News

After a ‘disastrous week’ for the government, Scott Morrison has emerged as Australia’s next prime minister, defeating Peter Dutton in a Liberal party room vote. Josh Frydenberg will be deputy Liberal leader. By Karen Middleton.

Scott Morrison claims Liberal leadership

Incoming deputy Liberal leader Josh Frydenberg with Australia’s 30th prime minister Scott Morrison.
Credit: AAP IMAGE/ MICK TSIKAS

Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton has blown up Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership but failed to secure the job for himself, with compromise candidate, Treasurer Scott Morrison, set to become Australia’s 30th prime minister.

Having been accused of lacking political acumen, Turnbull has pulled off arguably his finest manoeuvre to ensure the job he could not save did not go to those he called “the wreckers” of the hard right.

And with the elevation of Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg – Turnbull’s partner in prosecuting the case for the national energy guarantee, the policy that sparked this leadership crisis – the conservative putsch was roundly defeated.

At his farewell news conference, a composed Turnbull confirmed he would quit parliament soon, a move that will prompt a byelection in his Sydney seat of Wentworth and potentially create difficulties for his successor in sustaining majority support in parliament.

Turnbull congratulated Morrison and Frydenberg on their elevation and wished them well.

The outgoing prime minister blamed Peter Dutton and former prime minister Tony Abbott explicitly for his demise, saying they had “chosen to attack the government from within ... because they wanted to bring the government down”.

“Australians will be just dumbstruck and so appalled by the conduct of the last week,” Turnbull said.

“To imagine that a government would be rocked by this sort of disloyalty and deliberate insurgency ... deliberate destructive action … I think many Australians will just be shaking their head in disbelief at what’s been done.”

He also took a direct jab at the conservative commentators who had campaigned for his removal, saying the insurrection had been “backed by powerful voices in the media”.

Having entered the race as a kind of Turnbull proxy to provide an alternative for those Liberals who did not want Dutton and his conservative colleagues to seize the party’s ideological heart, Morrison’s success now spells trouble for the rebels.

While Morrison will need to accommodate Dutton and Dutton’s proposed deputy Greg Hunt in the ministry, it likely heralds the end of former prime minister Tony Abbott’s ambition to return to the front bench.

And it is also a slap in the face to some of those commentators, not least Ray Hadley, of Sydney’s Radio 2GB, whose spectacular falling out with Morrison led to the now prime minister-elect being dumped as a regular guest.

Turnbull outlined what he said were his government’s achievements, including a greater emphasis on renewable energy, the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and a boost in national security and defence.

On his failed energy and climate change policy, he said it had foundered because “ideological views” still prevailed and declared it extremely difficult for the Coalition to do anything on lowering emissions under those circumstances.

The party room meeting elected Morrison by 45 votes to Dutton’s 40 – identical numbers to those that emerged when Turnbull moved the preceding motion to spill leadership positions – after Turnbull delayed calling it 20 minutes beyond his own midday deadline, insisting the party whip, Nola Marino, personally contact every MP whose name appeared on a petition of 43 calling for a spill.

Earlier in the morning, he had received the legal advice he sought yesterday from the solicitor-general on whether Dutton was eligible to sit in the parliament, due to a potential conflict between his family’s investment in government-subsidised child-care centres and a constitutional requirement that MPs not have any pecuniary agreement with the public service.

While not completely conclusive, that advice said Dutton was “not incapable” of serving, although it said only the High Court could decide for sure.

A possible advantage to Turnbull in delaying the vote until Friday afternoon was that it also enabled New South Wales senator Arthur Sinodinos, who has been on extended leave due to serious illness, to get to Canberra for the vote.

A strong Turnbull supporter, Sinodinos and fellow Turnbull confidant, NSW MP Craig Laundy, escorted the prime minister into the party room.

When the voting was complete, MPs left grim-faced after what had been a disastrous week for the government and the Liberal Party.

The outgoing deputy leader, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, had been eliminated in the first round of the leadership vote and, later, Turnbull singled her out for thanks, noting their decades-long friendship and her unwavering support.

As the questions began about how it all went wrong for the conservatives, it was noted that had just three MPs voted differently, there would have been no spill motion at all.

Some suggested that had three senior ministers not defected on Thursday claiming there was already majority support for Peter Dutton, it might never have happened.

Key among them, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, denied he had been part of any conspiracy and defended his move.

“It was a very difficult decision,” Cormann said on Sky News after the vote.

“It was an awful decision to having to make. I don’t believe even if there had been three fewer votes in for a change, that would have made a stronger, more united, more effective government … It was tough. I made a judgement that it was necessary.”

He predicted Turnbull might not forgive him readily.

“Malcolm will probably not like me for some time,” Cormann said, in an understatement.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, one of the key agitators for change and Turnbull’s nemesis, also spoke after the meeting.

“We have lost the prime minister but there is a government to save,” he said. “That’s what all of us will do our best to do now, to save the government.”

Abbott said they were all “patriots”.

Other MPs also pledged their loyalty to the new leadership team and vowed to fight to win the next election.

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said the government’s focus would now return fully to the Australian people.

“The focus is going to be so laser-like they won't know what hit them,” he said.

It’s the same for the Liberal Party.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.