Another leader, another ‘spill’

by Professor John Wanna

Malcolm Turnbull was pushed to call a spill motion this morning to clear the air about his leadership. It did anything but clear the air. Peter Dutton’s 35 votes was a massive indictment over Turnbull’s leadership credentials and suggests his colleagues are rapidly losing confidence in his political management or ability to cut through.

Turnbull’s tenure in the Lodge looks now to be coming to an end, his leadership terminal. The immediate question is can he recover or will his party arrange a second vote to seal his fate. Waverers in the Turnbull camp can be easily bought off with promises of political rewards under a new leadership team.

Photo: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left), former Minister Peter Dutton (right).

Turnbull has three options now.

The first is continue to pretend it is business as usual and to reshuffle his cabinet yet again (the sixth in his second term) and hope things settle down a bit more in future weeks. This seems an unlikely prospect, after all those destabilising his leadership have almost achieved what they wanted so why give up now. The divisive politics can only continue to destabilise the government under this option. And Dutton would join Abbott on the backbench as a vocal disgruntled and highly visible adversary.

Second, Turnbull could indicate he will be resigning to allow the next incumbent to inherit the Hollow Crown with some dignity and without having blood on their hands. This doesn’t sound plausible but may be the best overall option. It would mean that the PM would have to accept that his party colleagues have twice rejected his leadership — once when in opposition and now when in government.

And third, the biggest risk of all is to call an immediate election, firing the starting pistol on an early election campaign to sit as the incumbent for a few weeks longer. The risks of this are immense, given the Coalition will be perceived as totally self-absorbed in their own survival, but marred by their open wounds and internal hostilities. No one thinks Turnbull could win an election in the next five weeks.

But is Dutton the most likely next leader of the Liberals? He certainly was not out campaigning against Turnbull in the lead up to the present spill motion. He was drafted by the right rebels, still angry over Turnbull’s leadership directions but also his flip-flopping on issues.

But Dutton has little public profile except as a tough immigration minister, where he is doing a competent job for the Coalition government. He has no wider profile to draw on, and Australians are reluctant to vote for someone whom they do not know and respect. Dutton also has a potential cloud hanging over him under Section 44 of the Constitution (office of profit under the Crown).

On the other hand, if Turnbull does decide to quit for the sake of the party, his presumed magnanimity would open up many more possibilities. First it would mean that the Liberals would have a wider field of candidates to choose from as the most likely candidate to enable them to hold onto government. It would also mean that cool heads across the party factional divides could work out a compromise solution and install a candidate all sides could get behind. If Dutton is unacceptable or unlikely to be regarded as a winnable leader, so too is Abbott who has become purely destructive and largely to blame for the current state of affairs.

Other possible candidates to take over the prime ministership are, in no apparent order or precedent include: Treasurer Scott Morrison, Julie Bishop as Foreign Affairs Minister, Steve Ciobo as Trade Minister, Christopher Pyne as Minister for Defence industry and Christian Porter the current Attorney-General. Some might even suggest Mathias Cormann as a level-headed performer, but who would have to resign his senate seat and contest a lower house one to switch.

Julie Bishop has the advantage of being the perennial and surviving deputy — to Brendon Nelson, Tony Abbott and now Malcolm Turnbull. She is also a moderate which might allow Turnbull’s supporters to rally behind a similarly-minded candidate. She also has the advantage of public recognition and as a senior female politician would represent a clear point of distinction or marked contrast with the opposition leader in the run up to a May 2019 election. The question is whether she has the necessary credentials to seize and perform credibly in the top job, which requires coverage of a wide range of topical issues. Some of her colleagues doubt her abilities, or her capacity for hard work, but she may be best able to give Shorten a run for his money.

Scott Morrison is hard-working and reasonably well-known, but may not be able to communicate directly with voters — he is good at delivering prepared speeches and in the argy-bargy of media interviews, but not a natural empathetic communicator. Pyne, Ciobo and Porter probably do not have sufficient profile to give their colleagues confidence they can do the job adequately, and Pyne might be regarded as a bit of a buffoon and light-weight. Cormann is a rank outsider and would signify how desperate the Liberals are in finding an acceptable leadership talent.

Four weeks ago we were all speculating about Bill Shorten’s leadership being tested should Labor not hold the two seats in Queensland and Tasmania; now we are treated to yet another demise of a prime minister before the end of a parliamentary term.

It can’t go unnoticed that Turnbull with all his skills, resolution and intelligence has brought much of this on himself. The big question now is in what parlous state does he leave the party he eventually joined only after being rebuffed by Labor party in NSW.



Professor John Wanna is Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). He holds a joint appointment with Griffith University and Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.

Author of over fifty books, Professor Wanna is a regular political commentator on TV (ABC, SBS, Sky, Channels 9 and 7) and the print media (The Australian, The Courier-Mail, The Saturday Paper, the Australian Financial Review, and The Conversation). He regularly appears as an Australian politics expert on other media outlets (Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Daily Mail, AFP, Reuters, Fairfax media).