Senior ministers in Malcolm Turnbull's government insist reports Peter Dutton is being urged to topple the prime minister are just "hyperventilating". But there is talk.
Late on Thursday night in the Senate One Nation leader Pauline Hanson got to her feet and announced she would not be supporting the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).
Hanson spent 10 minutes outlining why she would not support the government’s signature energy policy (it will lead to increased power prices for consumers), and her solution to Australia’s energy debate (the government own and build new coal fired power stations).
“The reason our electricity prices are too high is that both the Coalition and Labor have interfered in the electricity marketplace in the mistaken belief that they can control the natural variability in our climate,” Hanson told a nearly empty Senate chamber.
This speech was a bat signal to conservatives in the Liberal and National parties, who fear being wiped out in Queensland at the next federal election.
Conversations about the leadership are happening. BuzzFeed News has spoken to Coalition conservatives – a self-described "rebel alliance" – who are agitating for change. It's a small group, but its members are quietly encouraging home affairs minister Peter Dutton to challenge prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The Daily Telegraph reported on Friday that the disgruntled plotters were telling the press gallery in off the record conversations that under Dutton’s leadership the next election would be run on a platform of cheaper power bills over reducing emissions, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, and scaling back immigration.
So why the rumblings about Dutton now?
It's noteworthy that up to 10 Coalition members are said to be considering crossing the floor over Turnbull's signature NEG policy, and WA MP Andrew Hastie has also said he would reserve his right to vote against the legislation, despite his state not being directly affected by the NEG (WA is outside the national power grid).
On Tuesday Turnbull called a press conference to proudly declare victory over his own party room on the NEG. Days later, the party room high has worn off.
On the Today Show on Friday morning defence industry minister Christopher Pyne said the leadership speculation was a lot of "hyperventilating", and an attempt to "get the band back together" from the late 2000s. Finance minister Mathias Cormann and deputy National leader Bridget McKenzie also downplayed leadership talk.
Pyne's band analogy is a reference to when Tony Abbott successfully challenged Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party over climate change policy.
But the out of tune musical analogy was also used to describe Turnbull and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce after his by-election win in New England late last year.
The leadership rumblings and leaks serve multiple goals: to push Turnbull towards dumping the Paris Agreement and shifting focus to power prices; and to gradually undermine Turnbull's leadership to a point the public becomes open to change, as happened with Rudd-Gillard-Rudd and Abbott-Turnbull.
Polling done by Crosby Textor in Longman in the lead up to the Super Saturday by-elections revealed four things:
Trevor “Big Trev” Ruthenberg wouldn’t win
People in Longman don’t like Malcolm Turnbull
People don’t understand the government’s impenetrable and jargony messaging around a national economic plan
The number one issue for voters was power prices
The LNP’s primary vote in Longman was 30%, and it leaked votes left (Labor) and right (One Nation).
The LNP needs at least a 40% primary vote across Queensland if it is to retain marginal seats, and there is a possibility that Dutton could lose his seat.
“There’s something quite noble in coming forward to steer the party away from possible election defeat,” is how one pro-change conservative put it to BuzzFeed News. Think Kevin Rudd in 2013 trying to save the furniture.
Dutton told 2GB radio on Thursday that: “I’m not going to be part of the cabinet and then bag the prime minister out. Now, if my position changes – that is, I get to a point where I can’t accept what the government’s proposing, or I don’t agree – then the Westminster system is very clear. You resign your commission, you don’t serve in that cabinet. And you make that very clear in a respectful way.”
The man Turnbull deposed, Tony Abbott, articulates the case of the rebels better than anyone else. It’s no surprise that the Monday after the government’s embarrassing performance in Super Saturday he was on 2GB radio pushing one single message — stop the (power) bills.
And he smiled when the "no wrecking, undermining, sniping" clip speech was played back to him on ABC's 7.30 on Monday.
Expect to see more of Abbott selling the message in the coming weeks.
Time will tell if the rebellion succeeds, but at the very least all signs point to a split on the horizon for the LNP in Queensland.
The Nationals MPs are concerned about the disconnect between the Turnbull government’s national campaign and what voters are telling them on the ground. They want to run their own federal campaign, centred around lowering power prices, and without TV ads showing Turnbull in a top floor office (as in the 2016 election) .
The rebels don't want a repeat of June 2010, when Labor deputy PM Julia Gillard rolled prime minister Kevin Rudd, and was left to try and explain why Rudd had to go.
Turnbull explained his knifing of Abbott by pointing to 30 lost Newspolls. Turnbull has since lost even more Newspolls than Abbott, but is it enough for him to go?
Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.
Contact Alice Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at email@example.com.
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