Cabinet and party room support for the Turnbull government is collapsing after key senior ministers this morning turned their support against the prime minister, in favour of challenger Peter Dutton.
After a morning of tumult, Turnbull scheduled a press conference, saying he was prepared to call a party room meeting for midday tomorrow, but this would be conditional on seeing there was majority support for a party meeting. Dutton’s supporters have been circulating a petition which needs 43 MPs to sign if the party room meeting is to go ahead
The prime minister said he wanted to also check the eligibility of Dutton to be an MP. Dutton may be in breach of the Constitution because of his family’s interests in two child care centres.
Turnbull also confirmed if he loses the prime ministership, he will resign from the parliament.
At the same time, media reports were claiming Treasurer Scott Morrison was likely to stand for party leadership if the position is vacated. Morrison has stayed loyal to Malcolm Turnbull, but as the prime minister’s party room quickly collapsed, Morrison emerged this morning as a contender.
Morrison is hoping to capture votes from moderates who don’t want to support Dutton, who is being promoted by so-called conservative MPs.
Adding to the political drama, the government successfully suspended the House of Representatives at midday today, avoiding having to front for question time this afternoon, and the embarrassment of the pictures of up to a third of the front bench sitting on the back bench.
Any chance Malcolm Turnbull had of hanging on quickly collapsed this morning when ministers Matthias Cormann, Mitch Fifield and Michaelia Cash fronted media to say they could no longer support the PM.
A swag of APS portfolios without ministers
Department secretaries and senior officials watched on as a gaggle of ministers resigned, leaving a swag of APS portfolios without ministers.
Cabinet ministers who have resigned include Health Minister Greg Hunt and Trade Minister Steve Ciobo.
Other ministers who have resigned include Law Enforcement and Cyber Minister Angus Taylor, Assistant Minister to the PM James McGrath, Assistant Minister to the Treasurer Michael Sukkar, Assistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation Zed Seselja and Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge.
The resignations were widely seen as pressure on Turnbull to call on a party meeting or to step down.
Several backbenchers have already publicly said they would sit on the cross bench if Dutton is elected, in protest at the expected change in prime minister.
The uncertainty around the cabinet and the prime minister was fuelled by a separate review by the solicitor-general whether Dutton was in breach of section 44 of the Constitution. This provision disqualifies MPs from taking separate income from the Commonwealth.
Dutton has an interest, through a family trust, in two child care centres which receive subsidies through government programs. Dutton claims he has legal advice he is not disqualified, but Attorney General Christian Porter yesterday referred the matter to Solicitor General Stephen Donaghue.
There were scenes this morning in parliament of ministerial staffers shredding documents, as ministers began to pack up their offices.
Several departments have rushed this week to prepare new incoming government briefs, as Liberal party room tumult was exploited by Labor, pushing for the government to go to the polls.
While this predictable political push for an early election appears unlikely to succeed, the expected demise of the Turnbull government is likely to see another major ministerial reshuffle, with supporters of the successful candidates likely to win key cabinet portfolios.
Main image: Former Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton announces he has the numbers to challenge Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday. Photo: AAP