PRESS GALLERY REPORT: Turnbull's Government loses will to live

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons

The Government united to vote against Labor's "no confidence" motion, just hours after Dutton's leadership challenge, but the fake unity won't last and further rumblings are already emerging. Canberra correspondent John Passant reports from the Press Gallery.

ON TUESDAY MORNING (21 August), PM Malcolm Turnbull called a pre-emptive vote on his leadership.

In winning, he lost. He has let loose the dogs of war in the Liberal Party and the Government.

The Prime Minister survived Peter Dutton’s challenge — just. At 48 votes for Turnbull and 35 for Dutton, the second challenge cannot be that far away. If the polls continue to show the Government being beaten easily, then Dutton’s next attempt might well be successful.  

At a joint press conference with Malcolm Turnbull, the unopposed, and hence re-elected, Deputy Leader Julie Bishop said that this was an overwhelming vote of support for the Prime Minister. With 40 per cent of the Liberal Parliamentary Party voting for Dutton, without much organising – after the Dutton forces were blindsided by the Prime Minister in calling a leadership spill – I’d call it a vote of no confidence in the faltering Turnbull leadership and Government.

In his own press conference yesterday (21 August), the Member for Dickson, Peter Dutton, said he stood for the leadership because he thought he was the best person to keep Opposition Leader Bill Shorten out of the Lodge. When questioned about whether he would stand again, he said he respected the decision of the Party room and supported the Prime Minister. Clearly, he will challenge again — especially if the next Newspoll shows Labor in a commanding position.

I think the poll will show the Turnbull Government is dead. 

Dutton only needs another seven or eight Liberal MP votes (depending on the availability of Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who has been away due to illness) to become Prime Minister. He is following the (former Labor PM) Keating strategy of challenging from a strong, but not winning, base and letting events develop, to pounce in a few months’ time.

After being defeated, Dutton resigned from the Home Affairs Ministry

Apart from Dutton, at the time of publication, nine other ministers have offered their resignations (including Trade Minister Steve Ciobo and Minister for Health Greg Hunt). The Prime Minister has so far only accepted the resignations of Dutton and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. More hard Duttonists may resign from the Ministry one by one over time, to build momentum for Dutton.

This morning, Nationals Deputy Leader of the House Darren Chester was ramping up his earlier warning that he and others will sit on the cross benches if Dutton were to become PM.

We could be voting in a general election at the polls very soon.

It is clear from this and other comments that he and other Coalition members would sit on the cross benches if Dutton were to become PM.  

Let’s step back a bit and reflect on this. Peter Dutton is a stone’s throw from the prime ministership. His forces threw their first stone on Tuesday. They have many, many more stones in their armoury.

How have we got to such a state in Australian politics that a man who is viewed with such hatred or extreme distaste by many in his own party, let alone the electorate, is knocking on the door of the Lodge?

Two things among many tell us why he is so hated. Peter Dutton was the Minister who, until yesterday, enthusiastically ran Australia’s offshore concentration camps. He was also one of the Coalition members who, in 2008, walked out on (former PM) Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. Enough said.

The crisis of neoliberalism tells us why he could soon be prime minister. Leadership crises are a common theme in the last decade in Australia. The search for an acceptable spokesperson for neoliberal capitalism has not been successful.

The problem is the shit sandwich, not its salesman or woman. Rudd-Gillard-Rudd and Abbott-Turnbull and now the current ructions in the Liberal Party show the real crisis has to do with politics and policies, not personalities.

Voters across the developed world are rejecting neoliberal parties, policies and their consequences. That rejection finds political expression on the Left (broadly understood) for example in the rise of Syriza in Greece, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America in the U.S., Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, and so on. This Left wins its support from workers and others.

But the rejection of neoliberalism is bolstering not just the Left. On the Right, we see the triumph of Donald Trump, the solid support for Pauline Hanson's One Nation in Australia, and racist and fascist groupings becoming popular and, in some cases, entering government in Europe. They, too, draw support from workers, but even more so from small business and other non-working class sections of society.

In Australia, the development of a racist right outside the Liberals and Nationals has now split the Coalition. Dutton might win back some One Nation voters in regional and rural Queensland and Western Australia, but he will lose votes in New South Wales and Victoria. It is also possible he will lose Coalition support in urban centres, and their suburbs and fringes, in Queensland and Western Australia. With a margin of two per cent, he will likely not hold his own seat of Dickson.

The Turnbull Government is a Government in name only. It has abandoned its signature National Energy Guarantee (NEG). It faces imminent defeat in the Senate on its signature big business company tax cuts. It has destroyed the National Broadbank Network (NBN). It is destroying the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). It is overseeing an economy in which real wages are stagnant or falling and in which inequality is growing.

In short, everything the Turnbull Government touches fails. It is neoliberal and incompetent.

One aspect of this is that there is a clear faction of climate change deniers in the Coalition. There is another aspect. The strong showing for Dutton shows the panic engulfing Government backbenchers. Because disunity is death, especially this close to the next election, many of them will lose their seats at the next election.

This will be the case no matter who is in charge, but their impending political death clouds their judgement. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.’ Dutton as saviour shows the level of their madness.

Indeed, Chester fired a shot across the bows of the Duttonists, warning that a Dutton Government may not have the support of the Parliament.  

He said:

There's actually no reason why any potential challenger should actually assume that they would automatically command the numbers in the House of Representatives.

We only have a one-seat majority and my colleagues, I'm sure, would consider their future if such a challenge was to occur.

This all-consuming power struggle, coupled with the abandonment of key policies, and ongoing neoliberalism and incompetence, means we do not have a Government capable of managing capitalism in Canberra. We have a rabble running an amateur hour in "power", all day, every day.

This latest rupture in the Liberals between the Right (mistakenly called the centre) and the Hard Right is a further godsend to Labor. In Question Time, Shorten sought leave to move a motion of no confidence in the leadership of the Prime Minister. The Government initially rejected it, but then, after the Opposition Leader sought leave to suspend standing orders to allow such a debate, the Government agreed to it.

Shorten and Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek laid out the reasons why this Government was out of touch — from living standards and wages to energy policy, public health, education, transport, aged care and so on.

Platitudes from the Government about "good government" will not cut it with the majority of people. In the debate, they offered no vision, no plan and no policies. Instead, they attacked Labor and Shorten.

Voters now see a Prime Minister without principle, unprepared to stand up to his right wing. They see a Government divided in itself, that has overseen falling living standards, that cannot provide adequate public services and is incompetent.  

Today, the Government united and voted against Labor's motion of no confidence, which was defeated 76 votes to 67. The fake unity cannot last, however. It is the unity of a gang of hostile brothers and sisters, and they are continuing to fight among themselves.

Listen to Canberra correspondent John Passant discuss his admission to the Press Gallery and the tumultuous events unfolding in Canberra with political editor Dr Martin Hirst here:

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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