Malcolm Turnbull with Peter Dutton during Question Time in the House of Representatives in Parliament House Canberra. Picture: Gary Ramage
Malcolm Turnbull with Peter Dutton during Question Time in the House of Representatives in Parliament House Canberra. Picture: Gary Ramage

‘I don’t know why he did what he did’

YET to be written histories of Australian politics during the second decade of the 21st Century will pore over two intractable questions: why were there so many prime ministers, and why didn't the popular and capable Malcolm Turnbull stop the revolving door as so many insisted he would?

The second question is partly answered by the fact that - four months after the Morrison coup was supposed to put a disappointing Turnbull term to bed - voters, the news media and even Liberals themselves continue to point out the Government's irreconcilable differences.

In an extraordinary unleashing of vitriol against the former PM - a man whom ostensibly loyal ministers pretended to embrace as recently as August - Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accused Turnbull in the dying hours of 2018 of not having "a political bone in his body" and, while having "a plan to become prime minster", had "no plan to be prime minister". Dutton also complained the Government deteriorated from "three-word slogans under Tony (Abbott) to 3000 under Malcolm".

Peter Dutton and wife Kirilly with their two sons Harry, 14, Tom, 13 and daughter Rebecca taking a break on the Gold Coast. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Peter Dutton and wife Kirilly with their two sons Harry, 14, Tom, 13 and daughter Rebecca taking a break on the Gold Coast. Picture: Nigel Hallett

While some government MPs quietly agreed with Dutton's assessment of a poorly defined Turnbull leadership that, after a weak 2016 campaign, handcuffed the Coalition for much of the current parliament - and led them to the precipice of electoral annihilation today - many others privately expressed horror at Dutton's attack. Even among those MPs who know and respect Dutton for being a "conviction politician", the shock has been palpable. "I don't know if (the attack) was sanctioned or not", a senior Queensland LNP figure tells this writer, "but most voters will look at this and ask why (the Liberals) are still talking about themselves.

"I don't know why he did what he did." says the figure.

But there are plenty of theories to choose from.

The first is that Dutton and his conservative allies, still seething from Turnbull's failure to endorse Liberal candidate Dave Sharma in a disastrous Wentworth by-election later lost to an independent, simply had had enough of what appeared to be a river of Turnbull leaks designed to destabilise Morrison and paint Turnbull as more politically adroit than he actually was.

If Malcolm were subjected to a sufficiently humiliating spray, the theory goes, he might be cowed into silence. Good luck with that. Expect a new round of Turnbull retaliation in coming days.

It’s understandable Dutton wanted to get his side of the story out, but it hasn’t helped the Libs’ re-election chances. Picture: Kym Smith
It’s understandable Dutton wanted to get his side of the story out, but it hasn’t helped the Libs’ re-election chances. Picture: Kym Smith

A second theory is that Dutton - who strongly rejects he is a "right wing extremist", a "bible basher" or that he engineered either the August spill or Turnbull's own decline - wants to set the record straight, or at least as he sees it. And you can't blame Dutton for that.

But a third theory enjoys the stickiest traction: Dutton and his fellow MPs in neighbouring marginal seats - possibly on the heels of private polling - know they have virtually zero chance of surviving a May general election.

As the Coalition approaches a record loss of 50 successive Newspolls - the Morrison Government currently lags Labor by 10 after-preference points, and is haemorrhaging support in the regions and among older voters - 17 coalition seats will be lost on a 4 per cent swing.

In the (often mistaken) belief Queensland is a rusted on conservative state, Dutton may have felt the LNP's only chance in regional Queensland is to remind voters the LNP is a conservative party and that he and his fellow MPs are not responsible for the Turnbull train wreck. A bit of conservative sabre-rattling, if you will, to shore up the seven regional Queensland seats, including Dutton's, the LNP now holds by less than 4 per cent.

But, regardless of motivation, the plan appears to have already backfired, and we can expect more damage to come. Disengaged voters in regional Queensland will baulk at Dutton's tactic simply because they resist ideological debates around the virtues or otherwise of different Liberal brands. All they'll see - just as they saw in Labor in 2013 - is a party still at war with itself that, obsessed with navel gazing, has abandoned good government.

Labor is only now emerging from a period in the wilderness after the infighting between Julia Gillard and foreign minister Kevin Rudd. Picture: Alan Porritt/AAP
Labor is only now emerging from a period in the wilderness after the infighting between Julia Gillard and foreign minister Kevin Rudd. Picture: Alan Porritt/AAP

After four months of Morrison doing his level best to heal the wounds of division, Dutton just ripped off the scab. And it's precisely that interpretation that Labor will run with in the lead up to the next election.

The Dutton diatribe therefore bears implications long after the 2019 election campaign. Will the Liberals - or the Nationals, for that matter, as rumours linger that Barnaby Joyce will soon move against lacklustre leader Michael McCormack - ever learn, as Labor appears to have, that airing dirty factional linen can only turn voters' stomachs?

More critically, and not unrelated to the party's "woman problem" - far fewer than men support the Liberals today - a blokey Liberal party since Tony Abbott's day has created a broader "conflict" problem. In short, a party seemingly addicted to combat - think internal brawls over same sex marriage, climate change and energy - as a way of resolving differences.

And rather than ameliorating this perception, Dutton's spray - like Turnbull's own tantrums - has merely hung a lantern on it.

How long and how brightly that lantern burns is up to the Liberals in the next parliament.

Dr Paul Williams is a senior lecturer at Griffith University.



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