Australia’s PM fights to the end but his time appears up

Malcolm Turnbull faces likely ousting on Friday after caving in too often to conservatives

In the end, politics always comes down to the numbers. Australia's ruling Liberal-National coalition used its one-vote majority in the lower house of parliament to shut business down until September 10th, so it could deal with internal squabbling and decide who the Liberal Party leader – and therefore prime minister – will be.

Labor MP Tony Burke spoke for many when he said: "No government in living memory has said: 'It's all too hard. We're just going home.'"

The magic number then became 43 – the number of signatures prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said was required to call a party room meeting which would almost certainly end his reign.

That is just over half of the 85 Liberal MPs and senators in federal parliament. There is no written requirement to get a petition of half the parliamentary party to force what Australians call a “spill” motion. The only requirement is that the leader has to authorise the meeting, but Turnbull played hardball, clinging on for dear life.


In staring down his internal opposition, Turnbull showed more intestinal fortitude than at any time in his almost three years as leader. Having deposed the previous prime minister, Tony Abbott, with the backing of the right of his party, Turnbull – from the Liberals' moderate wing – capitulated to his conservative colleagues time after time.

Most notably, he abandoned previously held positions on same-sex marriage (that it should have been legislated by parliament, without a plebiscite) and carbon emissions (that cutting it should be legislated).

Turnbull said that if he got a petition with 43 signatures he would hold a party room meeting at midday (3am Irish time). And if that meeting voted against him as leader he would not stand for a follow-up vote to decide who replaces him.

Nothing new

In a country that has already had four prime ministers in the previous five years, and where no prime minister has served a full term since 2007, overthrowing a leader in an internal coup is nothing new.

But there was a party room vote on Turnbull's leadership already this week. On Tuesday, he sought to head off a challenge from home affairs minister Peter Dutton by declaring the Liberal leadership vacant and calling a vote. Turnbull won by 48 votes to 35, but that was always going to be too tight to deter the conservative wing.

Ultimately, for all his bravado and fighting words, when destiny came calling Turnbull's time was up. His call for names on a piece of paper was just a ruse to give either foreign minister Julie Bishop or treasurer Scott Morrison time to work the phones to see if they might have the numbers to hold off Dutton.

Morrison is an evangelical Christian from the Liberal right, but he was a kingmaker when Turnbull deposed Abbott three years ago and has been loyal ever since. Bishop is favoured by Liberal moderates, but they don’t have the numbers. It all comes down to the numbers.