Australia is on the brink of 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 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 form this 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. 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 came to power following his own coup against former prime minister Tony Abbott, who has remained on the backbenches since, regularly criticizing the policies of his successor.