The Saturday Paper
Liberal MPS push for Frydenberg to step up
Key Liberal figures are pressing the case for Josh Frydenberg in a leadership ballot, worried by the prospect of Peter Dutton replacing Scott Morrison.
Liberal MPS who fear Defence Minister Peter Dutton is positioning to seize the prime ministership on the eve of an election are pressing the other would-be contender, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, to step up.
With the Liberal Party desperately trying to haul itself out of what some fear is an electoral death spiral, discussions about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s leadership are ricocheting around the Coalition.
Liberal Party conversations over the past fortnight, both inside Parliament House and beyond it, have canvassed how much of the party’s travails are due to the Coalition’s policy positions and how much is related to Morrison’s plunging popularity.
Key Liberal figures are pressing the case for Frydenberg, seeking to position him as the only logical choice, at the very least after the election in the event of a loss, and possibly before. Some conservatives who backed Dutton in the last spill are believed to now be prepared to shift behind the treasurer, if it comes to a vote.
On Thursday, a well-connected Liberal MP contacted The Saturday Paper to draw attention to the findings of a new Roy Morgan poll, made public the previous day.
The poll showed that Frydenberg outrated Morrison as preferred Liberal leader and significantly outrated Dutton. The MP volunteered that Dutton was “obviously … campaigning for the leadership”.
They conceded that “everyone thinks it’s too late” but added a caveat: “If things stay bad, people can always bring things to a head. There are ways to do it … There are always solutions.”
The MP nominated at least four Liberalheld seats in New South Wales and two in South Australia that they said would become harder to retain under Dutton.
They said the poll was significant because it showed “how unviable” the Defence minister was as a possible leader. They insisted they were “just providing background” but that Frydenberg “would be a very strong person”.
The MP’S intervention appears designed to bring into the open the closeddoors conversations being had across the Liberal Party.
Another option has also been floated: a left–right deal involving both Frydenberg and Dutton to force out Morrison, like the alliance forged in New South Wales…
The MP described Dutton as likely to be disastrous for the party in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney.
Coming so late in the electoral cycle, this now-suddenly active advocacy will add to the pressure on the treasurer, who has insisted he remains loyal to Morrison and would not seek to topple him.
The comments followed a separate recent conversation The Saturday Paper had with another influential Liberal who also believed a switch to Dutton would damage the party’s chances in a raft of seats, some of which are under threat from so-called teal independent candidates.
In a third conversation, a Dutton supporter argued that he was the only option to avoid the Liberal Party bleeding votes to parties of the right – Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Clive Palmer’s United Australia
Party, and the Liberal Democrats, who have recruited former Queensland premier Campbell Newman as a senate candidate in Queensland.
Others argue that the Liberal National Party vote is already at its peak in Queensland and the Coalition needs to focus on where it can gain seats and avoid greater likely losses.
Another option has also been floated: a left–right deal involving both Frydenberg and Dutton to force out Morrison, like the alliance forged in New South Wales that saw the right’s Dominic Perrottet elected premier, replacing moderate Gladys Berejiklian, with moderate Matt Kean as treasurer. This is viewed as extremely unlikely. At this stage, neither Dutton nor Frydenberg appear prepared to take the next step and challenge. Many are conscious that the act of removing a prime minister has its own electoral consequences.
This week’s Roy Morgan internet poll of 1080 voters, conducted on Monday and Tuesday, had Frydenberg attracting
38.5 per cent support nationally as federal
Liberal leader, compared with 31 per cent for Morrison and 12.5 per cent for Dutton. Another 2 per cent named someone else and 16 per cent had no preference.
It found that 40 per cent of Coalition voters preferred Morrison as leader, compared with 32.5 per cent for Frydenberg and 12.5 per cent for Dutton. Dutton ranked better among Labor voters – on 13 per cent – than among his own party’s supporters.
Of the three, Frydenberg ranked highest among Labor, Greens and independent voters, on 40.5 per cent, 51 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.
Among all voters, Morrison rated highest in Queensland – Dutton’s home state – attracting 37.5 per cent to Frydenberg’s 32 per cent and Dutton’s 14 per cent. Frydenberg rated best in all other states. The two territories were not included.
Broken down by gender, the poll showed that Frydenberg was favoured over Morrison among women by a margin of 12 points, but also rated almost three points higher among men.
In an interview with ABC Radio National’s RN Breakfast presenter Patricia Karvelas on Monday, some noted Frydenberg’s use of tense. “I’m hoping to win the election and I’m hoping to see Scott Morrison continue as prime minister,” he said, when asked if he was prepared for a leadership contest with Dutton. “And I obviously have been very loyal in the role as deputy leader of the Liberal
Party and as treasurer of Australia. And it’s been a great honour during this pandemic, and I’m very proud of what the Australian people have achieved.”
Karvelas pressed the question: Would he be prepared to lead?
“Well, again, I’ve made no secret that that would be a – you know – something I’d put my hand up for at the right time,” Frydenberg said. “But, you know, we’re not looking at that time right now.”
Morrison, Dutton and Frydenberg all ramped up the government’s campaign against Labor this week with a focused attack over national security.
The rhetoric from Morrison and Dutton in particular, accusing Labor leader Anthony Albanese of being China’s “pick” for prime minister and his deputy, Richard Marles, of being a “Manchurian candidate”, sent the parliament into uproar and prompted two highly unusual public interventions by Australia’s domestic spy chief.
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) director-general Mike Burgess confirmed to an estimates committee hearing that he had no concerns about any Labor candidates at the upcoming election, after the government suggested they were subject to Chinese influence.
In his yearly public security assessment last week, Burgess had described how an unnamed “puppeteer” from an unspecified foreign country had sought to influence candidates from an unnamed party at an Australian election.
Leaks to media quickly suggested they were federal Labor candidates and that the country was China.
Morrison, Dutton, Frydenberg and other ministers seized on the details in parliament to accuse Labor of being subject to Chinese favour and influence. Albanese strenuously objected and denied the allegations.
Such was the angst in the intelligence community about the government’s behaviour that the ASIO chief gave a rare television interview to ABC TV’S 7.30, describing the interventions as “not helpful” and confirming he had said as much to political leaders.
Burgess said he was confident candidates – and the election in general – could withstand attempted foreign influence which “doesn’t go after one particular party or another”.
Earlier in the week, during Burgess’s regular appearance before the estimates committee, Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching used parliamentary privilege to ask him to confirm the “puppeteer” as Chinese– Australian businessman Chau Chak Wing – something the businessman denies. Burgess said only that it was unfair to ask him such a question in public.
Kitching’s senior Labor colleagues were furious with her intervention and some even noted privately that her own preselection had not yet been confirmed.
But it was the Roy Morgan poll that attracted most chatter by week’s end. Pollster Gary Morgan insists the poll was at his own instigation.
“No one commissioned the poll,” Morgan told The Saturday Paper. “Roy Morgan did the poll. We do polls … I thought it was the right poll to do at the time.”
The timing is interesting. And the fact that it is being circulated with apparent intent even more so.