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Australia’s political terminators claim another victim

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

By Rhys Thomas

Rest in peace, Malcolm Turnbull’s political career.

Australia’s embattled Prime Minister has been ousted in a messy leadership battle, and will be succeeded by his Treasurer Scott Morrison.

The leader of the Liberal Party had first faced a formal challenge on 21st August from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Turnbull triumphed 48 to 35 with Liberal MPs, but was fatally wounded.

This leadership challenge, referred to as a “spill”, was triggered by internal party opposition to the Government’s flagship national energy guarantee, which at its heart had a commitment to reducing emissions. Turnbull’s response was to no longer legislate the emissions reduction target, but to regulate it – a distinction that didn’t satisfy angry Liberal backbenchers.

Turnbull, PM since September 2015, has been under fire from the right of his party for some time. Many backbenchers want Australia follow the United States of America and withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement and take a harder line against action on environmental issues. A non-binding same-sex marriage plebiscite which led to the legalisation of same-sex marriage last year also angered many on the conservative wing of the party.

With a majority of one in Parliament, Turnbull has been unable to either satisfy the rebels in his party or push his own agenda through Parliament.

Ten ministers offered to resign after the first spill, but the Prime Minister only accepted two – the challenger Dutton’s, and International Development minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who wrote in her resignation letter that “our conservative base strongly feel that their voice has been eroded”.

Despite his initial loss, Dutton began campaigning among Liberal MPs almost immediately. In recent spills, an initial losing challenge has been enough to weaken a sitting leader so that a second challenge defeats them.

Whilst key Cabinet members such as Senate Leader Mathias Cormann continued to resign their posts, the Prime Minister refused to move a second leadership spill until a petition was delivered that publicly showed forty-three MPs who did not have confidence in his leadership. Dutton delivered that petition after some doubts, and the second spill was on.

Rather than face a second contest, Turnbull chose to resign the Premiership – and is also stepping down from his Parliamentary seat of Wentworth. This means a potentially tricky by-election for the new leader to face, with a majority of only one in the House of Representatives meaning that there is little room for manoeuvre.

The second spill was conducted just after midday the same day. Turnbull ally Treasurer Scott Morrison ran as the continuity candidate. Liberal Deputy leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made a late decision to run, with Dutton rounding out the trio. Bishop was eliminated in the first round of voting, with Morrison beating out the insurgent Dutton in the second round 45-40. A new Deputy Leader was also elected, Josh Frydenberg, who also becomes Treasurer.

Australia’s modern political history is packed with leader killings of this sort – the last Australian Premier to serve a full term of three years was John Howard who left office in 2007. Morrison, best known for his “stop the boats” policy as Immigration Minister, will face a Federal Election sometime between now and May 2019.

A Modern History of Australian Regicide

16th September 2008Liberal – Then in opposition, Shadow Treasurer Turnbull challenged and defeated leader Brendan Nelson. The pair had both run for leadership after their party lost the 2007 election, with Nelson narrowly winning. Turnbull was publicly disloyal and the relationship broke down, culminating with the latter’s ascent to the leadership.

1st December 2009Liberal – This was the last leadership spill to happen to the official opposition party in the Federal Parliament, and it was Turnbull’s turn to feel the heat. Taking place a few days after a failed spill attempt, Tony Abbott was victor – defeating Turnbull in the second round of voting 42-41.

24th June 2010Labour – In the run-up to the federal election, polling showed an incumbent Labour government heading for defeat. Favourable polling regarding a leadership change from Kevin Rudd his Deputy Julia Gillard, and a key trade union backing change led to a leadership challenge. Rudd stood aside on the morning of the spill when it was clear he would lose – Gillard took over, and won the election.

27th February 2012Labour – Rudd resigned as Foreign Minister on a trip to Washington DC and said that Gillard would lose the next election, whilst Gillard shot back that the Rudd Government had been in “paralysis”. She called a leadership spill and triumphed, 71-31.

21st March 2013Labour – Gillard called a snap ballot when cabinet minister Simon Crean publicly demanded one – Rudd decided not to stand, and Gillard was elected unopposed. Crean got the sack.

26th June 2013Labour – The Rudd-Gillard internecine war reached a finale when Rudd prevailed 57-45. He took the party into that September’s election, where he was defeated by Abbott’s Liberals.

9th February 2015Liberal – A spill motion was moved against Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the PM won 61-39 – albeit against an empty chair, showing a clear opportunity for any future challenger.

14th September 2015Liberal – Turnbull made a return to the leadership of the Liberals by defeating Abbott 54-44, making the latter the shortest-serving Prime Minister for over forty years.

21st August 2018Liberal – Dutton’s first challenge to the Prime Minister, losing 48-35, sent the world of Australian politics into a frenzy at the prospect of another dethronement in Canberra.

24th August 2018 Liberal – Turnbull falls on his sword rather than run in another contest. Bishop, Dutton and Morrison all face off, with the latter triumphing in a result that will give the outgoing PM some solace, however minute.

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