If you’ve been watching the political shenanigans in Australia’s capital with growing incredulity, spare a thought for the Australian voter: the person Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Thursday should be at the center of every politician’s focus, and not an afterthought.
If you haven’t been watching, a quick recap: a right wing faction within Turnbull’s Liberal Party, which governs the country as part of a coalition government with the National Party, tried to seize power earlier this week.
The leadership contest, known as a “spill,” came after Turnbull backtracked on an energy bill he wanted to push through parliament but didn’t because it would have failed to garner enough support even from within his own party’s ranks.
Turnbull who won the initial leadership contest 48 votes to 35, told the media of his satisfaction over the outcome, and averred that the government would carry on with its primary job, governing.
That was Tuesday.
By Wednesday night, all pretense of solidarity his challengers – chief among them now former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton – had shown with Turnbull in the preceding hours was abandoned.
Thursday, the contest was back on.
Parliament shut down five hours early as Liberal politicians huddled to count votes and collect numbers. Turnbull emerged later to tell reporters that he’ll hold a party vote on Friday if his opponents presented a letter with enough signatures to support his ousting.
“The public hate what is going on at the moment. They want everyone here to be focused on them,” Turnbull said later. “I have done everything I can to keep the Liberal Party and indeed the Coalition united.”
But as he ponders what are likely his final hours as Australia’s latest prime minister, he couldn’t resist throwing a grenade or two at his party colleagues before shutting the door firmly behind him.
‘Classic, back-to-the-wall’ Malcolm
If Turnbull is going to end his almost three years as Australia’s premier on Friday, he’s made it clear he won’t make it easy for Dutton and those who back the Queensland conservative.
For starters, there’s the possibility that Dutton, an immigration hardliner, might be in breach of the constitution over his financial interests in childcare centers that received millions of dollars in government subsidies.
The country’s solicitor-general was investigating and will provide advice on Friday that could determine whether Dutton, tipped to be the country’s new leader by the end of the week, is even eligible to keep his seat in parliament because of the conflict of interest.
“I cannot underline too much how important it is that anyone who seeks to be Prime Minister of Australia is eligible to be a member of Parliament because a minister, let alone a Prime Minister, who is not eligible to sit in the House is not capable of validly being a minister or exercising any of the powers of a minister,” Turnbull said Thursday.
“This is classic, back-to-the-wall Malcolm Turnbull. Looking for legal loopholes, looking for delaying tactics, and never giving in,” wrote Annabel Crabb, a political writer for Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Additionally, he has dangled the prospect that the ruling coalition, which governs by a single seat majority in the lower house of parliament, would lose that tiny advantage should the no-confidence vote move ahead on Friday.
“If the motion is carried, I will treat that as a vote of no confidence and I will not stand as a candidate in the ballot,” Turnbull said.
“I made it very clear that I believe former prime ministers are best out of the parliament and I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest that that conclusion is correct. It’s not correct.”
That remark was a subtle jab at the man he ousted from the leadership in 2015. Tony Abbott remained in parliament after that putsch, and has been one of the main protagonists in the bid to oust Turnbull.
Crisis of their own making
The greatest irony for the federal politicians, who critics argue base policy decisions on popularity polls, is that should Dutton assume the premiership on Friday, he’s not likely to keep the job beyond the next election.
A poll in early August found just 7% of voters from his own ruling Liberal Party wanted Dutton to be their leader. A separate question in the same poll found 41% of national voters preferred Turnbull as Prime Minister.
The current opposition leader is the Labor Party’s Bill Shorten. Shorten got 27% in that latest poll.
There’s even the possibility that Dutton may not be able to hold onto his own electoral seat. He holds the Queensland state seat of Dickson by a mere 1.6%.
“The conservatives within the Liberal party have put their unpopularity down to their lack of a conservative identity, while liberals within the same party consider the conservatives as unelectable,” said Rodger Shanahan, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute.
“This appeared at first blush as a conservative move to re-establish the Liberal Party’s conservative credentials,” he told CNN. “But the longer it goes on, there’s a feeling that this is less about ideology and more about more prosaic issues like revenge and personal ambition.”
Ugly questions around race
Former prime minister Julia Gillard, who took part in her own share of leadership contests when she was in parliament, told an audience in Melbourne Thursday that she feared the country was headed into an election “that would be quite ugly around questions of race.”
“There’s been no secret that there will be campaigning on law and order questions, putting to the forefront people’s race and ethnicity rather than the crime,” she said.
Dutton’s unpopularity stems in large part from his hardline stance on immigration tests and social issues, including his opposition to same-sex marriage before its legalization in 2017. He also boycotted the national apology to the generations of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents and families and made to assimilate into white Australian culture.
But he has been bolstered by conservatives in the national dialogue, both in politics and in the media, something Turnbull also spoke to during his remarks on Thursday.
“You have got to judge the political actions by their outcomes. 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.
“What began as a minority has by a process of intimidation, you know, persuaded people that the only way to stop the insurgency is to give in to it. I do not believe in that. I have never done that. I have never given in to bullies, but you can imagine the pressure it’s put people under.”