The incumbent Liberal Prime Minister has survived a leadership spill against challenger Peter Dutton, winning 48-35, though history suggests it may only be a short-term reprieve.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on August 21, 2018

The Prime Minister declared all leadership positions vacant at the party room meeting on 21 August.

Turnbull was retained as leader and deputy leader Julie Bishop was re-elected unopposed to her existing role.

Turnbull’s challenger, Peter Dutton, resigned from the frontbench in the wake of the result. He had been Minister for Home Affairs since 2017 and was previously Minister for Immigration.

Turnbull safe as leader, but only for now

The narrow victory is not expected to quash ongoing chatter about a leadership change for Turnbull, who has struggled in polling recently.

Previous Prime Ministers have only survived a short time after more comfortable victories. For context, in 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull 61-39, but was defeated by Turnbull later that year.

Australia’s Prime Minister before Tony Abbott was Julia Gillard, who defeated Kevin Rudd (himself an ex-Prime Minister) 71-31 but did not ultimately survive and was then successfully challenged by Rudd. Gillard herself had previously successfully challenged Rudd.

There is already talk that Dutton could challenge for the leadership again, potentially as early as Thursday 23 August. Dutton’s camp believes they did well to corral so much support for the hastily-arranged leadership spill.

The leadership merry-go-round has been a feature of Australian politics in recent years. Australia has had five Prime Ministers since 2010 and four since 2013 after Liberal Prime Minister John Howard remained in office for 11 years.

Turnbull has been struggling in polls and had walked away from climate change targets

A poll released on Monday 20 August showed Turnbull’s government trailing the Australian Labor Party 45% to 55% in two-party preferred voting. The 10% margin was up from 8% two months ago.

Turnbull had recently abandoned his previous commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a bid to appease conservative members of parliament within his party. He had previously advocated a carbon emissions reduction target of 26% across the energy sector by 2030. This would have been a major step towards Australia meeting its obligations as set out under the Paris climate agreement.

Who is Turnbull’s challenger, Peter Dutton?

As recently as 20 August, Dutton was publicly supporting the Prime Minister’s leadership. He has been an outspoken advocate of the government’s policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore detention facilities.

Tony Abbott, who was Prime Minister of Australia between 2013 and 2015, has been seen as a key agitator within the Liberal party against Turnbull’s leadership. It is believed he has been openly pushing for Dutton to challenge Turnbull.

Dutton has been accused of inciting racial tensions with his comments on “African gang violence” in Victoria. “It’s like some parallel universe going on down there at the moment where you’re not allowed to refer to these people as ‘in gangs’, he said. “I mean it’s fairyland stuff.”

As Dutton’s immediate leadership ambitions rose to the surface, some commentators have pointed out that Dutton boycotted the government’s apology to the stolen generations of Indigenous Australians made by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008.

The Australian Labor Party is heavily favoured to win the next federal election, currently slated for May 2019.