Australian PM Turnbull Survives One Leadership Challenge, Immediately Faces Another

Ministers offer to quit as Australia political crisis deepens
AFP SEAN DAVEY

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull narrowly defeated a leadership challenge on Tuesday, only to face calls for another on Wednesday.

The new vote will likely take place on Thursday and has a good chance of adding Turnbull’s name to the long list of Australian prime ministers who did not make it to the end of their three-year term.

Turnbull prevailed on Tuesday in a 48-35 vote over Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who resigned along with two other ministers after the vote. At least ten ministers reportedly offered their resignations to Turnbull’s office but eight of them were refused.

”The people who have for all their lives counted on us to look after them and their families are now questioning our commitment to them,” said one of the resigning officials, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister James McGrath, in a Facebook post after he resigned. “Our people feel forgotten, ignored, and spoken down to. As a Liberal National Party Senator for Queensland, this is an intolerable situation.”

McGrath glumly concluded that his duty to the Liberal National Party (which is the small-government, low-tax conservative political party in Australia) called on him to resign and support a challenge to Turnbull’s leadership, just as it once compelled him to support Turnbull.

“Like Peter Dutton has said, we must do everything in our power to stop Bill Shorten ever becoming Prime Minister,” McGrath wrote on Facebook, referring to the Labor party’s likely candidate for Prime Minister in next year’s election.

Turnbull found himself on shaky political ground after energy prices in Australia began climbing and public apprehension grew about an economy that is still doing very well by most metrics. Turnbull faced enough turbulence in the legislature to withdraw major proposals for corporate tax reform and emissions standards, prompting Shorten to sneer at his ineffectual leadership as a “white flag Prime Minister.” The Australian public became restless with their seemingly paralyzed government.

Under Australia’s system, the prime minister is the head of the government party and can be ushered out of office if his party decides to vote someone else in as the leader. Prime ministers can also be displaced by votes of no confidence from the entire legislature.

Turnbull is the sixth prime minister in a decade, so he is well aware of how volatile the system is. He decided to head off a no-confidence vote from Labor and help his party unite before the election by forcing a leadership vote against Dutton, and seems to have anticipated winning more votes than he received. Labor leadership does not seem intimidated by the resurgent spirit of LNP unity Turnbull was hoping to conjure.

Dutton worked to organize another leadership challenge to Turnbull on Wednesday, just hours after the dust from the last vote settled. Dutton actually seemed eager to hold the vote on Wednesday but that turned out to be impossible, so the showdown will probably happen on Thursday. If the vote is somehow held off beyond Thursday afternoon, it probably won’t happen until parliament returns from a two-week holiday.

Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, ominously canceled his travel plans for the week and let it be known he will remain in Canberra.

The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday suggested Turnbull save Australia a lot of trouble by driving to Cosgrove’s house and throwing in the towel. “The big risk is that he might be shafted even before he got to the end of the driveway,” the Herald mused.

The SMH noted there could be legal obstacles to Dutton running against Turnbull for party leadership again, but if he does, there are signs some of Turnbull’s key supporters will buckle to pressure and cast their votes for Dutton this time. On the other hand, some of those who supported Dutton’s first challenge might decide a rerun would be embarrassing for the party. Some members of parliament are grumbling that Dutton’s push for a do-over is selfish, while others predicted that if Dutton does not get another immediate shot at putting Turnbull away, the embattled prime minister will face an endless string of challenges until someone finally takes him down, and it could end up being a weaker candidate than Dutton.

Some say Turnbull is not a good ideological fit for the conservative party he leads, while others contend the campaign to unseat him is an act of petty revenge from beyond the political grave by the prime minister he unseated in 2015, Tony Abbott.

Abbott spent Wednesday sticking a fork in Turnbull to see if he was done yet, accusing the sitting prime minister of political cowardice for using legal challenges to undermine Dutton’s bid, perhaps even working in league with Labor to cling to power until the next election gives him a more dignified exit at the hands of voters instead of his own party members, while Labor gets a badly wounded Turnbull it can easily finish off at the ballot box.

Labor has been working up a challenge to Dutton’s eligibility to sit in parliament at all, on the grounds that he has business interests with a child care company that receives subsidies from the Australian government.

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