Scott Morrison is battling to maintain order inside his party as personal hatreds erupted after Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop backed the referral of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to the High Court.
Ms Bishop also suggested some of the alleged bullying behaviour inside the Liberal Party, including intimidation, coercion and offering inducements, was potentially “illegal”. At the same time, Barnaby Joyce lashed out at Mr Turnbull, accusing him of waging a guerilla campaign with the intention of bringing down the government.
Mr Morrison’s desire to select a female candidate for the Wentworth byelection in Sydney was also being challenged with Mr Turnbull ringing around in support of David Sharma, who also has the backing of former prime minster minister John Howard. The candidate for the October 20 poll was due to be preselected last night.
It is understood Mr Turnbull, who is currently abroad, does not intend to help campaign in Wentworth and believes the Liberals should hold it, given the size of the margin by which he held the seat. This week, Mr Morrison warned the party could lose the seat on the strength of a backlash by angry voters.
Three weeks after the leadership spill and exactly three years after Mr Turnbull deposed Tony Abbott, some Liberals say that apart from the personal animosity inside the party, the unresolved ideological differences that prompted both spills have them fearing for the party’s future.
Attempts to settle the party in the wake of last month’s leadership spill were scuttled on Thursday when Mr Turnbull called openly for Mr Dutton to be referred to the High Court to clear the air over his eligibility under section 44(v) of the Constitution. Mr Turnbull did so after texting and ringing Mr Morrison and other former colleagues in recent days, urging them to support such a referral.
“The point I have made to @ScottMorrisonMP and other colleagues is that given the uncertainty around Peter Dutton’s eligibility, acknowledged by the Solicitor General, he should be referred to the High Court, as Barnaby was, to clarify the matter,” Mr Turnbull tweeted in what are his first public comments since being dumped and walking away from politics.
If Mr Dutton was disqualified, the government would lose its majority status. Mr Morrison rejected Mr Turnbull’s overture, citing legal advice and claiming the public ewas fed up with the “lawyer’s picnic” that had seen 15 MPs and senators disqualified under section 44.
But Ms Bishop, who has also been largely quiet since she lost the deputy leadership as a consequence of the events of August 24, provocatively backed Mr Turnbull. In doing so, she left open the prospect of even voting for a motion in the House of Representatives to refer Mr Dutton.
“We all have a personal responsibility to ensure we are eligible to sit in the Parliament,” she said.
“If there is a vote on the matter I’ll make up my mind at the time but we need clarity around the standing of all members of Parliament.”
Under the section, anyone who “has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth” is ineligible to sit in Parliament.
The two childcare centres receive indirect government funding. Labor is more focused on a specific arrangement in which one of the centres had a funding agreement with the Commonwealth to enable the hiring of a special needs teacher.
Mr Turnbull commissioned advice from the Commonwealth Solicitor-General the day before the leadership spill. It was favourable towards Mr Dutton but still inconclusive.
With Mr Turnbull gone from Parliament, Labor, with the support of four crossbenchers, can currently muster 73 votes to refer Mr Dutton to the court. The government, with the support of Bob Katter, has 75 votes.
Mr Dutton savaged Mr Turnbull, and advised him to conduct himself with the same sort of dignity as Mr Howard.
“John Howard’s got the gold standard here. I think he conducts himself with dignity and I hope that all former prime ministers can do that,” he said.
“I hope that Mr Turnbull is able to enjoy his retirement and contribute to the Liberal Party, as I say, in a way that John Howard has. That would be the ideal circumstance.”
Mr Joyce, who fell out with Mr Turnbull after his extramarital affair was opposed, accused Mr Turnbull of behaving the same way as Tony Abbott who promised after his ouster in 2015 that there would be no wrecking, sniping or undermining
“It seems like he has an active campaign to try and remove us as the government. That is bitterly disappointing,” Ms Joyce said.
Asked if there was “wrecking and sniping going on”, Mr Joyce said “I think that would be a fair comment”.
Mr Morrison alluded to various pieces of legal advice as he defended the Home Affairs Minister.