Politics

Are You Ready For ‘Prime Minister Peter Dutton’?

Brace yourselves: It might be happening.

Peter Dutton

It’s 2009! Everyone’s talking Lady Gaga! We’re all eagerly awaiting the next film in the Fast & Furious franchise, and Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is under siege from a number of conservative Liberals angry about climate change policy!

That’s right. It seems like Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is under threat as a bunch of his own MPs, including some ministers, threaten to cross the floor over the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

The NEG is supposed to be the government’s solution to climate change AND rising power prices. But it’s tricky, because Turnbull and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg need to bring together a whole bunch of people who don’t agree on much — moderate Liberal MPs, conservative Liberals who hate the PM’s guts, National MPs, the Senate crossbench, state Premiers, and possibly some Labor MPs —  to get the policy over the line.

It’s those first few groups who are proving trickiest at the moment. The government has a majority of one vote in the lower house, which means as soon as one mischief-making MP crosses the floor — like, say, a sooky, vengeance-seeking former Prime Minister — crosses the floor, the government could lose a vote.

At a party room meeting earlier this week, Tony Abbott voiced his displeasure over the policy, and up to 10 MPs threatened to cross the floor, which is pretty bad, but not that surprising. A small cabal of Liberal MPs has been doing everything it can to destabilise Turnbull ever since he took office.

Step Forward, Peter Dutton

But yesterday, things really stepped up a gear. In an interview on 2GB, Peter Dutton hinted that he might consider resigning from the ministry so he could speak out against the policy. (Backbench Liberal MPs are free to vote against the government on any issue they want, but ministers are supposed to resign from Cabinet if they feel strongly enough about the issue).

“If my position [on the NEG] changes — that is, it gets to a point where I can’t accept what the government is proposing, or I don’t agree — then the Westminster system is very clear, you resign your commission, you don’t serve in that cabinet and you make that very clear in a respectful way,” Dutton said.

That’s a not-so-subtle way of saying that he doesn’t really support the policy, and is only doing so publicly out of cabinet solidarity. If Dutton were to resign from Cabinet, it would likely trigger a full blown leadership crisis, as more and more MPs come out against the policy. The PM would either be forced into a humiliating backdown over the NEG or he’d have to fight for the leadership.

Then this morning, The Daily Telegraph reported that a number of “conservative MPs are urging Peter Dutton to seize the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull within weeks on a policy platform of lower immigration and cheaper energy bills”.

Today’s Daily Telegraph.

That’s another not-so-subtle sign — either sent by Dutton himself, or by one of those guys who just really hates Malcolm Turnbull — that Dutton would be the obvious candidate to replace him should shit go down.

It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an imminent leadership challenge (but there might be), it just means that Dutton is quietly positioning himself to take over, and at least a few disgruntled MPs are ready to vote for him.

Is that enough for a challenge? Probably not. But if the PM keeps pissing off his own party, or if his poll numbers take a sudden dive, you can bet that the leadership rumblings will grow louder. There’ll be an election by next May at the latest, and MPs in marginal seats — including Dutton — will start looking around for alternatives.

And if you think this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In 2009, Malcolm Turnbull was the leader of the Liberals when they were in opposition, and he tried to do a deal with the Rudd government on an emissions trading scheme. A bunch of conservative climate deniers decided they wouldn’t cop that, and we ended up with Opposition Leader (and eventually, Prime Minister) Tony Abbott.

That experience scarred Malcolm Turnbull, and he’ll be eager to avoid it happening again (obviously), but whether he can hold off Dutton, who is ambitious, and Abbott, who has been extremely mad since since September 2015, is anyone’s guess.

Rob Stott is the Managing Editor of Junkee Media. Yell at him about Peter Dutton @Rob_Stott.