Malcolm Turnbull launches an Exocet missile at Peter Dutton

Hell hath no fury like a prime minister scorned. Admittedly, Julie Bishop provides pretty strong competition right now.

The one-two punch on Peter Dutton delivered from New York via Twitter and from the backbench via Bishop’s pointed comments certainly hit the mark – very hard. But it also leaves Scott Morrison reeling as he tries to fight on against Bill Shorten. Remember Shorten?

Actually, don’t bother. Any attacks by the Leader of the Opposition have become almost irrelevant compared to the level of self-destruction being unleashed by the Liberals on themselves.

Malcolm Turnbull may have reluctantly conceded the notion of Morrison replacing him as Prime Minister in order to derail the Dutton onslaught. But he’s clearly not about to stay quiet in order to help his successor try to unite a party tearing itself apart ahead of an election.

So Turnbull’s overnight tweet from Manhattan suggesting Morrison should refer Dutton to the High Court to “clarify the matter” of his eligibility had all the subtlety of an original Exocet missile.

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For a government with even a one-seat majority already under threat due to Turnbull’s exit from Parliament, losing Dutton – even temporarily – would make it impossible to make any pretence at stability.

Morrison’s earnest homily last week about the need to love all Australians is obviously being tested most severely and immediately by the members of his own political congregation.

It seems there’s not enough time for revenge to be served even luke-warm.

Legal nicety

Liberal MP Julie Bishop during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday 13 September 2018. fedpol ...
Liberal MP Julie Bishop during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday 13 September 2018. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Alex Ellinghausen

Bishop’s ever correct diction couldn’t conceal the acid nature of her own remarks about making her mind up at the time if there was a vote on whether Dutton should be referred.

“We all have a personal responsibility to ensure we are eligible to sit in the Parliament,” she said. Of course!

Morrison is obviously not about to concede any such personal responsibility lies with the Home Affairs Minister due to his family’s ownership of childcare centres. The Solicitor General was actually a little less clear on this legal nicety.

But that legal advice was provided a few weeks ago at the height of the leadership battle. Now we are all supposed to have moved on, right?

Barnaby Joyce seems especially keen to rain as much criticism as possible on his former Prime Minister.
Barnaby Joyce seems especially keen to rain as much criticism as possible on his former Prime Minister.

Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax Media

So Morrison insisted he thought “people have had enough of the lawyers’ picnics on these sorts of issues”.

“They want to focus completely and totally on what the nation needs here and now and that’s to keep our economy strong and guarantee the essential services that Australians rely on,” he said.

Fat chance. Not when the various players in this bizarre cast of characters keep leaping up on stage to denounce one another.

Even if few Australians can quite remember the name of the new National leader, more will recall Michael McCormack’s clumsy attempt on Thursday to describe the curious combination of factors leading to Turnbull’s demise. “Ambition, Newspolls and opportunity.” Thanks, mate.

Dignity in very short supply

No one, however, can ever forget the name of Barnaby Joyce, resurrected by Morrison as special envoy on drought. He seems especially keen to rain as much criticism as possible on his former Prime Minister.

“It seems like he has an active campaign to try and remove us as the government. Boy, that is bitterly disappointing,” Joyce declared in tones of semi-wonder. His disappointment includes condemning Turnbull’s decision to create the need for a byelection in Wentworth by quitting politics – unlike, umm, that paragon of political virtue, Barnaby Joyce.

Dutton, by contrast, sounds determined to suggest Turnbull should “enjoy his retirement” and maintain his dignity by following John Howard’s example of former prime ministers not commenting on what follows them.

This ignores the rather obvious point that it was the voters who finally ended John Howard’s long career rather than a combination of his colleagues acting in haste.

That leaves dignity in very short supply. Just ask Tony Abbott. The result is that the bloody wounds of battle continue to cripple another government, now complicated by allegations of “bullying” that have been neither defined nor identified.

This also fits neatly into the other theme undermining the “new generation” Coalition agenda – that it doesn’t sufficiently appreciate women, as evidenced by the dearth of female Liberal MPs.

In a speech on Wednesday night, Victorian MP Julia Banks, the one Liberal to gain a seat from Labor in 2016, had attacked the party’s culture and, like Bishop, complained of the “appalling behaviour” in Parliament. Banks will quit in protest at the next election and called for quotas to increase the number of women.

Jobs figures

Bishop managed to light another match on this incendiary combination by suggesting it was difficult to name names when it concerned behaviour in some instances that “could be illegal”.

Given she is a lawyer, that description hardly counts as a slip of the tongue. In question time, Morrison said he was satisfied after talking to colleagues there had been none of the behaviour alleged. Good-oh.

All this made it even harder for Kelly O’Dwyer, Minister for Jobs, Industrial Relations and Women, to try to clean up the mess.

So O’Dwyer’s efforts to celebrate the latest strong national jobs figures were naturally overwhelmed by questions about just what Bishop was suggesting. O’Dwyer argued her primary focus was on jobs for the men and women of Australia.

But she conceded she wanted a clear path to “targets” aimed at electing more women and was recommending an “independent, confidential” process for handling complaints. This was not embraced by Morrison, who says existing procedures and pastoral care are working well.

Morrison instead protested there had been no questions from Labor on important issues like drought, schools, health and even mental health despite it being “RUOK? day”.

Fortunately, he didn’t ask his own side that question.

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