Ousted Australian premier Malcolm Turnbull is exacting his political revenge, a personalized campaign that threatens to turn new Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s already weak and wobbly coalition into a minority government.
As the ruling Liberal Party met in recent days to choose a candidate to replace Turnbull’s vacated parliamentary seat, the ousted prime minister’s son was busy canvassing donations for a financier who is standing for the main opposition Labor Party, which many expect to prevail at general elections in 2019.
Meanwhile Turnbull has formed a centrist alliance to block the selection of a candidate for his seat preferred by his successor Morrison, and began lobbying for Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to be referred to the High Court over revelations that Dutton’s family trust benefits from public money.
Dutton, an ex-police officer and prominent member of the Liberals’ conservative wing, forced the leadership spill that toppled Turnbull in August and took the Liberal-Nationals coalition to the edge of extinction.
It will become a minority government if Labor wins Turnbull’s seat or Dutton is ruled ineligible due to a conflict of interest. The ruling Liberal-National coalition currently has a razor-thin one-seat majority.
Turnbull was recently accused by his former deputy, Barnaby Joyce, of waging an “active campaign to try and remove us as the government.” Turnbull has not responded, but his son Alex, a Singapore-based fund manager, made an intriguing Twitter comment in support of Labor candidate Tim Murray:
“Tight race, tight margin for government, big incremental effect whatever happens. If you want a federal election now this is the means by which to achieve it.”
The October 20 by-election for Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth will be the government’s first electoral test since the chaotic leadership change, which did nothing to bolster the coalition’s crumbling public support.
Turnbull held the affluent middle class seat with a 17.7% margin at the last election, but this was partly down to his own popularity. Opinion polls show 50%-50% for Labor and the Liberals, and it is possible an independent could steal the seat, especially if there is a protest vote against the main parties.
Liberal Party members in Wentworth have already lodged a protest vote against Morrison by rejecting his demands that the party field a female candidate for the blue-ribbon seat.
Instead, they backed a push by Turnbull and John Howard, another moderate former prime minister, for the selection of Dave Sharma, a former Australian ambassador to Israel.
The campaign to remove Dutton will frustrate efforts by Morrison to heal rifts in the Liberal Party that exploded into the open during the ousting of Turnbull. There is speculation moderates in the party want to bring on an early poll to drive out conservatives, though it is not certain that they would succeed.
Under section 44(5) of the constitution, politicians are barred from benefitting financially, either directly or indirectly, from dealings with the government. Dutton’s family trust has a financial interest in two childcare centers in Brisbane that have received government subsidies.
Media reports have also claimed that Dutton abused his powers several times by intervening in immigration affairs. On one occasion he stopped the deportation of a French au pair in 2015 after being lobbied by the Australian Football League boss, Gillon McLachlan. The au pair was going to work for a relative of McLachlan’s, despite having only a tourist visa.
There has been conflicting legal advice on Dutton’s eligibility to remain in parliament and Morrison is tip-toeing around the affair to avoid a further breach with the conservatives. Parliament has already voted once on a motion to refer Dutton to the High Court: it came in three votes short.
Ex-foreign minister Julie Bishop has hinted she might cross the floor and vote with Labor if there is another motion. Morrison said only: “I think people have had enough of the lawyers’ picnics on these sort of issues.”
If Turnbull is bent on wrecking the coalition, either to avenge his ousting or to rejuvenate the Liberal Party, he is playing with political fire. An opinion survey of 1,050 voters released by The Guardian Tuesday gave Labor 54% of the two-party preferred vote, compared with 46% for the coalition.
There was a 47% disapproval rating for the Liberals’ leadership change, up 7% from another poll two weeks earlier. Morrison is favored as prime minister by 37%, against 35% support for Labor leader Bill Shorten; but Morrison’s approval rating lags 5% behind backing for Turnbull in his last opinion poll.
There are also signs that Turnbull may be reading the mood of voters better than Morrison. Sixty percent of poll respondents agreed with the statement: “The new prime minister was not elected by the people and has no legitimacy. He needs to go to an election as soon as possible.”
Furthermore, 67% agreed with the statement: “I’m sick of the major parties changing their leaders. I would consider voting for a third party to send a message to them both.” They will get their first chance on October 20.