Malcolm Turnbull reveals he planned to hold an election on March 2, and wants Scott Morrison to follow through

Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison MARK GRAHAM/AFP/Getty Images
  • A preselection brawl, with a sitting MP threatening to quit the party and move to the backbench if he’s not re-endorsed, has led former PM Malcolm Turnbull to intervene.
  • Turnbull says Morrison should go to the polls before the NSW election on March 23 to reduce the damage to the Coalition state government from the party’s federal infighting.
  • Turnbull revealed he was planning to go to the polls on March 2.

Internal brawling over preselections in the federal Liberal Party has led former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to urge his successor, Scott Morrison, to go to an early election in a bid to prevent the party’s federal woes spilling over to next year’s NSW election on March 23.

Polls on the weekend from Fairfax Media revealed NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Coalition government trails Labor by 2%, behind 49% to 51% on a two-party preferred basis, despite the state ALP recently being forced to change its own leader, as brawling in the federal Liberals continues to turn voters away from their own party.

The latest flashpoint in the federal party is the potential dumping of outspoken conservative backbencher Craig Kelly, who is threatening to quite the party and move to the backbench if he’s not re-endorsed in an upcoming preselection ballot.

Fears that Kelly could be dumped by branch members, in the wake of fellow conservative senator Jim Molan being relegated to an unwinnable position on the NSW Senate ticket in a preselection ballot, led to suggestions the party’s State Executive intervene re-endorse Kelly over grassroots members.

Turnbull took to Twitter last night to say that after hearing of Kelly’s threat, he contacted several State Executive members to put his “strong view that the Party’s democratic processes should operate in the normal way” as part of a thread of several tweets on the issue.

Speaking to ABC radio’s RN Breakfast this morning, Turnbull denied his intervention was payback against Kelly, but to allow local party members their voice.

“We’ve just had a very long debate in New South Wales, in the Liberal Party, about the importance of democracy and grassroot members’ participation,” he said.

“In my view, the party should allow the preselection process to take its course, and then Mr Kelly will succeed or not.”

Turnbull added that Kelly’s threat to quit the government and move to the crossbench “is the worst and the weakest reason not to have a preselection process”.

In his conversation with RN Breakfast, Turnbull said the Canberra infighting was damaging the NSW Coalition government’s chances of a third term in office and revealed he’d planned to hold the federal election in early March, three weeks before the state election.

“My view is that it would be manifestly and in the best prospects of the Morrison Government to go to the polls as soon as it can after the summer break,” he said.

“In fact my intention – and Scott’s intention for that matter – prior to my being removed as prime minister was to go to the polls on the 2nd of March.”

The NSW election is on March 23. Last week the PM announced he was bringing the budget forward by a month to April 2, making an election before May 18 likely.

“There is a real concern in NSW Liberal circles that a very good, outstanding government led by Gladys Berejiklian is going to have its prospects of success diminished because of the brand damage to the Liberal Party caused by the leadership change in August,” Turnbull said.

Kelly, a regular commentator on pay TV channel Sky News, leading one of the internal critics to dub him “the Member for Sky News”, is a controversial MP. He most notably predicted the “no” vote would win last year’s same-sex marriage plebiscite, pledged to vote with his electorate, which voted 58% yes, then extended the debate over the legislation with a series of amendments he supported.

While outgoing MP Julia Banks, who quit the Liberals for the crossbench last week, has pledged to continue to support the government on supply and confidence motions, it appears some Coalition MPs are less certain about Kelly’s intent, and are worried he could bring down the government.

Sky News presenter Laura Jayes suggested moderates are worried.

This week is the final sitting week of 2018 before Parliament rises for the summer break. It then returns for just two weeks next year around the federal budget before rising again for the election.