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Dutton, Turnbull and the #libspill that never really was

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Prime Minister Turnbull with (former) Minister for Home Affairs Dutton in happier times (Screenshot via YouTube)

It would be folly to run Peter Dutton, who scraped into his seat with only a two per cent margin, as a prime ministerial candidate. Turnbull is safe — for now, writes Jeff Waters.

IT'S NOW CLEAR that the leadership crisis within the Liberal Party has been not so much a storm in a teacup as a slurry of fresh bovine excrement in a cesspit.

Similarly, speculation that the Prime Minister’s political acrobatics over the so-called National Energy Guarantee (NEG) further destabilised his party-room support, were all rather shallow.

In one swift move, Malcolm Turnbull has secured his leadership – for the time being, anyway – and possibly consigned right-wing poster-boy and now former Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, to a life in political limbo — possibly until the latter likely loses his marginal seat at the next election.

Of course, there are many who believe another leadership spill is likely.

Viewed through goggles tinted by the recent leadership speculation dust-storm, fanned by the media, the vision emerging through the haze was a choking, staggering and dishevelled Prime Minister on his last legs, doing anything to survive as the shadowy chuckling hyenas circle.

His credibility certainly was briefly damaged in a public-perception sense, but it must be remembered that Turnbull has got away with backdowns and turnarounds before — most notably in regard to his once strident love of the environment.

Another high-profile millionaire businessman, Geoff Cousins – a long-serving John Howard adviser and also a previous head of the Australian Conservation Foundation – summed up the public mood when interviewed on Monday evening (20 August).

In an interview with the ABC's Emma Alberici, Cousins was eager to stress he feared the apparent political and policy instability would be having a negative impact on investment in the renewables sector. But when Alberici asked in reference to Turnbull's ditching of the NEG: “Do you think the business community will mark Malcolm Turnbull down as a result of this?”, Cousins responded in the affirmative and added that the community would as well.

Cousins continued:

You talk about hollow men in politics — that’s a phrase that’s been used many times to mean people who don’t have any basic political beliefs.

I think when Malcolm Turnbull took over from [former PM] Tony Abbott we all prayed that that would be the case and I certainly did, and the business community did. I can remember the Chairman of the Business Council saying … finally we might get some strong policy.

I’m afraid that hasn’t happened. [This] is really the low point.”

A low point perhaps but only in his public popularity. And the Prime Minister has the luxury of knowing that if he wants them to, the Australian public can have a whole summer off before the election to forget about it.

So public opinion problems parked, Turnbull has apparently been free to barricade himself and work the phones. Insofar as the NEG back down is concerned, it may have been his apparent willingness to “take one” for the Party, that made many see sense.

Which takes us back to that cesspit. Let us look at some facts. Looking back over recent days with clear eyes, it might just be possible to achieve a different view of the so-called leadership crisis.

Malcolm Turnbull is the only person in the Liberal party who is either willing or able to donate $1.75 million of his own money toward election campaigns. It’s always great to bring this subject up at barbies whenever speculation about Turnbull’s leadership arises. He is Australia’s largest political donor.

Abbott is surely being seen by the electorate as bitter and his attention-grabbing policies largely run against majority opinion. His public interjections and contrarianism appear undignified, and it is fair to imagine this would be reflected in Liberal polling. It now appears he is yesterday’s man.

The ALP, with its new leadership-election rules, has denied journalists any opportunity to feast on a Labor leadership scuffle. The less substantial members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, bereft of ideas, have had to look for something else to invent. It has all given Opposition Leader Shorten – who deftly swung behind former prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and then artfully dodged past them both to a potential premiership goal – some space to take a breath and possibly even go on the attack.

The most hilarious part of the speculation, however, is that the Liberal Party would consider Peter Dutton as a possible prime ministerial candidate — unless, of course, he moved house quickly to a safe seat. To run a party leader in an electorate with a two per cent margin, with popular activist organisations like Getup publicly promising to target his seat of Dickson at the election, would be folly. Nobody should forget (former PM) John Howard and Bennelong.

Jeff Waters is a former ABC national and international journalist, and author.

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