Peter Dutton flagged immigration curbs and did not rule out walking away from the Paris climate change targets, as his core supporters moved to force a second leadership ballot this week by resigning en masse from the frontbench last night.
With Mr Turnbull’s leadership hanging by seven votes and the government paralysed by division following Tuesday’s ballot, Mr Dutton outlined a policy agenda and started softening his image as he groomed himself for a second strike.
Mr Dutton’s numbers men James McGrath, who orchestrated Mr Turnbull’s 2015 coup against Tony Abbott, and Victorian powerbroker and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar offered their resignations last night.
Other frontbenchers Angus Taylor and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells also offered their resignations, as did minister for science Zed Seselja.
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s ballot, which Mr Turnbull won by 48 votes to 35, Mr Dutton refused several times to rule out another shot at the leadership.
With momentum building against him, Mr Turnbull launched a pre-emptive strike at 9am and called a leadership ballot.
The deputy leadership was also thrown open and Julie Bishop, who faces a bleak future under a Dutton leadership, was elected unopposed, despite anticipation that Health Minster Greg Hunt, who voted for Mr Dutton, would run.
Mr Turnbull lost the support of 10 ministers of which four were in cabinet – Mr Dutton, Mr Hunt, Steve Ciobo and Michael Keenan. Mr Ciobo and Mr Keenan their offered support to Mr Turnbull last night.
Even before the party room meeting finished, Dutton supporters were talking about another tilt, either this week, or when Parliament resumed in September after more negative polls.
“It’s over for him, give it two weeks,” one key Dutton backer told The Australian Financial Review from inside the room.
Mr Turnbull called for unity and for the party to move on but Mr Dutton resigned as Home Affairs Minister, declined Mr Turnbull’s offer to rejoin the frontbench and immediately set about positioning himself for another tilt from the back bench.
Hard line on power prices, immigration
As well as listing policy priorities of spending on health, education, aged care and water resources for farmers, he hinted at a hard line policy agenda on power prices and immigration.
Mr Dutton said he was neither influenced by Tony Abbott nor running his agenda but he declined to rule out abandoning Australia’s climate change commitment of a 26 per cent to 28 per cent emissions reduction by 2030. Mr Abbott made that pledge as prime minister and now wants to abandon it.
Mr Abbott has also called for the annual immigration cap of 190,000 to be cut by 80,000.
It is understood Mr Dutton does not support that number and will propose a more nuanced approach designed, he said, to ease the pressure on the overburdened infrastructure in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Numbers could be capped in these cities but he flagged sending migrants west of the divide to South Australia and West Australia where people were needed.
“We can do more on infrastructure and in particular around the migration program, until the infrastructure can catch up in our capital cities,” he said.
Mr Dutton accepted that three years in Immigration had given him a reputation as a hard man but he insisted he was a self-deprecating fellow with a soft side.
“When you’re stuck in front of a camera talking about the serious issues of national security and border protection, it’s pretty hard to crack a smile,” he said.
“In this portfolio, because of the threat level, people don’t get to see your family, because you try to guard your family from the public eye, so people don’t see you in a natural environment.”
Mr Dutton said if he could, he would have brought the detainees from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia “tomorrow” but that would cause the boats to restart,
“If I could have brought them to Australia in a charter flight overnight I would have, but I would have seen people drown at sea, which would have been tragic,” he said.
Mr Dutton is being counselled by some supporters to clarify whether Mr Abbott would return to cabinet under his leadership, as anticipated.
Abbott costing Dutton votes
Sources said a fear of Mr Abbott returning had cost Mr Dutton “a couple of votes”.
Mr Dutton had strong support from fellow Queenslanders with an estimated 10 voting for him.
The leadership challenge was sparked by the poor result in the Longman byelection and the prospect of a wipe out in Queensland where Mr Dutton holds the marginal seat of Dickson.
A key Turnbull backer said the victory would have been by 14 votes had Senator Arthur Sinodinos been present. He is on sick leave.
The backer said Mr Dutton should back off and accept the result, given Mr Turnbull’s victory over Mr Dutton was larger than Mr Turnbull’s victory over Mr Abbott in 2015, when he won by 54 votes to 44 votes.
This will not happen.
Inside the party room and afterwards, Mr Turnbull issued a plea for unity saying voters hated leadership squabbles and ongoing disunity would render the government unelectable.
“We know that instability undermines the ability of any government to get anything done. Unity is critical,” Mr Turnbull said.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Senate leader and fellow senior conservative opposed a leadership change and did not back the Dutton challenge. Junior ministers Alan Tudge and Angus Taylor backed Mr Dutton.
Mr Sukkar is believed to have shifted his numbers to Mr Dutton on the proviso Scott Morrison remained Treasurer under any change. Mr Morrison voted for Mr Turnbull.
The drama followed Mr Turnbull’s final attempt to stave off a challenge by effectively dumping the National Energy Guarantee on Monday.