Prime Ministerial Chaos: Turnbull’s Last Days
No one is in charge in Australia. Monday’s leadership challenge by Home Affairs minister, the potato-headed former
police officer Peter Dutton, was cutting enough to leave Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull a wounded animal. The 48 to 35
margin of victory demonstrated the sheer degree of disaffection for the leadership within party ranks, and risks keeping
that unenviable record of no Australian prime minister lasting out a full term of office since John Howard’s 2004
Resignations have duly followed (some ten frontbenches outed themselves as Dutton supporters in offering their notices,
though many have not been accepted by Turnbull). Dutton has become a chief plotter on the backbench, from where another
challenge is brewing. The government is imploding and New Zealand’s foreign minister Winston Peters, visiting Canberra, offered
a bit of advice: “When you go into a spill, you have to take your abacus.”
In the aftermath of the challenge, Dutton continues to fuel the fire, giving
radio station 3AW a generous smattering to threaten Turnbull. “You don’t go into a ballot believing you’re going to
lose and if I believe that a majority of colleagues support me, then I would reconsider my position.” He had been
chasing up colleagues, testing the waters, working the phones. “I’m not going to beat around the bush with that.”
Ever blinkered and reactionary, his policy offerings continue to be unimaginative, the stuff of cold porridge. To cope
with housing affordability, immigration needs to looked at. To deal with infrastructure problems, immigration needs to
be looked at. “I think you need to cut the numbers back.” This is less the remit of a potential prime minister as a
demagogue who remains trapped in the portfolio of home affairs.
In a bid to make a populist steal, Dutton is offering a temporary sweetener to the public. To Triple M Melbourne, he outlined
a proposal that will tickle a few: “I think one of the things that we could do straight away, in this next billing
cycle, is take the GST off electricity bills for families. It would be an automatic reduction of 10 percent for
electricity bills and people would feel that impact straight away.”
Another peg on offer is one distinctly against the free market ideology of the party. It’s the season for royal
commissions, and Dutton is willing to capitalise. A royal commission into the electricity and fuel companies, argues the
freshly resigned minister, could be established. “I just think Australian consumers for way too long have been paying
way too much fuel and electricity and something just isn’t right with these companies.”
It has been a true spectacle of self-destructive delight: the Liberals immolating themselves in plain sight, while
justifying such behaviour on the broader premise of “debate” and calm thinking. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop claimed on
Tuesday morning that there were conservatives, moderates and those somewhere in the middle. Other front benchers
suggested that this was the Liberal method, which was simply another way of concealing a tribalism more commonly
associated with the opposition Labor Party. The broader reality is that centre-right politics in Australia has become
The Turnbull ship, as it heads to a monumental iceberg, was given a further push with the defeat of the company tax cut
policy in the Senate. It had been, since 2016, a vital aspect of the prime minister’s trickle-down economics, another
enduring fiction that has ceased to catch the imagination of many in the electorate.
Selling a policy reducing the tax rate from 30 to 25 percent for companies earning over $50 million, thereby shrinking a
vital tax base, has not gone well for the former merchant banker, whose connection with the Australian voter continues
to look curiously alien. Little wonder, then, that the tribe is unruly, leaving the extremists to go on the rampage.
Things also look murky for the main challenger. In what must be yet another example of history’s distinct lack of
cunning, the man who was so enthusiastic about keeping refugee children in offshore detention has a family trust
operating a childcare company in receipt of Commonwealth funding. The amount is not negligible: some $5.6 million
dispensed to both the Camelia Avenue Childcare Centre and another centre located in Bald Hill. The significance of this
is that section 44 of the Constitution might well render Dutton ineligible to sit in parliament as it rules out those
with “any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth”.
Most troubling in the Dutton challenge is its acceptable extremism. His language is the unreformed, unconstructed argot
of law, order and directed hysteria. He is an instinctive authoritarian who is unlikely to govern by consensus. The
method, rather, will be through imposition and dictation. Australians and those coming to the country can expect an
aggressive push in the direction of the police state. But Turnbull’s ultimate failing has been a pronounced and
seemingly growing inability to lead a party keen to lurch with ever greater urgency to the right.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.