Australian PM set for showdown with party critics as crisis deepens

Ben Doherty in Sydney

Australia is on the brink of ushering in its sixth prime minister in a decade after the incumbent, Malcolm Turnbull, promised to hold a meeting of the Liberal party on Friday to see if he still commands the support of a majority of his MPs.

On another chaotic day in Canberra, three more senior frontbenchers resigned and the government suspended parliament in an attempt to solve the crisis. Australians would be “rightly appalled by what they are witnessing in their nation’s parliament today”, Turnbull told reporters.

Turnbull has endured simmering discontent with his leadership in recent months, fuelled by poor opinion polls, byelection losses, and general mistrust among those on the right of the Liberal party.

His attempts to pacify the right by abandoning plans to put emissions targets on the statute book failed, and on Tuesday he narrowly survived a leadership challenge from his hardline home affairs minister, Peter Dutton.

Turnbull indicated on Thursday that were he deposed as prime minister he would leave the parliament, possibly immediately, which would mean any new leader would face an immediate byelection in Turnbull’s safe Sydney seat. Currently, the Liberal-National party coalition holds just a one-vote majority in the House of Representatives.

“I believe former prime ministers are best out of the parliament,” he said. “If ... there is a new leader of the Liberal party, that person will have to obviously satisfy the governor general that they can command a majority on the floor.”

Complicating matters is the constitutional cloud hanging over the putative frontrunner to replace him. Although an MP, Dutton may not be eligible to sit in parliament over his ownership via a trust of several childcare centres that receive government funds. Section 44 of the Australian constitution prevents MPs holding any pecuniary interest with the commonwealth.

The Australian solicitor general is providing advice to the government on Dutton’s eligibility by Friday morning. Several leading constitutional lawyers have said they believe he is ineligible, but Dutton has produced his own legal advice saying he does not fall foul of the provision.

Turnbull, a former merchant banker and lawyer, achieved a certain amount of fame in the UK in the 1980s defending former MI5 officer Peter Wright in the “Spycatcher” case. Heis a socially progressive “small l” liberal who supported same-sex marriage in a public plebiscite last year.

Derided by some members of his party as “Mr Harbourside Mansion” – ie wealthy and out-of-touch – he has never been a comfortable fit for the hardline conservative, anti-immigration, right wing of his party.

He came to power following his own coup against the former prime minister Tony Abbott, who has remained on the backbenches since, regularly criticising the policies of his successor.

This week in parliament, sabotage devolved into open challenge within the Liberal party, with a series of leaks against the prime minister and sudden resignations by high-profile ministers.

“A minority in the party room supported by others outside the parliament have sought to bully, intimidate others into making this change of leadership that they’re seeking,” Turnbull said on Thursday. “It’s been described by many people – including those who feel they cannot resist it – as a form of madness.”

Turnbull’s support bled away during the week, emboldening his challengers and inspiring Dutton to approach him, demanding another challenge.

If Turnbull goes, Dutton would face Australia’s treasurer, Scott Morrison, and the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, in a three-way contest.

Morrison was formerly the minister for immigration who implemented Australia’s hardline “stop the boats” policy, forcibly turning around asylum seeker boats at sea, and indefinitely detaining asylum seekers on remote offshore islands.

Dutton is a former Queensland drug squad policeman, who has served on the Liberal party frontbench for 14 years.

A leading conservative, he took over the immigration portfolio from Morrison, a position then far broadened into the newly established powerful home affairs portfolio.

Bishop has been deputy party leader since 2007 and foreign minister since 2013.