive national opinion polls have backed opposition leader Bill Shorten as the preferred choice of prime minister, while Shorten’s Labor Party has come out on top of the last 38 times. The Liberals gained just 30% of the vote in a by-election in the Queensland seat of Longman last month, a drop of nine percentage points on the 2016 election result.
Dutton, who hails from Queensland, could help swing the key state to the Liberal-Nationals coalition; his conservative faction has attracted support in the big mining state for opposing a new energy policy that would link lower prices to emission controls, mostly on coal-fired power stations.
The signature policy that Turnbull hoped to take into the election, the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), is falling apart after a small number of Liberal legislators, including Dutton and former prime minister Tony Abbott, said they would cross the floor and join opposition parties in voting it down.
Abbott and Dutton contend that the long-term framework should ditch international commitments to reduce emissions and meet climate change targets, and focus instead on keeping energy prices low for consumers.
Unable to risk losing the coalition’s paper-thin majority in the House of Representatives, the lower tier of parliament, Turnbull has hacked bits off the package to quiet his critics. It is a political sore point for Turnbull, as he lost the Liberal leadership to Abbott in 2009 for backing emissions trading.
Now effectively neutered and unlikely to proceed, the NEG will become a millstone for Turnbull as he tries to rally his diminishing support base. In the Cabinet, as in the wider public, there is a perception that the former barrister and multi-millionaire merchant banker does not have the backbone to stand up to his party’s bullies.
Turnbull’s biggest challenge will come from outside the Cabinet room, as backbenchers decide where to put their bets in the countdown to the poll, which some suggest could be called as early as March. They are unlikely to remain loyal if it appears his unpopularity could cost them their own seats.
Dutton, now sitting with these disaffected legislators, will seek another leadership spill once he has the numbers. He may yet have to do a deal with Abbott, who is known to be mistrusted by both the liberal and conservative wings of the party, but still commands considerable support among the backbenchers.
Some political commentators believe that Dutton, buoyed by his strong showing, could challenge Turnbull again within days, especially if there is a mass exodus from the Cabinet. So far only Dutton has quit the front bench, but the size of the protest vote indicates others will follow.
“Malcolm Turnbull’s future has already been decided. Just seven of his Liberal Party colleagues would need to switch to end what is now an unviable leadership internally and by virtue of that, a dishonest product to be put before the electoral market place,” said Fairfax writer Mark Kenny.
“Australians cannot reasonably be asked to put their trust in Turnbull at the next election if he cannot even claim that from close to half of his own colleagues,” Kenny wrote. “Hardline conservatives have just told electors in the starkest terms, ‘don’t vote for this man, we know him, he is not one of us, not fit to lead’.”