Turnbull’s impending demise leaves government marooned, and secretaries wondering

By Tom Burton

Tuesday August 21, 2018

Yet again we are seeing the destruction of another Australian government, cut short by  deep internal personal and ideological divides, and a seeming inability to create a compelling electoral agenda, leaving key tax and energy initiatives marooned.

The immediate fallout of this morning’s sudden Liberal party room vote, which saw Turnbull win a rapid-fire partyroom spill by a meagre 13 votes over Peter Dutton, is the latter’s resignation as Home Affairs Minister.

But most pundits are predicting the fact 35 Liberal MPs were willing to oppose the PM, without any preparation or formal lobbying, means it will be difficult for Turnbull to hold on. 

Dutton’s resignation is expected to be followed by a gaggle of other ministers who supported him, creating a major reshuffle of portfolios.

Dutton’s resignation leaves the huge Home Affairs portfolio vacant, with pundits suggesting Turnbull will look to one of his trusted ministers, Christopher Pyne, to head up the sprawling new portfolio.

How long the prime minister can hang on will depend on Turnbull’s ability to craft a new ministry and shape an election-winning policy agenda, with the closeness of the vote expected to see Turnbull’s detractors continue to push for his resignation.

According to media reports, Dutton was asked to stay on, but stepped down, signalling he is now a dangerous public adversary against Turnbull, and promoting media speculation there will be a second spill of the Liberal partyroom. 

In any case, the political turmoil around the government and the prime minister is expected to see several more ministers step down – as early as today –  placing even more pressure on Turnbull’s precarious hold on power.

The tumultuous political events will almost certainly have knock-on effects for leaders of the APS. Dutton has a strong working relationship with powerful Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo, whose tenure has been closely aligned with Dutton.

Key APS officials’ futures up in the air

The future of key officials, most notably the secretary of the Prime Minister’s department, Martin Parkinson, will also be the centre of much speculation, and whether Dutton will want to bring Pezzullo across to PM&C with him.

Parkinson was brought back to APS by Turnbull, after the Abbott Government pushed for Parkinson’s removal as Treasury secretary. Parkinson has been a longtime advocate for governments to address the economic risks of climate change. If he moves on, this would in turn see a reshuffle of secretaries, echoing a similar ministerial reshuffle.

The position of Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is seen as critical to Turnbull’s survival. Cormann is a close personal colleague of Peter Dutton, but has become a key stalwart of Turnbull. Both were previously strong supporters of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has been openly critical of the Turnbull government, calling for the government to formally abandon the government’s Paris climate emission targets.

If Cormann moves his support to Dutton, then it will be very difficult for Turnbull to survive.

The government’s two signature policies, the National Energy Guarantee and big company tax cuts are politically marooned – with the government openly admitting it no longer has the numbers to move forward with either. The government has only a one-vote majority in the House of Representatives and needs to rely on crossbenchers to get legislation through the Senate. 

The company tax cuts are still slated for consideration by the Senate today, with most predicting the government doesn’t have the numbers to get it through in its current form.

The tumult echoes almost precisely the demise of Julia Gillard, when she was challenged by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the lead-up to the 2013 election.

The collapse in prime ministerial support and the marooning of its major policy initiatives leaves the government in a holding pattern, stalling Cabinet processes and leaving agency heads having to tread water.

If Dutton emerges as the prime minister, he is expected to sharpen the policy and political divide with the opposition, with a more conservative policy agenda and some major ministerial changes.

The collapse in prime ministerial support and the marooning of its major policy initiatives leaves the government in a holding pattern, stalling Cabinet processes and leaving agency heads having to tread water.”

Dutton and Turnbull’s deputy, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, have often clashed over Dutton’s hardline approach to security, and her tenure would be in doubt.

The role of Scott Morrison also remains uncertain. He once strongly supported Abbott but copped a lot of flack from conservatives when he switched his support to Turnbull as leader.

Politically, Dutton could help rebuild the Coalition’s support with social and policy conservatives — and stem the rise of right-of-centre minor parties — but could cause issues appealing to centre-leaning voters, especially in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

If Dutton emerges as leader in the next while, he would be expected to sharpen up the Coalition’s security agenda, such as deploying a much stronger domestic response to cyber-offensive operations.

Dutton also has to deal with some constitutional questions, with media reports he could be in breach of section 44 of the Constitution. According to the report,s Dutton’s family trust includes two child care centres, which receive Commonwealth government support. Section 44(v) says that any person who “has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth” is disqualified from sitting as a member of parliament.


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