Scott Morrison is battling to reassert his authority after another day of chaos, with Labor accusing him of running a “part-time Parliament”, Julie Bishop fuelling suspicions she has leadership ambitions, and growing calls for Peter Dutton to refer himself to the High Court.
To compound another tough day, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was embarrassingly forced to withdraw from the G20 summit to tend to domestic issues, while Mr Morrison has been snubbed by Donald Trump and has been denied a bilateral meeting with him in Buenos Aires.
With the Coalition still reeling after Victorian marginal seat holder Julia Banks quit the Liberals to become a crossbencher, leaving the government able to muster just 73 votes on the floor of the Parliament, there is the possibility of further defections with NSW MP Craig Kelly leaving open the option of going if he loses an upcoming preselection contest.
Despite the troubles, Mr Morrison attempted to highlight his pledge that the budget would return to surplus earlier than planned in 2019-20 during a rowdy question time.
“Those opposite haven’t delivered a surplus budget since the year Taylor Swift was born in 1989, and now they want to shake it off.”
But those efforts were overshadowed by Mr Morrison and senior ministers being forced to defend next year’s parliamentary calendar, which will see the budget brought forward a month to April 2 and just 10 sitting days scheduled next year before going to the polls in May.
Labor leader Bill Shorten said Mr Morrison had created a “part-time Parliament”.
“If ordinary workers skipped work like this they would get the sack,” he said.
Mr Morrison said Mr Shorten was an “arrogant and cocky leader who thinks he has just got to turn up” to become prime minister.
Question time saw Mr Frydenberg jeered over his explanation that he had withdrawn from the G20 because it was a leaders’ only meeting, despite recently spruiking his planned attendance a few weeks ago and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann subbing in for him instead.
Jobs Minister Kelly O’Dwyer also sparked guffaws when she claimed the Liberals was the “natural government for Australian women” despite private comments to colleagues the party was seen as “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers” in the wake of the poor showing at the Victoria state election.
Ms Bishop staged another high-profile foray into the media for the second day in a row. At a ceremony to hand over the red shoes she wore when announcing her resignation as foreign minister, which have come to be seen as a symbol of female political empowerment and solidarity, Ms Bishop said her intention was to run again for her safe Perth seat of Curtin at the next election.
A number of colleagues said Ms Bishop may be positioning herself for a tilt at the party’s leadership, with one even not discounting the prospect the party could turn to her to before the next election, such was the dire state the Coalition found itself in.
“If Bill Shorten is as serious a risk as Liberals say, why wouldn’t you take every opportunity to put your best foot forward,” one MP said.
Others were more dismissive though. One said Ms Bishop’s media appearances and public speeches were “Rudd-esque” in a reference to former PM Kevin Rudd and risked diminishing her reputation, while a minister said the idea of another leadership change was “just beyond ridiculous”.
Polling to be released by The Australia Institute found Ms Bishop enjoys a higher recognition rate than Mr Morrison. Despite no longer being a minister, 82 per cent of Australians knew who Ms Bishop was, compared with 75 per cent for Mr Morrison and 70 per cent for Mr Dutton.
Ms Bishop also added her voice to growing pressure on Mr Dutton, saying he had a “responsibility” like all MPs to ensure he complied with Section 44 of the constitution over his family interest in a childcare centre.
Key crossbenchers increasingly want Mr Dutton to refer himself to avoid the prospect of them having to vote for Labor and make a “hostile reference” instead of past practice of doing it along party lines.
Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie said Mr Dutton’s status needed to be resolved.
“I think it’s quite clear that Peter Dutton has a case to answer,” she said.
Wentworth MP Kerryn Phelps rejected threats of hostile referrals from the government in retaliation for such a move and said she would not be intimidated by Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, who has said she has questions to answer as a GP who receives Medicare rebates.
Fellow independent Cathy McGowan says she would consider the details of any proposed referral to the High Court when required.
“Where there is doubt, it is important the situation is clarified,” she said.
With Ms Banks’ defection swelling the size of the crossbench to seven, Mr Morrison revealed he was blindsided by her decision to quit the Liberal Party, only learning of it when she announced it to Parliament.
“And of course that’s disappointing. All of our colleagues were disappointed,” he said.
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